Back to the Hill
It is always the same this time of year. The “summer” beach roses are in their fullest glory, some days in bright sun, others in fog, the grasses that have not yet been cut have gone to seed, but are still young and pliant and run before the breeze. The lilacs have truly faded while the blue flag irises, luminous in the sun, are having their brief moment and the few yellow irises that have survived my neglect are in bloom.
It is a shock, every year, in early June to realize how long ago it was the snowdrops and the daffodils and the forsythia heralded the spring that even for Block Island was slow in coming and quick to pass.
Three weeks yet until we reach the solstice, and while the bayberry still clings to winter, gray and dour, the first full bloom of translucent green and gold, of lush new life, is slipping away. There are patches of low white clover in the back lot and the north pasture is dotted with daisies, the flowers of school graduations, of nostalgia for fields where
we used to collect them now long gone to houses or brush or landscaping or a combination of all three and more.
Yesterday we gathered on the hill for Leslie and tossed a bit of earth onto the box holding his ashes, another ritual delayed by this pandemic. I keep saying it has been the worst two years of my life even as it stretches into three, as if saying “has been” will somehow close and seal the door.
Our history is written in our cemetery, the old part is truly the hill, the stones old, some of the writing faded. There are some headstones with foot stones to the east, tradition holds they were so set so the buried would rise to face the dawn on Judgment Day.
There are some stones that have been replaced by descendants, like my great-great grandfather. The “new” markers, now 125 years old are dark, polished granite and have hardly aged at all. We know how old they are because, as a cousin exclaimed on a visit, “he signed them!” which he did, in a neat line of print thankfully easily missed, which
proclaims erected by Nicholas Ball in 189something. The same Nicholas, I feel obligated to mention, often, who has the self-designed monument topped with a globe, not a ball.
My grandparents are in what used to be the new section of the cemetery, now the new part of the old or the old part of the new. It’s the marker with the “miniature” yews my aunt planted before moving to the West Coast. They have been there as long as I can remember, back before the town tended all the graves and on a Sunday afternoon people gathered with their little push mowers and clippers and tended the stones as best they could.
That sort of middle ground was arranged like a “real” cemetery on the mainland, with neat little crossroads that are clearly defined on some older aerial maps. Grass is a mighty adversary and even in my earliest memories, only one of those had gravel in it. Since there is no one else around I’ve claimed the grassy lane by the yews, now so tall
they could be turning points for planes, as my parking places. We used to laugh at the trees but now they afford some of the only shade up there. I mean to write that cousin that a few people who decided to forego the church for the graveside only, going on two weeks ago when Mary Donnelly was laid to rest gathered there, waiting to walk over to
the new section.
It struck me that day, as it does every week to the point of obsession — not going off on a tangent I cannot land but when did that become a word so horribly misused!? “I am obsessed” by a certain brand of shoes or flavor of ice cream is such a misuse of the language — that fewer and fewer people know what I’m talking about when I blithely toss off something like “in the new section” when someone asks the location of a grave.
It was a strange thing, waiting for the church service for Mary to end, watching and listening to it on my cell phone, pretty much the only phones we use these days, remembering that the Donnellys arrived because we needed a telephone man who could manage the over-air microwave signals to and from the mainland as well as install phones and fix overhead lines. Oh, and the state had a part-time, you can take your little ones with you, job for his wife.
There was housing then, but very little opportunity and for a family to be moving here instead of leaving was a big deal. It had only been a few years earlier that Everett Littlefield and two of his classmates had joined the Armed Services just after graduation. It was a different time in our country, we seemed to be on a peaceful path in the mid-fifties, and it was often a better opportunity than many small towns offered, with education and travel.
Coast Guardsmen’s kids, mainly in the lower grades, came and went, and there were often a few children of the pastors of the then-active three Protestant churches, but most of us had at least one parent who had attended the Block Island School, or district schools.
Back then, Leslie Dodge Slate nailed planks into some semblance of a shack that seemed as much a tower as it appeared in a photograph at the reception after the service and declared it the Natives Club, although I think the rules of membership were a little less rigid than the name and bluster implied. Even as a little kid I was hung up on semantics, before I knew the word, and the question of who is really a native. Or maybe my lack of memory beyond the visual of the place lies more in the fact it was more a boys’ thing.
I am glad there is a photograph to support our memories.