Last summer, as I drove west on Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I., past the house on the right whose first floor long ago had been converted into a barbershop run by Walter the Barber, I realized that as much as sixty years had passed since I had sat on a padded board laid across the arms of the barber’s chair. My heart softened for a moment and then tightened back up when I drove another block west, past several unrecognizable houses replacing others that had been demolished, and stopped across the street from Number 770.
To my right, as I looked through the passenger window just beyond the sidewalk, I was startled to see, plastered on a house similar to 770, several signs for a hair salon and (another) barbershop with walk-in service. Before I could turn my head the other way, I had to take a deep breath and only then look out the driver’s window and across the street at the yellow, vinyl siding on a three-tenement dwelling; it had been my home for approximately 20 years before I left permanently while on my way to graduate school at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each time I had returned in the many years that followed—and there were fewer and fewer returns after I moved to Maryland and after my parents moved, too, and then died, one in 1989 and the other in 1996—something had started to transform, something almost imperceptible.
Yet, as I slouched in the car seat with the motor still running and tears nearly brimming my eyes, I realized that the transformation was now much clearer. I saw the crushed water bottle and the crumpled newspapers and the McDonald’s wrappers flipped around by the breeze on the sidewalk in front of the house, but it was what else I observed that most confirmed the slow deterioration of the house itself and its ambience. As I looked to the right, I saw an opening in the fence, a barrier that ran in front of the house and then down its right side. That opening led both to the front porch and also to the alleyway on the right that in turn led to the concrete garbage container where my father and I had dumped innumerable newspaper-wrapped bundles of kitchen waste for the garbage collectors to gather once a week. But the gate that had filled that opening in the fence and thereby had furnished a modicum of security was now simply gone. Then, as I looked at the metal and concrete porch itself, which had replaced the two-tiered wooden porch when the house was sheeted in vinyl, I felt as sunken as the left side of the metal awning that overhung it.
This front porch was now actually being used as such with lawn chairs haphazardly scattered about in the small space in front of the doors, one of which seemed, in my mind at
least, carelessly left open. In my days there, with most of our neighbors as private as we were, the front porch with its two doors was rarely used, either to enter the house or to lounge about. Instead, we would enter the house through the side doorway, located at the back of the yard on the left side of the house. Very rarely, my Uncle or Aunt would use the left porch door to enter their first floor flat. On Thursday evenings only, my father would use the other porch door, which was a faster and somewhat easier access to our third floor flat, though, when he arrived at the third-floor landing, he would then have to traverse my parents’ bedroom to get to the kitchen. On those evenings, despite his long-term angina, and with some help from the rest of the family, he would haul up the family’s weekly groceries, which he had purchased in the dingy and dark Olneyville market, the only large such store within a mile. The only other significant time our porch door was used occurred in 1984, while I was up in Cambridge, when the rescue squad came to carry down my twin sister, Anita,* who had suffered and later passed over from an asthma attack.
As children, Anita and I had played with the few toys we had in that narrow yard along the left side of the house. Long after I had moved away and after my father was kicked out of his long-rented garage down the street, he found this yard was just barely wide enough to allow his car to ease carefully into and out of it. Along half the length of the forty-foot yard I had sped in the red wagon my Uncle had bought for me until Grandma, my mother’s mother and the owner of the house, repeatedly scowled at me from the second story window and complained about the noise to my father, who argued back, only in the end to take the wagon away from me. Later, when my Uncle bought me a grand, red, adult bike on my eleventh birthday, because of over-protective parents, I had to ride it, for almost a year, only in that constrictive yard, with no more than three pumps of the pedals each way and a partial dismount necessary to make the very tight turns. Anita and I had played mostly in the back of that yard, where it was a bit larger, with its red and white wooden bench and the Eucalyptus tree covered by leaves the size of small elephant ears. But we would come hurriedly to the middle of the yard when my mother would call
down to us from the third floor, kitchen window flung open so powerfully that we could hear the clang of the iron weights in their wooden slots; from that high window she would drop into our waiting, but clumsy hands a brown paper bag filled with heavily buttered, thick slabs of Crugnale’s bread wrapped expertly in waxed paper. She chanced our catching the bag before it split open on the concrete yard to avoid our climbing the stairs and thus bringing “dirt” into the house; her fear was especially keen if we had been down in the lower yard at the back of the house where a fireplace and picnic table were located not far from abundant, loose soil my Uncle was forever overturning and sieving through a screen to filter out stones.
