Not so long ago

Thu, 12/29/2011 - 4:56am

Last night it stormed, blasting wind and more rain than I realized until morning, when the old cedar shingles on the south wall of the house were still dark with damp despite the sunny drying breeze.

It is an old structure, with a narrow ell and seemingly no rooms made to escape the wrath of the weather. One of my dogs, gentle creatures all of them sharing a fear of guns and thunder and fireworks, often vanished to the floor of a large closet, the only large closet in the house, and the only windowless space. It seemed too small for any other use, and also too large for a closet — but my late uncle said simply “No, it was just the only one in the house.”

There is a notation “magic minute” on my desk, written the other day when the sun set in a flash, as it does this time of year, and the barren brush of Clay Head had to it a rosy glow. Today, at day’s end the sky is the color of cold, slate gray and faded blue. The wind chill, the dreaded wind chill, shows a “feels like” temperature a full 10 degrees less than the thermometer, and the darkening heaven is filled with the sound of cold.

It is winter. I watch the sky, determined to see some trace of light at five, knowing full well it will be a month before the sunset is pushed back to that magic milepost and we will feel, as well as know, that night has lost the battle and been banished for another season.

This morning the sun shone on the ocean and, as the boat approached, waves crashed over the breakwater, great walls of white erupting only to fall down upon the rocks and disappear among them, power and fury dissolving in the wide cracks and crevasses. Perhaps it was the angle of the light, but the waves were particularly ethereal, filled, I am sure, with rainbows and hope. It did not look especially rough as the big vessel soldiered on; it raged only where a man-made barrier tried to stop the roll of the surf.

Three hours later the wind had come around, throwing back the tops of the waves, streaming mare’s manes into the air. The purple flag was flying at the dock. The weather station has been chatting about significant wave height and gale wind warnings that end at times that change with the hour.

We’ve been lucky. I remember sitting in the parking lot waiting to go off for the holiday and feeling my whole car shake, and remembering being in the same place feeling the same wind a year previous. Or being in its counterpart in Galilee, at the other end of our floating bridge, watching the sun rise over the Dutch Inn, idly wondering if the stop sign shimmying in the wind had ever been given an insurance wind rating. Was there a point on the Beaufort scale when it would fly from its post?

Last year the snow — drifting snow, not the pretty fluffy stuff — came the day after Christmas, and the year before, days earlier. We have been lucky with all this green grass and flowers trying to bloom and very few mornings of ice on the puddles. The wind chill is 13 degrees colder than the true reading and I wonder, as I will until sometime in March, why I keep looking.

Twenty years and three dogs ago I wrote a little piece that began: “Today was the first day I saw my neighbor’s son drive the big red Farmall from the barnyard out into the front field, across the swale, up the slope and down again, around and around and back to the barnyard. His father stayed with him but the boy drove the old machine.”

I mentioned my brother climbing up on it during the previous summer, recalling his own childhood driving a small Ford tractor. But I did not reveal our father’s futile attempts at teaching me to drive the same vehicle. It was a Sunday, I am sure I had on a blue skirt and know I was much more interested in the view from the elevated seat than trying to steer. It was probably eight years before he tried again, and that time I did pay attention and learned to drive a stick shift in a field where houses would soon be built.

Twenty years ago I had remembered more of the summer gone by.

“There is magic in that tractor. My brother’s daughter, eight years old and disdainful of this place with no McDonald’s or malls, was enchanted by the big red monster in the shed. We sat on the cistern cover and listened to it pulling a mower over the bank lot far across the pond. In the quiet afternoon we could hear its engine change when the tractor turned at the wall and went back up the slope it had just come down, we could hear it working much harder to climb than descend. A ride on that tractor was the zenith of her visit to Block Island, a few turns in that same front field driven around today gave a little girl from Grosse Pointe a thread connecting her to this place stronger than any we could spin over years of talking and telling.”

The day remains pristine in my memory, one of those memories set in amber. The late August late afternoon sun had warmed the concrete cover of the cistern, turned to a shallow well and long abandoned, and we were surrounded by that unique summer quiet, surrounded by silence but for the motor across the pond. There was plenty of beach traffic, then, but it did not seem so frenzied, so loud.

My niece asks me still about the neighbor who gave her that thrill, and wants always to be remembered to him. I tell her I have long lost track of his collection of tractors.

Twenty years — can it really have been that long, I marvel, even as I know of course it can and it has been. Twenty years of kindnesses, of encouragement and support, of shared memories, so many made from people no longer with us.

Thank you, everyone, without you this journey of mine would never have been possible.