The Block Island Times

Palatine Christmas Card

By Martha Ball | Dec 21, 2013


Yesterday it did snow, not as forecast but enough to turn the farm next door to a Christmas card, the north roofs of the old Cape Cod house and big barn and outbuildings so oriented made solidly white in the fading light of afternoon.

It was not on the ground any more than the slush snow we had earlier in the fall, less perhaps, but the cold turned the shallow puddles, yet in the process of being blown dry by the wind, to ice. We have had a bit of ice but this was over water, a sheet that crackles and breaks under the feet of my growing puppy. She wants to chew the oddly textured bits that melt in her mouth but her confusion is put aside when she realizes she can drink muddy water; briefly, before I stop her, she is in heaven.


I have lost track, now, of when those words were written, within the last few days of ever-changing — and interchangeable — weather.

It is snowing, again, but still not the soft, gentle, albeit rare, powder that I had hoped for Autumn’s first snow. It is not the Christmas card snow that leaves the brush along the Mansion Road coated with white, the perfect setting for the cardinal that often hops into view as though on cue. So far we have had slush, enough for slipping and sliding but not the inches deep where-did-my-feet-go I’ve watched other dogs experience newly with each snowfall. It is cold and windy and but the dog is enthralled by what I see as deficiency, and wants to stay out to play, chasing leaves and twigs and flakes across the yard.

She has learned a few things and stops when she comes in from her romp, damp, waiting to be rubbed with the towel I keep by the door. I tell her she’d like the hair dryer’s heat but she has no interest and runs to the far side of the next room, stopping to peer back at me through the doorway, ready to bolt should I head toward her with the noisy thing.

Tired, at last, she lies at my feet, oblivious to the fact she has grown and takes up too much room, leaving me to find a place for my feet that belong in the space she has usurped under the desk.

The first year we ever had snow on Christmas was a reach. Somewhere there is an old snapshot of my brother and me in the yard, dressed to go out to dinner at Aunt Bea and Uncle Weldon’s on Chapel Street. Weldon, for whom Weldon’s Way was named, was a few years ahead of his time; the side yard of their house was filled with the heavy equipment, a bulldozer, a grader, even a crane, that would have made him a fortune had he lived longer.

That Christmas I was wearing a red velveteen dress my mother had made for me, and I insisted we be positioned so the bit of snow, the remainder of a drift against the fence, the end of a big December storm, showed. The next year it did snow, only a dusting, but enough for that elusive White Christmas I thought was the due of all the world — or this part of it — except Block Island.

The brush was low and we could see up to what had been Uncle Ansel’s on the main road. His wife, Aunt Cordelia, lived in the Queen Anne’s house and among the few family stories related was of her passing a box of chocolates, half of which had been thumbed or bitten into. Her brother, Ray Lewis, rebuilt the National over the course of a single winter after it burned to the ground in early July. Their sister, Alice, my great-grandmother died too young. I never knew any of them, or the fourth sibling, Uncle Jess, who lived on the family farm — or the wild West Side, depending upon by whom the story was told. He shot multiple geese with one blast of his mighty gun and saw the Palatine, the flaming ghost ship, a story my mother would always qualify “by the time anyone else got to the window it was gone” which led to her own conclusion that no two people ever saw it at the same time.

Thinking of the Palatine takes me to Lester Dodge, who left his house and land and a then substantial amount of money for a library. He took nothing for granted; the trust, to help with maintenance forever was left in the keeping of a bank, his will stipulated the Town was not to abuse the land he was bequeathing them, to the point of prohibiting the storage of tar barrels.

He had, as he later put it, the great fortune to attend Brown, he worked in New York but never lost his connections and eventually came home. When he was older and the great National stood empty he would walk around it at night, fearful of fire, and I never thought until today he had been a young man when the first hotel had burned.

One year Lester’s Christmas card was a little booklet, its pages edged with red, bearing the somewhat unusual image of a cut granite memorial marking the site of the graves of strangers, immigrants from the Palatinate region of Germany. Survivors of the wreck, they spoke another language, but were taken in and those who did not live and move on were buried here, in what remains one of four historic cemeteries in that section of the Island, perhaps not so inappropriate a message for Christmas.

Lester’s name is around the island on the back of many of the historical markers, on stained glass windows in the Harbor Church. By his wish, it is Uriah, his father, whose name is over the door of the great gift to his town, the library, but it is easy to say every year, having any memory of Lester or not, we again experience from him the simple words printed in that card —

A Merry Christmas

and all good wishes for

A Happy New Year

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