Many years ago, my brother George was stationed in upstate New York. He and Catherine bought a house there. It sits at the end of a long driveway, on a little bump of land. And this is the thing. That bump is just big enough to fit one house, and it’s surrounded on three sides by cliffs and by water. There are three waterfalls or six waterfalls, depending on rainfall and snow melt. Big waterfalls, twenty or thirty feet across, sixty-five feet high. There is also a pond with trout and turtles in it. And there are rivers and trails on the land up above, then there are the falls that come down around the house to make rivers that run along one side, coming together in the pond on another side, then the water falls over the dam and continues down the hill, skirting a little terrace, splitting around some small islands, and continuing to another pond and still another waterfall that I’m not even counting, down by a cider mill and the main road.
It took courage to buy that house, because of having three children. The youngest of whom (our famous Matthew, the fellow who took some of the egret pictures in previous blogs) was four years old at the time. The reason it took courage, or rather well-founded confidence in their exceptional attention spans as parents, is that a four-year old could be out the door and dropping over one of those waterfalls in about a minute and a half.
They lived in the house for three years, and during that time, George was deployed for several months at a time. As things worked out, despite the fact that he was a fighter pilot, he was also a meteorologist, and he wound up on the ground, first as an Air Force Liaison Officer, and then in other positions, coordinating between the Air Force and the Army. While George was deployed, Catherine was alone up there with the children. She shoveled the snow, she brought in the wood, she dealt with the roof, she had to do everything by herself that a winter in that part of the country requires. She was far away from friends and her family lives in England, so they were far away also. She was also responsible as George’s spouse, for emotional support for an entire squadron of families whose loved ones were deployed and in some cases, killed in action. It is not everyone who could do all that, I’m just saying.
George lived in tents and tanks, like my father had done in WW2 and Korea, and sometimes he slept on top of a tank - he did in the first Gulf War, because he decided it was better to burn up quickly on top of a tank if it got hit while he was asleep than to burn up slowly inside it.
Through all of his deployments, through long weeks and months - in the heat and dust, through exhaustion, explosions and danger, George would picture the place back home. He’d imagine the rivers and the waterfalls and the paths through the forest. He would clear the trails and restock the pond. He would shovel clean snow. He would bring in wood. He would make a fire. It would smell good. He would rebuild the bridges. He would bathe in the water. The children would come. He would buy fresh cider. He and Catherine would improve the house and remake the place together.
But their lives moved on. George was transferred to Seattle and transferred again to Virginia, deployed again and again. They now have a fine home in Williamsburg. The children are grown or nearly grown and are beginning to settle down. It’s nice down there in Williamsburg. The James River is beautiful. There are eagles and white egrets nesting. The ocean is warmish and not far away. The strawberries come in April. There is wildlife, nice wildlife, where the worst thing they will do to you is munch on your perennials. The winter arrives in a gentlemanly fashion, with enough snow to dust the old brick colonials and imply a fourth season without overstaying its welcome. It doesn’t have North Country Winter, that Mongol barbarian who kicks you in the head in November and keeps on doing so until May. It doesn’t have bears hibernating in a cave on your hillside. It doesn’t make fifteen-foot icicles as thick as your leg, any of which could drop at any time, straight onto your children. It’s not cold enough to freeze your engine or snap your toes and your ears off. It doesn’t dump ten feet of lake-effect snow on top of your house and threaten to cave it in.
And so it happened this year that when the renters were leaving, and they got an offer, they determined to let the place go. They decided to go up for the last few times, to arrange repairs, to move forward and be happy. They had considered it carefully. They were philosophical about it. They had talked and talked it over. It had made a lot of sense.
That was until they got there. I’m not saying that they had forgotten exactly. But there was something about being there. I understand because I’m like that about Block Island. I leave and the mainland world is so different, it’s like another country. I adjust to that world and Block Island becomes another place, over across the water, not hard to remember but hard to feel. It’s easier to imagine then, that I don’t need to be here. And then I come home and what was I thinking and I begin to feel my life again. I know that I could find my home in another place. I will if I need to and I will be happy. I’m just saying that home is home and sometimes you have to be in a place before you can know where that is.
I met them up there in New York last week, George and Catherine and Matt. Matt hadn’t been back since he was seven years old. We had work to do because there had been a peacock, an actual peacock, living in the house with the tenants. This had imparted a certain something, especially in the carpets. We had one table and some chairs that we moved around, depending on our needs. We slept in bare rooms on cots or mats, with a giant waterfall thundering right outside our windows. I loved that water rushing by, and I loved the fact that it would make its way to the ocean, including the waters around Block Island. I love the fact that while children were growing, and George was deployed, and while wars were going on and on, and while lives were being built or broken, that the water was still there and running - beautiful, powerful, life-giving, certain.
So George will work for a few more years and in the spring when the blue heron return, I hope to go back and take some more pictures and perhaps we will pull up more carpets. Catherine and George will rebuild the stonework around the falls and the house this year, make everything safe and solid, and next year they’ll do something else and in no time they will be there in their home, freezing but happy in all that beauty at Christmas. Hannah and Matt and Amelia will come back to take it all in, in the place where they were children.
And all the things that George imagined and other things, more than he could have imagined, will certainly come to pass. And the best thing is the ancient water. I love it as much as I love a person, in the same way I love a person. I believe that water can heal anything. That water will be running right by their house and over to us, here on Block Island. It will go up in the sky and come down again, around and around and around.