The Block Island Times

Lineage of Fortitude

By Martha Ball | Jun 01, 2013

The lilacs down the lane have turned from soft and fragrant blooms to crisp brown cones, shriveling a bit more each day. The armful of these flowers I picked just over a week ago did not last long. Some were close to turning even as I snapped their stems and separated them from their mother tree, but others still had tight purple petals, between bud and blossom, and I hoped they would stay fresh for a few days.

That was when I realized I had moved the rarely used vases, for reasons beyond reasoning, and put them on a cupboard shelf high, high above the refrigerator, a place of dead storage behind doors that are behind whatever in on top of the refrigerator. They are rarely used and it might have made sense had what was there been something used, ever.

Instead, what I found where green and white glass cylinders should have been, was my mother’s Foley Food Mill, which I keep because it was my mother’s. It has a wooden handle and is made of whatever was used for such things before stainless became the standard. I do not remember the last time I used it although a quick internet search eradicated the rational notion of discarding it. How can one toss a piece of kitchen equipment featured in a “Use Your Antiques — enjoy your antiques by using them as intended” blog?

Maybe I should take it out of the high, high cupboard again.

The lilacs in the found vase drew in a great amount of water the first day they sat on my desk, giving me hope that they would stay vibrant a bit longer but, alas, they did not, and quickly turned to paper.

They came from the Mansion; pilfered, I am not ashamed to admit. They were near their end and the fact is they would not be there at all had I not been walking one morning when one of the road crew, a sweet young man on his way to work, stopped me and wanting to show me what he had been doing, clearing the old foundation and retaining walls. It was a wonderful job, kept up to this day, but for the boughs of budded lilacs lying on the ground amidst piles of poison ivy and briar.

They have a lineage of fortitude, the Mansion lilacs. There were once great trees of them, ancient but healthy until they were ripped out of the ground when the new parking lots were cleared. That they were gone was something about which no one seemed to care. By some miracle, volunteers sprouted in the old, untended foundation, kept open primarily by the passage of scores of summer beach-goers.

They grew, unheralded, untouched, safe in a mélange of quasi-toxic greenery, and the year they first bloomed was a glorious happening. They were only cut that one time; it was without intent, and lilacs cut only to the ground can recover, especially when all competing vegetation is removed. By summer the flowers are long gone, and the plain green leaves are quickly passed on the way to the beach.

They are part of the stretch from the end of April to the Summer Solstice, the best time of year on Block Island, our secret spring that is forgotten by July.

Yesterday, for the first time, there was more sand on the beach. We all say it always comes back and it does, but not always when we wish it. I am reminded of the year there was sand at the base of the dunes and at the water’s edge and between there were paths where the stones had been moved, a passage cleared. A summer friend recalls being told it happened, this rocky beach, every seven years, which I know I never said; we agree it has been more than seven years, perhaps 17 or even 20.

It was, I think, the year a clump of rocks sat at the water’s edge and I aligned them with the gables of two houses above the beach — one since demolished and replaced — and the spot where the Southeast Lighthouse sat on the edge of the Spring House roof. Simple triangulation, it was, the way the fishermen set their ranges.

There is sand to the north, up around Jerry’s Point, where I walk for the first time since the hurricane last fall. The bank was sliced badly, I knew, and things have fallen to the beach. I previously had ventured north only far enough to ascertain that the silhouette — bizarrely like that of an oil derrick — was a battered evergreen.

The bank is very, very low in places, and cut in ledges, reinforcing a memory so old I have wondered what was real and what was imagined; this is a variation on the post 1954 hurricane season, this particular spot that is somehow oddly vulnerable. There are still too many big rocks to walk all the way to Riley’s Harbor, but that is not unusual this time of year, this last outcropping to be buried.

Returning to Mansion, the mounds of stones are striking and bring to mind the millions of dollars that other communities spend on beach restoration seemingly every year to little end if it need be done every year, or even every few years. The dunes faces are gone, all that extra sand that swept back down over the bony winter beach is simply not there, and the piles of rock are dauntingly high.

But, I noticed for the first time, the beach roses are coming into flower. A day later the carpet of them that cover the sandy land east of Corn Neck Road was beginning to unroll. Even the nursery stock, planted too quickly, with so little care, battered over the winter, has proven sturdy, leafing out as the days lengthen. They may yet prove to be as tough as the Mansion lilacs.

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