Miniature Yews

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 7:45pm

A clitter-clatter follows me into the kitchen when I go to refill my coffee cup. I know it is Autumn. She does it all the time, and still makes me laugh, standing there, giving her empty dish — then me — a mournful look. Breakfast was served, I remind her, and she turns, dejected, only to plop down in the doorway.

It might appear a protest but it is just what she does, lie in the most inconvenient place possible. It is, I understand, a dog thing, the more in the way they can be the happier they are.

It is late May, I remind her, the door is open, she can go outside at will. There are mutant Canada geese out there, like characters from a fantasy sci-fi movie, so large they might think they can take on dragons. There are horses to visit, although Autumn's main trips to the pasture are to “clean up” any food they might have dropped, or slurp from the big water trough she deigns to share with them.

The sun has finally come out and stayed out and the land is singing. Sunday I went for a little drive, not the classic round the island trip, just a loop to the New Harbor and on-the-edge-of-the-West-Side cemetery.

Fallen pink petals lined the road by Legion Park. Unlike those in parking lots in town, they were not laced with cigarette butts and scraps of paper. Instead they were a fresh carpet, all those flowers fallen from trees surrounding the park, planted in honor of those who served in the armed services over the years, both from Block Island and with some connection to this place.

Times have changed, the net is wider. It was so finite when we were children and knew so many of the names on the monuments, out here monuments not to the astonishingly few fallen, but to all who served, most like my dad and his four brothers, all of whom came home. War seemed finite, not today’s open-ended endeavor to bring peace to the world.

The Island Cemetery is my destination. It shines this time of year, fresh grass fed by spring rains, newly cut, crisp American flags snapping in the breeze.

When the town center was in the center of the island and the road from the North End veered west, up and over Indian Head, across the bridge we always say “behind Dead Eye's” likely because the name of that establishment has remained the same for so long, up the hill, turning south onto what is now Center Road, it was known as Cemetery Street.

The old entrance to the graveyard was from the east, the old road showing in a swath of green climbing the dawn-facing side of the hill, and winding around its contours, a way less noticeable today. We would sometimes take that way, on Sunday afternoons when I was very little, when individuals tended the graves, and whole areas were neglected, covered with tall grasses. The town was responsible only for those few lots with the mysterious “perpetual care” designation, which seemed to my small self a great luxury. There is a plot visible from West Side Road, with a retaining wall and concrete steps, seemingly to nowhere, but in fact to that old traveled way.

But the entrance is now in a different place, marked by the same sort of rounded stone pillars that dot the island, a pair here, a pair there, sometimes joined by smaller, no longer used, planters, round and low and faced with smaller stones.

One cannot go into the Island Cemetery without passing my great-great grandfather's no-it-is-not-topped-by-a-ball-it's-a-globe headstone. It is, I came to concede not so many years ago, an interesting marker, and a marvel to consider how it was even transported here, not unlike a number of the older stones, impressive obelisks, or slabs, those carved with inscriptions including histories as well as names and dates.

There are a few places I pause in the cemetery, one of them always the grave of my Uncle Cash, now joined by his wife and their son. The shrubs are overbearing, and need some sort of trimming which I am hesitant to take on for fear of disrupting the growth of them.

They are a disappointment but not a surprise, these little conical trees that were not supposed to grow large. They were ordered by the aunt who always wanted to live on Block Island but married an engineer who wanted a secure job which he found with the government. He was already on that path when World War II began, he was not a farm boy suddenly lifted into a great world of which he knew nothing. It was a basic life he wanted, his daughter once told me, just to move into a house where the plumbing and electrical were already in place.

The little trees. . . the “miniature” yews that aunt had planted on another family stone, always a part of my memory, were a family joke when my mother was still alive, over thirty years ago. They were already so much larger than they were supposed to be. Other trees, notably spruce on another family plot, have come and gone, but those yews seem to withstand anything, even entanglement by poison ivy.

They grew tall fanning out much higher, and they do not so much obscure the stone as these smaller, brighter, newer shrubs do.

The bright Veteran's flag needs to be moved. It is an easy enough task, I don't know why I didn't do it on Sunday when I was there, except that I was preoccupied by the vegetation. Now, I look at trees planted in the yards of houses on the Neck Road, and remember how they were once individuals, then touching, then a mass of branches crowding each other out, or at others newly set and wonder how long before what seems a great distance between them closes.