Two years, three summers, a lifetime

Fri, 09/09/2022 - 10:15am
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Two, two-and-a-half years ago, really, we were on the edge of the pandemic. Despite the forecasts of the global experts we were, in March of 2020, still hopeful we would somehow slip through it if we were really, really
careful.
And we did because we were, it seemed, until the fall of that year. Even then, with a very few exceptions, it seemed more a matter of positive testings than rave illnesses. The next summer visitors were cautiously optimistic, so many vaccinated and looking forward to being boosted. The variants, which I called deviants not by design rather by mis-speaking, were lurking.
People were a bit rougher than they had been two years earlier, easily written off to the isolation and confinement that had grown old quickly. Things would smooth out.
Then this summer came with a hot, humid vengeance that proved unmatched when the meteorologists tallied up July and August numbers. The summer brought drivers who appeared determined to secure for themselves the title of worst in Massachusetts, never mind that our alliance with the Bay Colony was severed in 1664.
By chance I stumbled upon what I had written in March of 2020. Just before we fell into the terrible abyss of Covid:
We live on an island.
It is not the Block Island of 1918, already sliding from the Glory Days of early tourism. A war was winding down but another trend was emerging, transportation was starting to shift away from the rail and steamers that had fed the great hotels all along the New England coast. Search eBay for Block Island postcards and one that often pops up is a wharf in Watch Hill, the end of a spur of a rail line from the Westerly station. Many continued to travel by train, especially from cities, but the freedom an automobile promised was too enticing.
Despite the downturn, the Spanish Influenza found its way here. We grew up hearing a great-great aunt, a Block Island woman, died from it in 1918. Doing family research for a cousin I discovered that her death certificate in Town Hall listed other causes. Today, reading about past epidemics, I discovered that many of the casualties of “The Influenza” had, in fact, succumbed to under-lying illnesses, pre-existing conditions we call them today. What had gone from fact to family lore returned in an instant to probable fact.
It makes sense, now, and ends my wonderment that such a story would have been passed down absent factual basis and confirmed that the terrible pandemic had touched this little island, then so much more isolated than it is today.
More than a generation later, when I started school in the late 1950s we were still an insular place where a winter boat running only six days a week was a given. There were three grades in our primary room — no kindergarten back then — and a boy in third grade, on the earned-window side of the classroom, had a pronounced limp. He was, my parents explained, a year older than his classmates, because he had missed so much school, or started late, I do not remember which, because he had polio. He had an older sister who by then lived on the mainland, confined to a wheelchair (she led a full and productive life, was even the Snow Queen at her
college, with her photo in the Providence Journal) and a brother who had had either a mild case or escaped it altogether.
I am old enough to remember the last terrible summer of polio, of numbers in Rhode Island climbing, and then the news of a vaccine arriving. Our parents, mothers mainly, shepherded us to the Firemen’s Hall, the second floor of what is now Aldo’s, where we milled about for what seemed an eternity, awaiting our turn to have our arms punctured with needles. We later pretended to have been brave. I was not, thinking I could somehow hide under my mother’s coat and avoid the fleeting pain.
Her coat was an oddity of the time, a piece of clothing salvaged from a yacht gone ashore off Cow Cove. It was red, a detail imprinted on a child’s memory.
Still, it was not until I went to school that I quite understood that boy didn’t “just have a limp,” like a character on a Western that was a Saturday night television favorite of my dad’s, and that what had been a news story on the radio had in fact touched our little island, in the early part of the 1950s. That happened when we were at our nadir, lacking even a winter boat on Sunday. Small wonder we were all gathered as soon as the vaccine arrived.
Today, on this beautiful morning, I walked about in the clean, fresh air, wondering at the deep blue of the pond and the ocean, deeper in March for the land still working its way to greening. It is the last full day of a winter during
which we never had a long, deep freeze.
There is a relic of a hay rake in the field, barely recognizable, collapsed upon itself, its wheels rimless spokes poking the air. It was hidden for years, overrun with bittersweet, its condition of decay hidden. Now, I know I should
let it be gone for the traces of scrap metal remaining but I can’t, not just yet, so there it sits, more memory than substance.
We are on our little island hoping and, yes, praying, that the dark cloud of pandemic hovering over us on the horizon somehow slips around us and wafts away, a memory of a threat we were able to keep at bay by measured action, not a fantasy of immunity.
* * *
What has any of this to do with a current photo of flowers at Rebecca’s feet? Nothing and everything, nothing to do with the downside of summer, the lost years the history books, if there are history books, might call life during Covid, and everything to do with determination to volunteer through the summer to keep a little island of beauty there in the midst of the crazy traffic, suddenly much more visible after Labor Day