In that lower yard, my Uncle, my father and the mason father of one of my friends had built the fireplace and the concrete steps that led down into that sunken space. I hardly remembered the building of those structures, given how young I was at the time. Nevertheless, I did remember the only construction I did participate in, that one much later: the outside stairway leading up to one of the house’s back doors, located near where Anita and I played in the upper yard. When I was in Cambridge, my father set out to rebuild that stairway, under which my Uncle had stored his snow-blowers, each one bigger than the previous one. Whether my father asked me to do so or whether I simply volunteered, I eagerly came down to Providence to serve as an equal participant, an enormous change from all the times when I had sat by, handing him tools or just watching, as he did minor home repairs. This time, however, we worked literally side by side with great ease and even camaraderie, reconstructing the entire staircase in three long, but heart-warming days. Without many words and with an exchange of open, vulnerable faces, we exuded pride for the work and for our partnership.
But now, from the limited vantage point of my car seat across the street, I could not see that staircase; apparently, it, too (along with the Eucalyptus tree), was gone, replaced by windows after what had to have been some internal reconstruction. What I could see in the yard now was a very tall, chain-link fence on the far side of the yard separating the other house on the left from my childhood home. It had replaced a wooden fence that had been low enough for me to climb over to retrieve balls we had accidentally catapulted into our neighbor’s yard. Part of this later fence, across from where the staircase had been, was twisted as though the supporting posts had been loosened from their concrete anchors. Further back, another, lower fence paralleled it and was equally twisted until it made a sharp right turn, thereby obliterating any access to the lower yard. Moreover, a further change that the new owner had made, cementing over the crumbling foundation bricks, had failed; for now many of those red bricks were readily visible where the veneer had cracked and chipped off.
But what appalled me most were the weeds.
From the lower yard that had been the object of my Uncle’s muscular care rose the vibrantly green tops of at least seven- or eight-foot weeds. Nearby, in the upper yard where Anita and I had played, a small forest of weeds at least three feet tall had sprung up in every place where the concrete was sectioned into blocks. The weeds propagated even along the front of the house between it and the fence, in one case reaching across one of the windows on the first floor. Its vivacity mocked the phantoms of trees look gone that had tried vainly to flourish, un-nurtured, in the graveled rectangle cut into the asphalt near the sidewalk’s curb.
Situated near the curb on the other side of the street, I felt my eyes transfixed on what I did not want to see, even as I slouched further down into the driver’s seat. Poverty and despair had come to live in what used to be an enclave of mostly Italian-American, blue-collar families. After a few more minutes, during which I had noticed several pairs of intense eyes peering at me from the house on the left of number 770, where timid Walter* and his obese sister, Lorraine,* co-habited long ago, I shifted into forward gear and drove further up the hill, turned right onto Academy Avenue, right again onto Newark, then down the hill past the now shabby Crugnale’s bakery (where in the morning mist many years past my father and I would devour steaming hot bread before going fishing), right again on Valley Street, and finally left, back onto Atwells Avenue going the other way.
I no longer felt safe.
That sense of being ungrounded, unwelcomed, even vaguely threatened eased only a little as I made my way past Uncas, a jewelry factory (where my mother had worked among individuals she had nicknamed “B.O.” and “Big Nose,” and had gossiped about at the dinner table), and up the hill past what used to be Gasbarro’s liquor store but was now, like many others around it, an industrial building of indeterminable use. In another moment, I passed over the major rail line linking the states of the East Coast and gazed at Holy Ghost Church, the site where my sister and I had our christening and confirmation, and where I gave a substantive eulogy, first for her and then later for each of my parents, each time much to the annoyance of the impatient priest who wanted to get on with the Mass. Looking a few blocks ahead, I searched for St. John’s Church on the right, only to find that heavy stone edifice gone. While its demise made way for one of the very few patches of real green space on Federal Hill, the “Little Italy” of Providence, the absence of something that had seemed so permanent was unnerving to me.
Shaken anew by this change, I stopped at a light at the intersection of Atwells and DePasquale Avenue on the left, which, like the rest of Federal Hill, had undergone a “face-lift” about thirty years ago, only now to be seriously in need of another. In the town square that had replaced part of DePasquale Avenue, there was now an aura of seediness, of tiredness, even amidst the giant flower urns and the elaborate stone fountain into which some visitors tossed pennies or other coins to buy their wishes, while others sat on the fountain benches and munched on powdered sfogliatelli. Not even the bright, pastel Mediterranean colors of some of the store fronts and awnings, the vivid religious murals positioned just under some second floor windows, and the paving stones arranged in intersecting swirling patterns—not even these innovations could dispel a sense in me of something not being quite right.
