A year ago to the day (now 11 fast years ago) my cousins left after burying the ashes of their father, my beloved Uncle Cash, whose voice I still miss when weather is approaching. Among the more precious things they took with them to their lives in California and Colorado and Washington state was a story shared, a tale of high school students on Block Island in the 1930s building engines from kits purchased with a dime.
It was one of the many gifts the Late Captain John Robinson Lewis handed us, word pictures drawn on the blank slates of our willing imaginations.
Years ago, when I first began writing this column, I set guidelines for myself: to stay away from local politics, to steer clear from the negative, the fast and the easy. I did not want to curry favor by quoting people walking among us, knowing how many sides there are to every story.
Rob became my exception, my muse, talking of a small hole his father cut in the barn door, a portal for swallows who became my “air dancers.” He reminded me that come Washington’s Birthday, the back of winter is broken. His were the prints of bare feet — not the imprints of shoes, but five toed footprints on the sand — in March. In a time when it seems people increasingly use knowledge as a sword or a shield, Rob was as generous with his lifetime’s accumulation of a curious mind as he was with his memories of the past.
It seems now a lifetime ago that the proprietor of the still-new Depot looked up from stocking the shelves and noticed a regular customer thoughtfully inspecting the fresh fruit, one of the joys of the season. Nodding toward the produce bins, Ken Cadow asked me, hopefully, “Do you think you can get him to . . .?” It’s a line more often than not associated with getting someone to tell a funny story or do an imitation or, in a less pleasant surrounding, fall victim to a practical joke.
It was a long awaited June day and I knew he was thinking of another year and what had come to stand as a true Depot moment, a shimmering case of the very best of a small town, the sort of thing that simply could not happen in a larger place such as a mainland Stop and Shop, or even in the mad rush that is midday on Block Island in high summer. It was one of those tableaus that is held forever behind isinglass in a box lined with deep blue velvet safely tucked away in a protected corner of the memory.
The man viewing the wares was a cousin of sorts, one of my father’s generation who grew up when things were differently taught. Rob Lewis paused that afternoon between careful choosing of new dark cherries and eying of the halavah bars that sparked his memories of life as a ship’s master, sailing another part of the world decades before. A remark about the perfectly beautiful day, the green of Meadow Hill, the state of the beach that morning, the feeling in the air, or some combination of those and other factors led him to cite a passage remembered intact some 60 years after he graduated from high school. The words were spellbinding, from “Prelude to the Vision of Sir Launfal” by James Russell Lowell:
And what is so rare as a day in June?
When, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmer, or see it glisten...”
He had continued, incredibly, as if the poem had been an assignment for an assembly held earlier that day, the single-mindedness of his concentration youthful. The moment was emblazoned on those of us who happened to be present, sweet and extraordinary, a crossing and melding of generations and places gilded by the light of June, held in its flawless air. The words flowed, not the flood crashing through a broken dam or a river running white, but the steady flow of a ship’s wake cast behind a steamer running steady and true.
Here was the intangible reason, the inexplicable answer to schoolchildren’s query about why they should learn a poem by heart. Why? So that 60 years later, they could cast a spell and for a moment hold in thrall, with no more than a few well chosen words, a shopkeeper and those who had chosen that moment to buy milk or get their afternoon coffee; so they could still the cresting wave of June on Block Island, and remind anyone within hearing that it is the month when “if ever, come perfect days.”
It was magic, woven of simple words finely spun flowing between cherries and halavah.
This is not a perfect place, even in June: baby birds, fluffy and flightless, fall to their death on the cement floor of the shed; the ocean, still cold, runs onto a beach that some days is grazed with a layer of blowing, stinging sand; new grass, softly green at a distance, is in spots woven with honeysuckle vines and tiny, beautiful, cruel poison ivies. Yet nature prevails. Many of the birds, my same air dancers, live to perform aerobatics over the barnyard; the windy, rutted beach turns wide and sandy; among the weeds are clovers and buttercups and strawberry, plain and lovely and wild. There are daisies spreading across old fields along the roads, so many at their peak that the meadows will be as white as a crashing storm sea, and like the ocean, pale even when the sky is dark.
Lowell wrote of the cost attached to all things on Earth, then adds:
“Tis only God can be had for the asking,
No price is set on the lavish summer,
June may be had by the poorest comer.”
It was the same with our friend, the late Captain Lewis, who recited poetry in the little grocery store, and pointed out the cresting waves where the ocean bottom had shoaled. He was there for any who stopped and listened.
He was here to give my uncle’s family a sense of place. Now, I will think of the words of the old hymn — “drop the anchor, furl the sail” — and know Rob is “safe within the vail.”