The Block Island Times

Broken Stones

By Martha Ball | Apr 13, 2013

There is a sign at the gate to the Island Cemetery. It is placed too high to read at night — set above the reach of headlights. It probably warns of trespass after sunset but I do not care. Someone mentioned in a casual aside after dinner if my grandparents’ headstone, the one between the towering yews, has toppled. Had I noticed, asked as though it was a fence rail on some anonymous property. It is silly, very silly, to be going up there in the black of a moonless night but the question transported me back in time three years to that terrible January when there was widespread vandalism and so many graves fell as thought a tiny tornado had landed and cut a diagonal path across that small patch of land.

Then I was in Connecticut, not knowing until I returned home whether or not any family stones had been damaged. This time there was no waiting, it was a simple detour on the way home. Still, it was dark and the flashlight I try to have always in the car did not work and as foolish an errand as it was common sense did prevail; stumbling about in the dark of the cemetery on a cool April night would have been truly fool-hardy. There are roads that are not quite roads in the cemetery, grassy aisles between lots, easy to find when one knows where they are, and from one of those the headlights of my car shone over to the site.

The stone was intact, upright, and the impact of the relief was a physical blow that took away my breath. It changed something in some of us, that dreadful January three years ago before these things were imaginable. It is not incomprehensible that one of the older family stones would simply tip over some day, felled by the flutter of a butterfly wing on the other side of the world, but this one is not among those.

Later, I realized my concern was not of vandalism, rather it was the inexplicable sadness attached to broken and fallen stones that I most feared, winter reaching into a fragile April and stealing the tentative spring. It was feeling the cold shadow of a January that I knew I’d written a few months ago, found through the magic of a word search.

Rarely do I remember nocturnal journeys but last night I dreamt being asked if I had even noticed that the light had been restored to the end of the green jetty. Not quite believing such was the case, I walked from the porch of the Harbor Church, over to the Ocean View Pavilion, down to the Inner Basin of the Old Harbor and across the Interstate lot to Esta’s Park. Always, the beacon looked different, like a hologram turning or a pale reflection of the blinking buoy that has been in place since the fall. There was no steady emerald path on the water, just an oddly shifting spot, and an anemic illumination, not unlike the Southeast Light from my window, which I see only because I know where to look.

When Irene reached us at the end of summer 2011 she’d been stripped of her fearsome hurricane status but the ocean had been angered. The hit was a side swipe, throwing white water high into the air, dwarfing the awkward metal tower marking the channel entrance. The view of it from the hill above Ballard’s made a magnificent photograph, one that some of us imagined would be historic only for the particularly bright green rectangle with the number 3 on it, historic in the ways so many images of town are before a change in the color of mansard shingles or a minor building addition.

It seems now it may prove to be like a snapshot taken of the harbor in early summer 1966, before the Ocean View Hotel was diminished to ashes in a few short hours, or the memory of a ride through the safe haven of the Island Cemetery in late January 2010, when large scale vandalism was incomprehensible. The building is gone, its foundation alone remaining; the stones in the cemetery have been re-set but the unease of such pointless destruction continues to chill the air.

It was another year and some months after Irene that the whole ocean heaved as Sandy worked her way up the coast wreaking destruction. We were lucky, it ruined only roads and beaches and slapped the tower so hard it tilted and went dark. A week later another raging storm passing slowly further shifted the great granite blocks at the end of the breakwater and the light tower fell into the sea leaving the harbor entrance half dark.

First reports were that both Galilee and Block Island would be closed to traffic after dark, significant in early November when the press of later sunrises and earlier sunsets squeeze precious light from the day. Later we heard the light would be replaced but as the winter wore on so did the breakwater wear down, its end now reminiscent of what it was before a major reconstruction when I was still in school.

For all that I talk of this loss, it still some days comes as a surprise to me when I see the breakwater over the low dunes, its ragged end an image from an old photograph. It is not, I am sure, that no one cares but part of me wonders how many people even notice, and when this happened, this seismic shift in our attentions. For all the boats that pass in and out of that harbor, it seems strangely unnoticed, the lack of a green beam across the dark water, the absence of a tower on these broken stones.

It was April, today the air felt like it. Now, in the half light of early evening the view from my window is uninspiring, brown fields crossed by old walls disappearing into fog as I watch. It is New England, where the Red Sox being in first place is cause or unease.

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