My First Time: How did I get here?
The Times used to occasionally run a column called “My First Time,” in which readers explained how they first landed on Block Island.
I will attempt to revive it here in order to answer the question “how did I get here?” — both in terms of the island, and the larger matter of my existence in general.
The recent death of my great aunt, Cynthia Voss Lenker, at the age of 95, the last of the original group of players that feature in this tale, inspired the idea.
It all started nearly a century ago, when my great-grandmother Mabel Voss (no relation to Voskamp) inherited a house in Brooklyn, N.Y., from her Aunt Minnie.
Mabel was a single mother raising two young girls — my grandmother Marjorie and great aunt Cynthia — living in Montclair, N.J. She turned Aunt Minnie’s home into a boarding house.
One day a young Brown University graduate inquired about renting an apartment there. His name was Lester Dodge and he had come to New York with his wife, Hattie, to work in the dredging business.
As Lester got to know the Voss ladies, he regaled them with improbable stories about the wild and wondrous place he hailed from: Block Island. “You must come visit!” he pestered them, and eventually they did, taking rooms at the National Hotel, just next door to Lester’s home, now the site of the Island Free Library, in the late 1920s.
(When the National underwent its major renovation in 1983, all the handwritten reservation requests accumulated over the decades ended up at the dump; a friend spotted Mabel’s and returned them to us.)
As the years wore on, the Voss trio began staying with Lester and Hattie in the main house, taking part in Lester’s time-honored tradition of firing his small cannon to celebrate Dodge Day (and countless other often spontaneous events worthy of a cannon blast). It is said that when Lester’s cannon roared, many a food tray was dropped by waiters and waitresses at the National.
In the late 1930s, Marjorie met John “Jack” Lenker, an ambitious executive with Gulf Oil in New York. They were married in 1936. Cynthia married Jack’s younger brother, Bill.
Marjorie introduced Jack to the island, and he also took a shine to it. My mother, Gaye, was born in the summer of 1937, and Lester became her godfather.
Gaye’s brother, Uncle John, was born in 1942, and the entire family continued to visit Lester each summer. In 1954 they were holed up at Lester’s when Hurricane Carol hit. “Hurricane-y coming!” Lester bellowed as the walls shook.
My mother, Gaye, went on to attend Penn State, where she met my father, Pete Voskamp. They married in Hershey, Penn., in 1962 and honeymooned on the island. Dad still talks about his fishing trip with Lester and his cousin Norman. (It involved decoy fish and evasive maneuvers off the Southeast Lighthouse to confuse other fishermen.)
Sadly, corporate life took a toll on my grandfather, and he died at age 56, three weeks before I was born in 1964. I bear a strong resemblance to him.
Widowed, Marjorie finally acquired an island home of her own in 1967, purchasing Rose Glen Cottage on High Street from the Motts (currently The Nature Conservancy). I first visited the island shortly thereafter as a toddler, as did my younger brother John.
We went on to spend most every summer of our pre-adult lives on Block Island.
Marjorie died in 1973 in Westerly Hospital, and in the fall of 1976 my mother, brother and I moved to the island full-time from Houston (a study in geographical extremes that deserves its own story). John and I each attended the Block Island School, for four years and three years respectively.
All told, between junior high and my recent stint working at the Block Island Times, I’ve lived approximately 12 years year-round on the island, not counting the many summers.
But it could have gone much differently.
In 1999, after living on the island for more than 20 years, my mom and her partner Steve Mitchell had grown weary of the desolate winters and decided to move to the mainland. One component of the off-island house-hunting trips was lunch at the now defunct Larchwood Inn in Wakefield. Sitting in the infamous “Tartan Room,” Gaye and Steve would catch up with bartender Mike Healey and other regulars.
During more than one of these afternoon soirees, my mother noticed a stately gentleman lunching by himself. His white hair and moustache were well groomed; he dressed formally, in a tie and seersucker suit.
Occasionally their eyes met. There was something about him.
She finally asked bartender Mike if he knew the man with the courtly manner.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s Jack Gaines.”
My grandfather’s job took the family to many cities — Pittsburgh, New York, Toronto, Houston. All the moves meant packing and repacking. Yet Gaye remembered her mother always made sure a certain James Thurber book, “My Life and Hard Times,” made the trip. It contained the inscription, “To Marjorie, this will remind you of our lives and hard times. Keep laughing, Love John.”
Back during those Block Island summer visits in the late 20s and early 30s, my grandmother engaged in all the time-honored teenage summer rituals — though of course carried out within the much stricter code of conduct of the time.
Marjorie mentioned years later how one young man, John Gaines, had made a written request to Mabel asking permission to take Marjorie on a bike ride. Mabel granted permission.
They carried on throughout the summer, and became quite attached. He gave her a copy of his favorite book — a collection of stories from the legendary New Yorker humorist James Thurber.
Oh the heartache that often trails in the wake of summer romance. Marjorie found herself back in the drab and unromantic Montclair, while John was back home in mainland Rhode Island. Yet, to her surprise Marjorie soon received a letter from John that held a marriage proposal. She immediately sealed her “yes!” in an envelope and put it back in the mail.
But she never heard from John again. Not a word.
Back at the Larchwood in 1999, Gaye approached Mr. Gaines. She explained who she was and why she wanted to introduce herself. He was visibly moved.
“Sit down, dear,” he said.
John recounted his days with Marjorie and spoke of how baffled he was when there was no answer to his marriage proposal.
“But she did reply,” my mother said. “She said ‘yes.’”
More silence as the news, arriving six decades too late, sank in.
Connecting the dots, they surmised that one of the mothers had intercepted the letter in order to thwart the union; John and Marge were of different religions.
“You could’ve been my daughter,” John said quietly.
On her next trip to the Larchwood, Gaye brought the Thurber book to John.
As he patted the book, John said it put his heart at ease to finally have proof that Marjorie had really cared.
After that meeting, Gaye lost touch with Mr. Gaines. The Larchwood shut its doors and she’s never been able to determine if he is still alive.
My great-aunt Cynthia’s family didn’t establish a Block Island tradition. They visited occasionally up until the 1970s, but that was about it. I’ve heard that back in the day she dated Mr. Ernst, who went on to establish his own legacy on the island.
But it’s a reminder of how small actions can have huge consequences — a letter never received, a knock on the door.
During a recent holiday weekend I watched as a third generation of my family played on a hill on the West Side, young children who will likely visit Block Island for decades to come, all because Lester Dodge knocked on Mabel’s door in Brooklyn that day.