The Block Island Times

Notes from Leona

Sep 14, 2013

People may think of a boat when they hear “Leona,” but she was a person first, the sister of the owner of the little fishing vessel that met a sad out-of-water end.

Leona lived out on the West Side in a house painted dark green. My dad was a roofer and sometimes he took me along when he was going to some distant and unfamiliar locale — such as the West Side — to talk about a job or do some minor bit of work.

So off we went to see Leona who seemed a very old lady to a very little girl. She stood in the door of her house, leaning against the jamb, leading to an enclosed porch and talking about someone whose name I do not recall, perhaps someone recently dead.

He was a mean sort, she said, and after a particularly bountiful shipwreck, took for himself a great beam he did not need for anything, a timber her father did very much need to replace the sill of her childhood home. They needed it “some bad” — or a like colloquialism that seemed as exotic as the dark house surrounded by greenery. Our yard was open, our fields wide and clear, and this place felt to me out of a fairy tale.

I remember visiting her at least 15 years later when she lived in the lower floor of another dark green house, this one on Old Town Road. We, her grand-nephew and I, went to visit, delivering holiday flowers from her niece on the mainland. She knew me while I would never have recognized her; the nephew insisted she knew everything despite rarely going out. He insisted she employed runners, servants beholden only to her, who slipped in under the cover of darkness to inform her of Island events.

She had a telephone, but spies made a better story.

Leona kept a diary in 1929; it was the same “Everyday Dairy” my dad, a high school student, kept up from Jan. 1 to the end of April 1933. Leona was a generation older than he and she wrote the whole year, although her words contained no more poetry than his. It was a simple record of, literally, everyday happenings, no words carefully penned with thoughts of being read eighty-some years later.

Thirty years ago, I held another of these diaries of Leona’s and opened it to the entry, “Bill Peckham died.” I put it down and left it where I found it, unwilling to trespass on a life not so long ago ended. Decades later, I still hesitate, but know there is importance in remembering everyday lives and hope I will be forgiven.

The Albert of whom she often speaks was her son, remembered by my father as the guy they thought stole the ham but didn’t, references to him generally prefaced with “poor,” probably with a delayed guilt. He was Block Island’s sole home-grown casualty of World War II. (Another boy, a merchant mariner, also perished, one whose family moved here to their summer place after the Great Crash, to the last piece of property they owned. But for his death the name would be no more than an oddity in the school records and a link in a chain of ownership of a landmark house.) Fred was the man with whom she lived for many years, not one of her husbands, not Albert’s father.

Lizzie, one presumes, was Miss Dickens, who lived beyond Leona, out toward the sea, with her father Lovell.

It isn’t always easy to make out the words, and the tone shifts with the day.

February 22

No school. Fred, Albert went harbor. Lizzie came for mail. Fred went off shore. 5 eggs.

April 15

Cloudy, cool. Eggs: 24. Went to see Eva, some improvement, went to mother’s. Went to see Celia a short while. Some cold for spring. Fred worked at Mr. Penn’s. Order all mixed up. Albert @ club. Lizzie went to school. No news is good news.

State Trooper here.

“Order” was to MW or Sears, the department stores of rural — and offshore — 1929.

April 16

Another day, what will it bring? Worst storm for season, NE. Some leaks. No mail. 24 eggs.

But what of the State Trooper, I wonder. Why was he here? Did he get off on the boat or was he stuck on the island?

On April 19, there were 27 eggs and Mr. Lovel was planting potatoes. Leona did not get hers in the ground until April 24, when she collected 31 eggs and Albert had a cold.

A surprise on April 25: the parsonage sold and I wonder which one. Is it fair to presume it was the West Side Baptist parsonage on Beacon Hill, sold because the West Side district school, which would become the parsonage, had been vacated as the system consolidated on its way to becoming housed in one building?

The absence of May Archer (a boat) was noted with the Nelseco, one of the many Nelsecos to ply the waters between Block Island and the mainland, filling in for a day or two.

By May 6, the floors had been painted, Fred had harrowed and there were several more entries of “no news.” That day it was fair and warm and oats were sowed on the West Side.

Parsnips and endive were put in the ground, but a moment was allowed for other considerations, and Leona wrote amidst the details of how much gas and a Legion hat cost. Thank God for the privilege of having flowers.

The pieces begin to fall together, the rows of the garden planted, to be harvested in later pages, the Dahlia seeds grown to flower. Fred went to work, Albert visited his grandmother, the Lewis boys came to call, bits and pieces of a life lived in that green house down that long road appear in an imprecise hand in premeasured spaces on predated pages.

They tell us so much and so very little, they tell us of everyday.

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