Bird Heaven

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 2:51pm


Our world was very small when we were children. There was no kindergarten; when I started school I knew two of the other three children, the boys, in my first grade class from Sunday School. The fourth, the other girl in that class, went to the Center Church and was a total stranger.

It was not that we traveled in different circles, the Baptists and the Methodists, rather that we did not travel at all. Our mothers did not have their own cars, one of the mothers did not even drive!

Three grades were in one room, and there were two girls I did know, sisters, also from Sunday School; the three of us were born within eighteen months of each and we were, that first year, in a sense, classmates. They had lived in a bungalow, a tiny house since rebuilt, on what they called the Rumford Road, a strip running between Old Town and Ocean Avenue but had moved to the “big” house on Connecticut Avenue after the death of their grandfather, just before I started school.

It was a gem of a place, a period piece filled with intact woodwork. There were bead-board cabinets in the pantry, wainscoting in the kitchen, French doors between the living and dining rooms. The upper corners of all the doors and windows were trimmed with machined bull-eyes. Years after the family had scattered, a summer neighbor, a designer by trade, who had never known the house with a child’s perspective, remarked that it was deceptively large, confirming my own memories.

Today, I do think it was also very, very neat all the time.

It has since been greatly altered to suit the needs of succeeding owners. The contractor took me through the stripped shell and commented upon the ceiling joists not meeting current code then paused, his hand on one, as he thought of the storms the building had withstood without incident and offered “or maybe we overbuild today.”

When we were children it was a great place to go on Saturdays, our home base for expeditions, treking up to the Enchanted Forest before it was so-called, over to Beacon Hill where we knew we were trespassing. It was winter, and no one was in the tower house, but the land was so clear we feared someone would see us.

Then there were the walks in Bird Heaven, along what felt a precarious path atop of slope, a trail winding through spruce. It was, basically, the side of the backyard but we fancied it an exotic locale. Now, I know the trees had been planted on the southern bound, behind houses fronting on Old Town Road, but it seemed the forest primeval. I have mentioned we were children . . .

I remember it being Bird Heaven because birds were buried there and their little souls inhabited the evergreens but now I am not sure if that was just my imagining. At home we buried birds that hit wires or flew with deadening forces against glass windows of the big shed. We saved little boxes for such occasions and put the tiny bodies in whatever scraps my mother had on hand, cloth or paper, and laid them to rest out front. Didn’t everyone?

We started near the house, behind the little garage where the girls’ father kept his big green mower with its monster teeth, made our way around the trees, and climbed up into Heaven where the ground was slippery with evergreen needles. It could not have taken us more than a few minutes to walk the length of it, including pauses to giggle in fear over some imagined noise in the branches overhead. We could peer over the wall and marvel at the black nightie a neighbor we already thought beyond glamorous had hanging on her clothesline. We must have been very young, a male classmate does not remember the name Bird Heaven but recalls going with another boy to look not at clothes on the line but birds in a banding net. Or so he says.

At the far distant end we would scoot down a slope and exit out one end of the Rumford Road, on Old Town beside the tumbling sluice from the Mill Pond, or the other on Ocean Avenue near the place the tamed stream ran under the road to Harbor Pond.

Bird Heaven was recently gifted to the Block Island Conservancy through the efforts of one of those childhood friends, Nancy Kassel. She was Nancy Dodge in those long ago days, before she met and married Steve Kassel, before they moved to the West Coast and raised a family.

It was the severing of a last tie, but they and their children have lives elsewhere; it seemed time. Nancy is one of those people who looks the same, as she has over the years, anyone who knew her then would recognize her now. The last time I saw her she had brought with her older family members who live in the area, a last trip, she thought, for one or both of them, and she and I stole a few minutes to sit on the back porch of the Surf Hotel.

We talked of the enduring loss of other generations and her family’s decision to give this parcel of Block Island soil in memory of her parents. Conversations about it long pre-dated any talk of a walkway beside the bridge, over the Mill Pond, on the south side of Old Town Road. When those began I wanted to say “no, over the north side, it will connect the Historical’s parcel (where the Sands Family monument and a stone bench now stand) with Bird Heaven!”

It would be too difficult, I was told when I brought it up, a hypothetical, and I didn’t respond with “but they built a land bridge from the Ocean View to the Shamrock! And another from the Manisses to High Street!”

At least not at the time . . .