The Block Island Times

A nostalgic step back in time

By Gloria S. Redlich | Sep 12, 2012

There we were: 13 of us being ushered to breakfast on the porch of the Surf. It is some 46 years since we began traipsing out to the island each spring for the amazing series of weekends at the nineteenth century hotel that for some 15 years cast a spell over us that lingers yet.

For a few moments the clock is turned back to a time when each of our three children was under 10. At that time, from the heightened level of anticipation and planning for our weekend stays, you might have thought we were off on a month-long expedition somewhere.

Instead we had only four days, but they were charged with a transformative quality that made each of us come away somewhat changed. We brought back with us a sense of having been touched by the island and by the Surf, which became our annual safe harbor from the routines and storms of everyday living.

We tried to come out during the hotel’s opening weekend, because we couldn’t wait for summer and rather relished having the old hotel pretty much to ourselves. We would take three adjoining rooms — always asking for the ocean side, so we could hear the sounds of waves lapping the shore as we drifted off to sleep.

We always signed up to have two meals at the hotel — breakfast and dinner — and even then, I think we knew that at something like $16 a night, we had found the most affordable and unique holiday spot in the state.

With breakfast served from 7 to 9 a.m., we would begin waking the children just a bit before eight. For kids whose normal mode was strenuously resisting any attempt to wake them, when we even half whispered “It’s time for breakfast,” they would spring to their feet.

Breakfasts enshrined in family memories

Images of those breakfasts have become, I think, enshrined in our family’s collective unconscious: we would enter the dining room where the light blue walls of old metal tiles were covered in antique platters that Bea Cyr had collected. The tables, covered in white cloths on which the glassware and silver sparkled, held baskets piled high with sweet buns and rolls. These became the starters we munched while sipping coffee and milk as we deliberated over the vast choices on the menu.

The children would always select multiples: cold cereal, eggs, home fries and French toast or pancakes. Their appetites, which we always attributed to the sea air, were boundless. Their dad, who continues to share adventures with me, would always do French toast, while I would choose some variation of eggs.

Often our table would be in an alcove set close to the windows looking onto the back porch and the sea beyond. The scene is embedded in my mind’s eye as one in which all the stresses of ‘real life’ dissolved, and we simply slipped into a shared idyllic moment— one that lives on, untouched by the passage of time.

Slowing down reels of the past

Like the reels of an old movie which have been deliberately slowed down, I can picture us running down the Surf beach, trailing each year’s grand new kite; or the children and their dad shooting baskets in back of the hotel.

More vividly etched in memory are the long walks we would take down Corn Neck Road to the North Light or to some other iconic island destination — often to the accompanying moans and groans of youngsters who did not always appreciate the lengthy adventures we’d planned.

I was reminded of the film “Elvira Madigan” — a romantic tragedy we’d seen in which nature was filmed in all its hazy and teeming beauty, becoming the backdrop for lovers for whom sadly life eventually made no sense.

In what I’m told is my warped sense of humor, I suggested that we were like those lovers who having chosen life, and children, had our just desserts: the whining groans of kids who briefly lost their appreciation of the island’s beauty while on a “forced march” instigated by unsympathetic parents.

However, on the turn-around leading to the hotel, there was no resistance. Though we may have been miles away, we were headed back to a shower and dinner. And nothing could have been more enticing for all of us than dinner at the Surf — except maybe breakfast.

Attachments to the island change and deepen

For a long time now we have had a home on the island, as have our son and his family, while others of our children and grandchildren are off in separate corners of the country. Our attachments to the island — individually and as a family — have changed and deepened. We now hold one week open every summer to gather us all together.

It seems to me that we each invest that week with a great deal of anticipation, much as we did to our weekends at the Surf. We also establish expectations — perhaps unrealistically — of what our collective time together will be like.

Perhaps it is a wish to return to the idyllic moments of the past, to childhood and young parenthood. Perhaps we are seeking for time and place to have erased the inherent tensions of family ties and the stresses of our current everyday lives, which remain so hard to peal away.

However, it is no matter that we come away wishing for just a little more than we sometimes seem to be able to give each other. We do still come together. The island still calls to each of us. Our familial memories and relationships are intricately bound up with our time at the Surf, and these connections seem spontaneously able to unlock the laughter and recollections of those who have shared a common childhood — children and parents.

Back to the Surf

Coming back to the Surf for breakfast this year generates different kinds of responses in each of us. For some, it is just the quiet pleasure of recapturing what has always been time in a special place. Others have very specific reactions:

For Harold, it is a different perspective sitting on the porch from remembered meals in the dining room. He says, “On the porch you’re sitting right on the edge of the ocean. It’s very dreamlike… looking right out at the beauty of the water.”

For our daughter Marcy, who was 7 when she first came with us, it is the hotel’s opening that is important, though she finds the breakfast delicious — with the baked apples reminding her of Mrs. Cyr.

She says, “It’s cool to see this historic hotel open and that they’ve brought it all together — past and present. I’m so glad to see it re-opened because it holds so many great memories for me. Though the furniture is laid out differently, they are maintaining the connection with its past by keeping to the Victorian décor, and I love that they still have the chess set!”

Nancy was 3 when we began the Surf ritual and for her this visit “brought back many memories imprinted from childhood.” Admitting to feeling nostalgic, she adds, “I also feel the energy of the place coming back to life, a consciousness, a sense of spirit. Walking through the hotel, it does seem a bit smaller, but still very grand, and there’s a pulse of life that is the presence of something more than just a hotel. You can envision people back in Victorian times. It’s an energy connecting us to another era; it’s still alive.”

To our four grandchildren, who have no previous history with the Surf, breakfast is simply that — a great feast at a long table on a porch jutting into a vast blue ocean, surrounded by lots of people who love you. The baked apples, rhubarb preserves and cinnamon bread disappear in great gulps of another generation’s healthy appetites, once again stirred up by the sea air.

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