The Block Island Times

Remembering Cousin Nicholas

By Martha Ball | Dec 24, 2012

This windy and sporadically sunny day, the buoy offshore, usually visible from the window of my dining room — long lost to office work — is playing hide and seek. The ocean is choppy, the broken water aiding and abetting the game and if I did not know of the marker’s presence, I could not see it. As it is I have to go upstairs and peer out toward the horizon until I spy it, seeming to be in the wrong place, as everything has been since the hurricane and the following storm from the northeast.

One year, when my oldest cousin made his annual trip to Block Island, he told me that buoy had been painted; it was a different shade of green than it had been the year previous. He would drive around the island and come back to the house asking how this or that was changed, complaining about “yuppification.” He would also come back from a trip with a happy discovery; after a cemetery visit he commented that it was so nice that “Mr. Benson is buried with his friends.”

He said age was taking from him his greatest pleasure and solace, walking in the woods. Age and all those g.d. developers who have to have more and more, never mind what they did to the land in the process. He said his legs hurt and when I asked where he’d been, it was the North Light by way of Clay Head and back. The next day he hiked out to Black Rock, and when I asked “All the way to the shore?” he replied in his gruffest voice “of course not… to the edge of the cliff.” There was no point in reminding him he was decades away from the 20-year-old marine he once had been.

He said it would be his last trip to Block Island and I chose not to believe him.

A few weeks ago we last spoke at length and he told me he had had a wonderful life, some ups and downs, some of the downs very low, but he was not dwelling on them. He had started Brown in an engineering program, money was tight and he left after a year, enlisting. Not quite 20 years after the end of World War II, he found himself stationed in Japan. He loved it, especially the people, and I think of the time frame and wonder how a population could be so kind to the soldiers of the nation they had attacked and at whose hands they had known crushing defeat. That time remained important to him, he spoke of talking with a nurse in the hospital where the family had insisted he go, threatening to call an ambulance unless he acquiesced. He found the man was a marine as well, which eased his qualms about a male nurse.

I loved him to the ends of the earth but we did not agree on everything. One year after his visit I found a Slick Willie three-dollar bill stuck in the frame of a White House-issue photo of me shaking hands with then President Bill Clinton at the Southeast Lighthouse (the photo I had made a point of having on display). We had learned to accept and have fun with our differences.

He could never bring himself to say “global warming” but went on at length about “global weirding,” with a real fear his grandchildren were inheriting a world damaged beyond repair. He had finished college after the service, was a trained engineer, but he was also the kind of guy who read and read and knew about everything. We could not decide if Norman Borlaug’s achievements were a blessing or a curse.

My cousin and his sister lived here for two years when they were very young, and he came summers through high school, working for our uncle who had the first array of heavy machinery on the island. The details of those times never dulled for him, from the cannonball shaped lanterns “we” set out at night to warn of an open ditch, to the big tractor he drove haying Sheffield Farm. He spoke of houses painted dark green or white, boat colors, he said. That was silly, I thought, then counted them off, those dark green houses since turned white or gray or weathered cedar.

My other cousin, his sister, laughs and says “You know Nick thinks he grew up here,” and I reply “Yeah, I know.” When I relay that conversation to my own brother in Michigan, he says “Well, he did, sort of,” and I am reminded of the pull this magical isle has even on the most pragmatic of men.

He used to come the weekend before Memorial Day, unwilling to face the holiday weekend, then these last couple of years in early June on the weekend closest to our one-day-apart birthdays. Last year his daughter-in-law made quite a fuss, bringing a cake to the restaurant, mortifying him with singing he tolerated only for the sake of his glowing granddaughter.

Come February the phone will ring and for a moment I will think it is Nick, making “reservations” for a weekend in the spring. He would have shared my disappointment in a way no one else seems to over the green light fallen in to the sea.

Still, these few days before Christmas, we are able to say his passing was a good thing, he was at peace, he had convinced his children (aka “those g.d. ba*tards who kidnapped me”) to let him go home to die. Unlike so many families this year, our mourning is for a life well lived, not one cut short by mayhem. It is a terrible loss and our hearts are broken, but it is not wrong and unnatural. The grandchildren will have a holiday to share good memories instead of fearing a dreaded phone call. I hope only that the morphine sheltered Nick from the terrible news from Connecticut.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Lorraine Sanchez Doten | Dec 29, 2012 12:51

I remember Nicky from when he and his sister Connie came to stay with their Auntie Bea and Uncle Buck otherwise called Wheldon,we used to play together as kids, swimming in front of my parents houswhich was at the 2nd buoy to the Old Harbor.     WE named 3 of the rocks,Barnicle Bill, Old Faithful and the King,so when we could reach 1 of them we could brag about doing it.  The 3 of us had soo much fun playing,that I am glad I got to speak to both of them.    Raine Sanchez Doten,   

PS Thank you Martha,you got it started when you were at lunch with Connie and my sister and I got to talk to Michele and she got me thru to Nicky, not Nick,as Nicky was all I ever called him all those summers thru 1955or 56.

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Posted by: Michele M. Jackson (formerly Jackson-Ball) | Jan 13, 2013 20:23

He was very happy to hear from you Raine! The poem you sent was beautiful and he listened to me read it to him the night before he past. Your a sweet,caring woman and im glad Abbie and I got to talk to you and meet you over the phone. I love the stories of being kids on Block Island. The thing I thought was funny is ive never heard him let anyone call him Nicky but he did not objecct when you called him that, which is nice. Someday I hope I can meet you in person and hopefully it will be on the Island. Best Wishes Always, Michele and Abigail (Nicky's Daughter-in-law and Granddaughter)


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Posted by: Michele M. Jackson (formerly Jackson-Ball) | Jan 13, 2013 20:45

Martha, we love our visits with you. It is something we all looked forward too these past few Junes. Even the boat ride over was full of memories for Papa (Nick), Abbie and I. I wanted to Thank you for everything and especially the phone call the morning he past away, they were words my heart needed at that moment. Nick was not told about the children in CT, we all agreed how horrible it would of been to know about it. The irony in that is he loved everything that was pure and innocent, he believed he had a special connection with children and animals. To quote he would say "for some reason they just like me!" and would smile with his quick chuckles. So I hope God gives him the job of Papa in Heaven for them because he would be so good at it. He did get to pass away at home, Abbie right beside him in his bed, she would be nowhere else and if we tried to change that for her that would of been devastating for her, they were so close. She said one time that she felt like she had 3 parents because he was always there for her in her life. We are heart broken and will miss him terribly but im happy he isnt suffering and actually i believe in my heart he really wanted to see God and Heaven because he really wasnt happy with the way the world has been lately (another reason im glad he didnt know about the children) . Will be calling soon Martha. You meant alot to him it was obvious and I can see why. : )

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