For me, all this revitalization was really a not-quite-authentic veneer over what I had known fifty years ago when I worked every weekday during my last high-school summer in a meat market owned by another uncle and situated down on the left end of the DePasquale Avenue; the market’s exact position was now obliterated by a couple of restaurants. Back then, big-wheeled pushcarts with all manner of heaped-up, spectacularly colored fruits and vegetables filled the Avenue, while the owners divided their time between refilling the rows of sold commodities and hawking the merits of their unsold “cosi bello” wares as they corralled sometimes reluctant customers into buying more of what they had not really wanted. Occasionally, one of those omnipresent, middle-aged Italian women garbed in the traditional black skirt, blouse, and kerchief would argue back vigorously, arms and hands gesticulating in whirls of emotion, until the defeated seller muttered, “Va bene, va bene!”
Such scenes, though somewhat muted, took place every Friday in my uncle’s meat market, when those Italian ladies, often as wide as they were tall, demanded “La carne migliore” from Nicko,* my Uncle’s assistant butcher, who did most of the work in the store, while my uncle smoked and read magazines in his hideaway on the second floor. Smiling at these inevitable rituals between the white-aproned butcher and the ebony-clothed ladies, I would usually either be filling pig’s intestines with sausage from the grinder, or be scraping the chopping blocks caked with fat from all the beef, lamb, and pork that had been cut and sliced on them, or be sweeping the floor of bits of meat and the straw that was supposed to absorb drippings. Though my uncle had visions of my someday replacing him, he gave up that idea rather quickly when I failed to cleave a loin of pork into individual chops without bits of bone shooting into the pink flesh that I had already quite mutilated. Or maybe he abandoned his vision more decisively when I drew a knife across my left index finger when trying to separate a cap bone from a leg of beef; because no one was free to help me, I had to drive myself, copiously dripping blood, to the hospital in my uncle’s Pontiac, whose cavernous trunk was then free of the two to three sides of beef it often held in transit from the stockyard.
As I sat now, still waiting for the stoplight to change, I looked down at the inch-long, reverse “J” scar from that incident and remembered how still another uncle, Vincent,* one of my father’s four brothers, would come every late Friday afternoon in his yellow, Ford convertible to whisk me away from such danger and the mixture of humor and depression that sometimes hung over the meat market. We would drive, sometimes with the top down, to Jamestown Island in Narragansett Bay, where he, with help from some other family members, was building a flat-roofed, small house on a cliff overlooking the Bay. I would be seeing the Island later that day, even though the house had been sold long ago.
As the green light flashed, I started driving again, glancing to the left at Scialo’s Bakery, the place my parents would take my sister, Anita,* and me after Sunday Mass at Holy Ghost Church many years ago for huge Danish pastry, sfogliatelle, monstrous turnovers filled and covered with yellow custard, and soft/crunchy Zeppole on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. But, over the years, the store seemed to shrink, as well as did the size of the pastries and their availability. Those losses should not have mattered much to me, given how my diabetes and heart disease made it unsafe now to crave them; but, somehow, what was missing did matter.
Still, Scialo’s was one of the few stores still recognizable; not only because so many had been reconstructed, reconfigured, even torn down, but also because the ambience was no longer quite Italian, given the significant number of other ethnic groups that now offered their services, principally culinary. The change was a tribute to the acceptance of the multicultural by the usually ethnocentric Italians. Yet it also signaled the passing of a colorful, vibrant intact culture that included, of course, a darker aspect represented long ago by Raymond Patriarca, the Mafia Boss, whose office for thirty years starting in the middle ‘50s had been in a vending machine and pinball store near the end of Atwells Avenue as it now intersected Interstate 95. My uncle, who lived in the first floor flat of the Atwells Ave house and was a Sergeant of Detectives for the Providence Police, had been part of the force tasked with interdicting the mob’s activities. He once told me how bullets went flying across Atwells Avenue not far from where Interstate 95 was later built.
I had now approached that intersection and was about to turn south on the Interstate to drive toward the Theodore F. Green Airport near where my wife was waiting for me
when I noticed the Gateway Arch; it had been erected over Atwells Avenue during the revitalization of Federal Hill to mark the entrance/exit (depending in what direction one was driving) of the community. At the apex of the arch was La Pigna (“The Pine Cone,” sometimes erroneously referred to as “The Pineapple”), which Italians supposedly see as a symbol of “welcome, abundance, and quality.” My experiences so far on this day had done little to confirm for me those attributes of the current state of my childhood home and its environs. The past was not romanticized in my mind—my current childhood recollections had revived too many miseries, deprivations, and depressive family episodes to color it rose–nevertheless, something grounding, something that was mine, had been lost irretrievably. On this day, La Pigna was not welcoming at all.
