The Block Island Times

Lingering Wildflowers

By Martha Ball | Nov 15, 2013

There is no need to hurry sundown in November; gray clouds hang over the cemetery, ready to drop like an anvil on Veterans Day.

A week ago, after yet another service that should not have been, I walked over to my uncle’s grave to run my fingers over the name cut into the stone. The only prayer I offer is one of thanksgiving for having known him as an adult, when the political chasm that had once caused such strife with his own daughter had been lessened by the bond of familial love.

It was a week ago I realized his little flag that flies where veterans rest had not been replaced with all the others. It was beginning to show signs of wear, its hem lost, the fabric on the verge of unraveling. Such things happen; it may not be on any list. I put the stanchion in the ground myself after Merrill Slate’s funeral, reminded that day that none of us had ever thought to request it of the Legion.

It was easy, as so much more used to be on Block Island. I walked into the newly named Post and asked for a flag for Uncle Cash. No one there knew him, he moved away a very long time ago, but his name is memorable, Cassius Clay Ball, after his grandfather who had been named, in the fashion of the time, after a politician. That first Cassius, of the large headstone at the top of the hill, had a brother Schuyler Colfax, named for a long forgotten vice-president.

Cash’s name, with my dad’s, and those of their three brothers, are all on the cast plaque affixed to the World War II monument. Before the youngest of the five graduated high school and enlisted, the older siblings were the subject of a wartime feature in The Providence Journal, “This Week’s Four-Star Family.”

We have always maintained my grandmother was the hero, widowed in early 1941, watching her five sons go off to battle. Cash many years later said he knew he and his crew mates were dead when, flying up a river valley in Germany, their plane went into a cloud of black flak. “They’d told us if that happened we wouldn’t come out,” he told us matter-of-factly. They did, pulled by a presence he felt come into the aircraft. He would never presume it was the hand of God that somehow brought them but not all the others through the danger, but it was gone as soon as they were safe; unspoken that it was off to protect someone else. He was a trained engineer with the most analytical of minds; but it had been real, no matter the lack of scientific explanation.

The day of Merrill’s service, the local Post Commander graciously gave me the marker and a flag and showed me how to put them together and I was on my way. Last week he gave me a crisp new Stars and Stripes and on Veterans’ Day I was back, glad in a way that this one was left for me, however it happened.

The next day those gray clouds gave us early rain. My neighbor now has a flag I can see from my kitchen window but I still gauge the way of the wind by the darkened shingles on her big barn, today west and north, and the dry east faces of the little houses on what we call Mansion Ave. Later, it turns, fleetingly, into the first snow of the year, little more than flurries but enough to dust the leaves of the useless blackberry vines beyond my window.

There is a slick of wet white on the grass and Autumn, my fast-growing puppy, is energized, fleetingly confused but not as baffled as she will be when there is a blanket of powder into which her feet sink. She dashes up and down the road then, protesting my idea of going back inside, races in rings around the yard. Suddenly, she loses her footing and instead of merely tumbling, falls into a skid at least 10 feet long, halted only when she hits bare ground in the lee of the sprawling miniature apple tree.

I have wondered how people have videos of their animals — and children and life in general — when these silly moments are so sudden and unexpected. Then I remember someone on a tour of the big lighthouse, experiencing it in its entirety through a pad held between her and the world.

There are lingering wildflowers by the old shed and the gate to the north lot, defying the cold wet wind. Bright and sunny, orange and yellow, called butter-and-eggs one supposes for yolks and spring butter. They are, I realize in the graying day, also the colors of one of the varieties of jonquils that bloom on the other end of the growing season.

The books say these flowers, classified as invasive out west where they threaten prairie restoration, bloom May through October. It is mid-November and here they are, vibrant and cheerful as they are the fall, when the earth has not been singed by salt or beaten by storm. Perhaps they have been there all summer, competing with other vegetation that is fading and dropping as the cold nips around the corners.

They are like the golf balls my brother hits out into that north lot in August, hidden for a bit, then bright white orbs screaming for attention as the taller grass dries and turns sparse. It was three years that he did not come and only last March did I pluck what had to be the last of old errant drives out of the edge of the brush. Then he came back with sealed packages that he emptied and left in place, like a kid dropping his socks sure someone else will come along and pick them up. The cardboard and cellophane I collected long ago, the golf balls they contained I could be finding all winter although he was here but a couple of days.

It is not such a bad thing, a reminder of this brother who two-and-a-half years ago sustained a head injury so severe he lay in a coma for weeks. In truth, I am happy to have tangible evidence of his having been here, annoying ways intact.

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