“He's a Farmer”

Fri, 03/18/2016 - 11:00am

 It was mild last week and the sweet night music of peepers rose from the low places in the early evenings. They were singing everywhere, all over the island, in other New England states and down the coast. Reports of them was widespread and joy-filled. 

Dawn came late, a line of deep rose, hovering above the horizon, a red sky at morning warning, lighting the white capped waves off the beach. Then, enough later that I thought perhaps the forecast storm had slipped past us, the rain came, loudly, hitting the east-facing windows, filling the room with the very sound of raw cold. 

It is March, the trickster’s month. January, Janus’ month, has two faces, looking backward and forwards they say, the spirit of doorways and passages. March is merely two-faced, the heart of springtime one day, the edge of winter the next.

The first day after the time changed last fall it felt like midnight at 5:30 in the afternoon. I did not change the clock in the living room, sure the batteries would soon run out and I would have to take it down to replace them. It has run an hour and ten minutes fast all winter. There is a rationale to the ten minutes, it is roughly how long it takes to get to town. 

The hour was a nice cushion, it was never as late as I thought! Now, I have to remind myself it is correct, or only 10 minutes fast.  

That first day of a long afternoon stolen from the morning was disconcerting. It came after an exhausting night tangled in a web of dreams spun from a single line in a book. There was only a hint of tentative light in the east when I awoke, floating up from specifics that fell away as I tired to remember lyrics to a song that felt related to them. I had gone to bed earlier than usual, more than allowing for the spring ahead loss of an hour, a totally futile effort.

It was mild but March and I got the long coat out of the closet, my good winter coat that I’d not worn at all this year, preparing to stand in the cemetery in the sure-to-be-cool air that afternoon. It stayed in a heap of gray wool in my car, and I was warm without it, under sun that deepened my time altered confusion. 

We heard earth thump on a lowered coffin and I thought of my mother.

When I was growing up we expected summer weekend visits from childhood friends of my father’s. Brothers, Robbie and “Skeeter” Marks, they had come as children for the summer with their dad, a Providence tailor who pressed clothes for the folks staying in the big hotels. They came weekends as adults almost until they died. 

On a summer day one of them arrived with a couple from Providence, one of them some kind of a cousin of his wife. They were here on their boat but looking at land, that day a parcel on the West Side. Somehow they expected my mother to know about it, which she did. Perhaps they had called ahead, I never thought about it until this moment. My mother just knew things, such as that particular lot having a very unsettled title, which would take a fair amount of legal work to untangle. 

The couple from Providence, Joan and Justin Abrams, eventually bought the Florida House, rechristened it the 1661 Inn, went to work as a family, and the rest, as everyone knows, is history. They seemed able to garner an unprecedented amount of press coverage for this small new business on this distant isle, in The Providence Journal and other publications, and my mother would just say “Joan has a friend” not the usual Rhode Island “Joan knows a guy.” 

When the gardens were starting, and the now-cleared land running up the hill south of the Manisses was scrub brush, when Justin worked full weeks in Providence and was here only on weekends, rushing about in old clothes wherever he was needed, always gravitating toward the land, my mother said “he really is a farmer at heart.”

I do not know with certainty if I was even at the house that summer day, the arrival of one or both of the Marks brothers was hardly an event to be noted, and they occasionally showed up with someone in tow. Every now and then, Justin would remind me of that visit; of course he would remember, he remembered everyone who had welcomed his family. 

Over the past summers probably the most often requested directions on the corner by Rebecca are for the Southeast Lighthouse and Mohegan Bluffs. A close second is the “zoo.”  

The first day it is directions, the second day the parents call over “they love it!” as their children lead/drag them toward Spring Street. At the end of their vacation I hear “our final visit this year!” The fortunate ones would tell of talking to an older gentleman with a wealth of information, who eventually confessed to being Justin.  

There have been many write-ups over the years, it’s on every map and list of things to do but, still, the Animal Farm has a feel of a place apart, humming along, the many documented and reported upon improvements and additions seeming more organic than orchestrated. Of course, it has not just happened, there are myriad regulations regarding ownership of exotic animals, as there should be. 

Perhaps Justin’s real legacy lies in the fact he passed his love of the land and animals to his grandsons and no one is asking “what will happen now?” 

That land on the West Side eventually was sold at tax sale, and after a chain of events meriting its own story, became protected open space, which seems appropriate. And downtown, where no one would have expected it, Justin Abrams got his farm.