On my drive toward the lower Bay along Interstate 95, before I had left Providence, I passed, on my right, the monstrous metal insect perched atop a building and advertising an extermination service; on my left, I noticed what used to be Coro, the huge jewelry factory where my father had earned a much-needed income from the mind-numbing job of foreman several decades ago until, after thirty-two loyal years, he was summarily laid off in 1963 with the gift of a fake gold watch. When the factory had been converted some years ago into an office building for a health insurance company, I had felt the unsettling loss of something familiar, but also, and much more important, a sense of retaliation against a mind- and soul-killing monolith. Apparently, some things did need to be exterminated or just end.
I looked over that converted building toward the north end of the Bay and thought I could see on the other shore the nursing home where in 1996 my mother exhaled her last breaths. She had been living in a residential group home in Warwick until her poor balance sent her right temple flying into one corner of her room’s table; from the hospital after ten days of treatment, she was sent to the nursing home to recover. When I had visited her, my initial hope was that the Bay’s presence, however industrialized it was near this place, might bring some peacefulness to her. That hope was immediately blanked out by what I saw in the hallways: heart-stopping images of residents in wheelchairs, some drooling on bibs hastily wrapped around their sunken heads, others screaming nonsensible syllables, still others seemingly comatose on gurneys rolled into the halls for “socializing”—a nightmare concentrating the horrors of my mother’s own, often very painful life as a child with a cruel mother. A week or so after she had moved into the “home,” she phoned me and insisted that I call her after the weekend. When I phoned at her requested time, she begged me, with the prescience of her impending death that would baffle her caregivers, “Joey, let me go!” and I did. It was her time and her choice; and, despite my grief, it was a decidedly welcome transformation.
Twenty minutes later when I picked up my wife at the Best Western Inn near the Airport, I had shaken off enough of the malaise to greet her warmly. As we drove further down 95, we talked about our upcoming excursion on a tour boat along Narragansett Bay, embarking from and returning to Quonset Point, still partially a military (mostly naval) base where my father had worked during World War II. I may have visited there sometime in my childhood, but now our long drive through the gray, nondescript base to the waterfront did not jog any memories. I was surprised: this environment was something new to me in my home state, though I would have welcomed something far less drab. Nevertheless, I looked forward to being near the water that always revived my spirits.
After we had boarded the large, tour boat catamaran and as its engines started to roar and move the vessel away from the pier, I walked near the bow, trying to get my bearings. My sense of unfamiliarity was not due to changes in the environment, which was the case near my old home and Federal Hill, but rather to my never having seen this part of the Bay, at least while being on the water. Though I could dimly perceive, about seven miles south of us, the Jamestown Bridge arcing from the mainland to Jamestown (Conanicut) Island, I was vaguely feeling myself in a suddenly strange land. And when I opened the tour brochure, I was again surprised, this time because we were to visit ten lighthouses distributed along both sides of the lower Bay—I had never heard of eight of them!
Our first stop, approximately 2 miles south, was the Popular Point Lighthouse, which seemed to be simply a large, attractive house with a turret. It was very close to artsy Wickford, where my father’s artist brother had won awards for his edgy, avant-garde paintings and where my father and I had fished a few times off the large wharf without any “luck.” I had never before seen this lighthouse. Soon, puzzled by what was unrecognizable, I focused intently for a sense of grounding at the Plum Beach Lighthouse that the boat was fast approaching, though toward a side of it that I had never viewed. Nevertheless, with a strange sigh of relief, I watched the white, black and plum colored structure come into sharp relief, as it stood staunchly on a shoal as always, not far from the Jamestown Bridge.
Especially when coming back in the ’54 Chevy from fishing on the Island, my father and I had always glanced down on this Lighthouse, located a few hundred feet north and a quarter mile west of the center of
the arch. When I was a ‘tween, I wondered why the superstructure seemed to be made of a much larger version of the beams with triangular holes that made up much of my Erector Set; more important, I also wondered why the see-through grating at the very peak of the Bridge was always rusty, so much so that I feared it would break apart and cause us to plummet 135 feet to the frothy waves below. As a teen with a driver’s permit, I worried more about safely negotiating this very narrow, two-lane bridge, nearly a mile and a third in length; so intense was my white-knuckled concentration in steering between oncoming cars and the concrete curb that I knew we had reached the peak of the bridge’s arc only when I heard the distinct hum of the car’s wheels on that rusty grating. And yet, despite the minor terror, the bridge was a friend that brought me to an Island that was a sanctuary to me, whether I was fishing with my father or staying with my Uncle Vincent at the “beach house.”
