Threads of Gold

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 5:15pm

Ed. Note: Martha is out sick this week. We found this column that was published 20 years ago on Jan. 29, 2000: 

The sun was a reluctant player on the first day in eight the temperature crept above freezing. Statistically, they tell us, the week just beginning, the last in January, is the coldest of the year. The stake on that claim has already been made, we hope. Yesterday, the forecast of snow continued, but the terrible wind-borne cold loosened its hold. The air was still at sunset, that strange overcast calm that holds promise of another dimension, one into which we could walk and disappear if only we could find the opening in the curtain, the doorway in time. The setting sun was meek, leaving a splash of pink watercolor in the southwest sky, a diluted hope of (red at night) that suddenly ignited and spread wild flames flying high into the clouds. It was a winter sunset. It contradicted the forecasts that were turning to weather reports as snow fell a foot deep in the Carolinas, and blanketed Washington, D.C. and headed north to fill the morning with snow, then slush, then rain.

The seas are high, again, as they are during the cold, when they left the long jetties around the harbor covered with white where breaking waves crashed or tides crept high around the granite. All around the perimeter of the Great Salt Pond, the reach of the tide was marked by a meringue of purely white, air-filled ice, water captured in the winter-beaten grasses and left behind when the tide receded. The water in the intermost parts of Harbor Pond rose almost to Ocean Avenue, frosting a marshy plain that spreads even and green all summer, bisected by a narrow course, and marked by old posts that held fencing. It is the spot where the highest tide lifts the level of the tamed, inland sea until it nearly touches the sidewalk by the old shed where roses gone wild climb in early summer. 

Extraordinary tides, so high they spread icing on the marshes and so low rocks covered most of the year emerged, dark from a life spent underwater, and boats looked to have run aground as the water around their moorings disappeared. Ice fell into the flats as the ocean beneath it raced out to sea and floating docks secured in the channel on the way to Indian Neck Pond, floated no more. By chance, I happened to be on Front Street within minutes of the tide’s turn and saw the water so low that edges of the harbor were visible, the utmost rim of the “basin” dredged within the arms of the long breakwaters clearly defined. 

Storms bring the ocean high but only the strength of the moon can make them so low that history is evident. At Cow Cove, behind Settlers Rock, the waters that so often roil between Sandy Cove and Grove Points and beat the shore were faraway. Below yet another layer of rocks that rarely feels the sun, like the old pier in the shallow water across from the Beachead, a rough row of rock obviously created by man, not a product of nature.

It was cold and windy, and the frozen, pale blue surface of Sachem Pond was colored with sand blown in from the dunes and the shore before the wind swung around from northwest. A lone ice boat flew over the pond, its sails filled with the frosty breath of winter. There used to be more out, more often, when I was little and snow and the cold were welcomed for reasons I’ve not ascertained, surely more than I wasn’t paying the fuel bill. I do not remember feeling cold standing at the edge of the frozen pond. 

Then I think of my uncle sitting in this dining room, remarking that they, he and his six siblings and parents, used to spend much of the winter here and wondering how it could be in this memory it was not crowded. I think the cold has been bitter, with worsening weather forecasts and it is not a surprise to pick up the phone and hear my uncle’s voice, always surprisingly near, a reminder that in my lifetime calls from the mainland, his from California, have lost the sound of distance.

Anyone who reads this column knows about my uncle in California, an engineer who left this place when he entered college in the 1930s, a quiet man who was the embodiment of the World War II veteran who came home from battle with medals not touted and incredible stories not shared for years. One of his daughters put it best: he didn’t want more than so many of his fellow soldiers, to move into a finished house, one with electricity and water in place. He has been gone from the place for a long time. Relocated from the east coast in the 1960s, he has said that after many years in southern California he could not tolerate New England winters. Still, he follows the weather and calls whenever it appears potentially rough, be it a hurricane brewing, a northeast gale poised to batter the coast or winter storms threatening to strike with a fury that seldom materializes. This time I was prepared for him and conceded before he had the opportunity to ask that yes, it was cold, very, very cold. 

Even on the days woven with the coarsest materials, scratchy and heavy, there are threads of finely spun flax, insufficient to change the mood of the time but enough to serve as a reminder of other moments. They come from explosive sunsets, caught by happenstance after they were thought to have faded. They are gifts of chance, woven into the tapestry of time left in a reversal of the manner of knotters of fine hand-made rugs whose slip into a line of black when a family member dies during the long creation of a carpet. While my uncle will be 85 in May it is harder every year to provide him with any news of people he once knew, there are times when it is less of a struggle, days I am able to tell him of long-time residents asking after him. This last call came when the ice boats were out and I knew when I mentioned them it stirred real memories that had been floating, unretrieved for years. They may grow strawberries and avocados and oranges in Ventura County but even during the coldest spell the irrigation channels carrying the water from the distant mountains do not freeze to support the barest-framed ice boats. 

Grasping for associations that would extend over decades, surnames that have been supplanted by mothers’ maiden names to any recognizable link, I worked to a story of a restored ice boat, hoping the name of a previous, long-deceased, owner would provide the familiar connection. 

My uncle jumped ahead of me with an unexpected “I remember the boat!” And with a single exclamation slipped into a day gray in color a spirit of thread of pure and shining gold.