Another Year

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 7:45pm

There was a dusting of snow on the ground one morning earlier this week. It appeared, at first, at least through lacy curtains, to be that super-frost that can glaze the world on a cold morning, and turn whole fields white. Later, though, there were actual clumps out in the field, real snow huddled into a singular mass, as if hoping its collective cold would fend off the sun.

We did not have many White Christmases when I was growing up. A normal winter snow storm, of clear fields and tall drifts, came one year days before the holiday. I was in grade school but wanted to pretend we were living the myth and insisted the photos in the yard be taken with the remnants of drifts behind us. It was mild, my brother and I were not wearing coats. He may have had a new shirt, who could care about an older brother’s shirt, but I know I was wearing a red velveteen dress my mother had made for me, a promise materialized when I came into the living room that morning.

A couple of years after that it did snow, a dusting, but enough to truly count. Sometimes it was cold, but mainly I remember days bordering on the mild, when a cotton jacket with a cotton flannel lining was adequate for a walk across the field to drop off presents for the children next door and visit the lady who, every year, came from the mainland to spend Christmas here and who always brought us gifts.

I remember her giving me socks, but not the kind that were a disappointment, hers were thick and soft, richly colored, from a real store, not the ones to which I was accustomed, perfectly serviceable that I presume my mother ordered from a catalog.

My gifted socks came, I think, from a store in downtown Providence, back before malls, when there was a vibrant city center with many active stores, bustling at Christmas time. At first, that I even know that with certainty confuses me; mainland trips were rare, there were no shopping expeditions, no one had a car over in the fishing outpost that was Galilee, and the winter boats carried perhaps four vehicles and didn't even run on Sunday.

The island population was at its nadir, the great tourism that had built the harbors decades earlier was scant, land had no value but no one had money and there were few jobs. Yet, someone had a relative at WJAR, the television station on the top floor of the oddly named Outlet, not an outlet at all but an old-fashioned department store, and Block Island children went to Providence to film a broadcast, a “Living Christmas Carol.” It was the traditional nativity story, with a narrator, singing angels, big and small, shepherds, kings, the requisite Mary and Joseph.

Waiting for the elevator — the elevator! — we saw the “Weather Girl” we watched every night on television, the one who seemed to possess the magical ability to write backwards on glass. We learned the image was flipped so viewers could read the writing, the magic of such a process negating any she-can't-really-do-that disappointment. A talk show host we all recognized — there were only two stations back then so it was difficult not to know a local celebrity — called out to us, “You're from Block Island?” and we felt like stars.

We didn't see much of the city from that one night of filming and trooping back to the hotel, our angel — and other — costumes showing below our coats. However, my mother was a teacher and a chaperone and my father came along with my older brother and we stayed a whole extra night in the same hotel which gave us a whole extra day in the little city. It was filled with stores, many with escalators as well as elevators, all with holiday displays, and those sidewalks where Salvation Army bell ringers were stationed.

When I was in college we'd go into New York and wander around Avenues known around the world before Christmas but I think it is that compact downtown of long-ago Providence that shines in the back of my mind when I hear “Silver Bells” which I am still singing on Boxing Day.

And, as many times as I have told the story of that television production, only today am I wondering how the heck it was all funded, not the show, we had an “in,” and not the boat, the company underwrote school trips even back then, but the hotel rooms and meals and the bus to transport us to and from Providence.

This year Christmas was mild. I went out to the north pasture but the horses do not expect treats from me so they stayed at the far end, glancing back at me, then at each other as if in conference before wandering off through the open gate to the far lot.

It is a blessing to have the pasture back. At mid-day on Christmas the bright December sun fell on bits of hay fallen from the chomping jaws of the horses, and a sort of shadow snaked across the grass, from the feed and tackle shed down to the gate where they had been conferring. It is the track they follow when walking back and forth, the one abandoned when someone who is not me arrives to feed them.

The start of the weekly pieces I write for this paper was a little tale of the sound of a tractor on the hill across the pond on a summer's day. It was printed in the last editions of 1991.

And so I come to the of another year and, as always, am gratified and humbled by readers who continue to remark upon my columns. Thank you, everyone, from the bottom of my heart, for both your kind comments and the reminder of how important a few nice words can be, and to make more of an effort to do that myself.