But the essence of that suspension bridge back then was revealed to me only on moonlit nights when I would lie comfortably on my back wrapped snugly in a blanket on the sloping lawn of that beach house, high on a cliff fronting the West Passage of the Bay. From that vantage point, I would look towards the right at the great, shining necklace of streetlights, either standing gracefully along the Bridge’s roadway or hung on its superstructure. The lights’ luminescence softened and transformed, not only the sharp edges of the girders, but also the otherwise stark display of the Bridge’s constant threat of rust. The Bridge became then an ethereal symbol of my constant reaching beyond where I was, of imagining limitless, new possibilities.
In that luminescence, the enchantment of the Bridge could be matched only by the wonder of other lights shining to my far left, back across the Bay at Bonnet Shores, where the first major crush of my life, Holly,* would spend her vacation in her parents’ summer home. I had known then some of what Gatsby must have felt when he stood on his vast lawn and looked across his bay at the lights on Daisy’s estate. And, after Uncle Vincent, who shared my love of the Bridge’s magic, asked what I was doing lying there, he insisted that I overcome my shyness and create something new; the next afternoon, he drove me to Holly’s home, where I spent a delightful hour or so until I climbed back into the car, smiling, and grateful beyond imagining to someone who understood my deepest, adolescent feelings. Over fifty years later, that moment was the first memory Uncle Vincent recalled after I had not seen him for about fifteen years.
But now, fifty years after I had last slept in that house, I once again felt the malaise that I had felt in Providence; for, the old Jamestown Bridge was simply gone, demolished one day and turned into scrap iron for recycling and also into huge chunks of concrete that became reefs, now far offshore in the Atlantic. In its place was a sleek, four-lane, all- concrete bridge that was safer by far, but simply had no character. And, as the tour boat passed under the new Bridge about a half mile from the Island shore, I could not find my Uncle’s house, even though I knew it was only a few hundred feet to the south of the Bridge, where it was absorbed by the Island. Uncle Vincent had warned me that many more houses had been built over the years, obscuring easy detection of the beach house, and, more important, that his house no longer appeared the same because of structural changes made by the new owner many years ago. In vain, I tried to find at least the old steps leading down the cliff from the lawn, steps made of huge flats of slate, many of which I had struggled to carry up from the rock-strewn shore. In my sadness, I recalled also how Uncle Vincent and I had stayed one rainy night in the house that was half finished, with no windows in the side fronting the Bay; I had half-cursed the lightly falling rain, when my Uncle turned to me and said quietly, “I like it, Joey; it makes me feel peaceful.”
Back then, his gentle, yet definitive words had shocked me out of my slump into new awareness, but now the remembrance of his startling perspective only made me sadder. I was anticipating a further accentuation of that disquiet as the boat picked up speed and headed toward Dutch Island Lighthouse. It was situated across a narrow strait near a point of Jamestown Island called Fort Getty; the fort, like others around the Bay, had been occupied by the military looking for ocean-cruising U-Boats entering the Bay during World War II. Starting sometime in the ‘60s, it had become a remarkable fishing spot with its huge L-shaped wooden wharf; later, when the Town of Jamestown realized it could make money from entrance fees, it was turned into a recreation area that grew so much in popularity that boaters from as far away as Connecticut and Long Island dropped anchor in the cove near the wharf. Soon the hills between the wharf and the remnants of the Fort were infested with dozens of campers from three states.
But the earliest days of its draw as a fishing spot, when few knew about its charms, were those I recalled with fondness. For then my father and I, and sometimes his fishing
buddy, Ernesto,* would fish for the occasional striper from the shore, as well as “tinker” mackerel and “doormat” summer flounder from the wharf. On that platform we would greet the other “regulars,” females as well as males, characters worthy of novelistic study with their idiosyncratic baiting and fishing rituals, their craggy faces and often-unkempt hair, and their endless lunches chilled in coolers side by side with their “catch.” We seemed to make up a very loosely connected “family,” with one of the member’s dubbing me “Little Joe” to distinguish me from my father, as if that were necessary. When the newcomers with their chaotic fishing styles started to arrive, the old-timers reluctantly made room on the already crowded dock; in contrast, at fourteen, I did welcome some of them, the young girls from the campers, two in particular, whom I might have connected to if not for the disapproving eye of my overly-protective father.
When I was forty-three, on that very same wharf, the heavy, massive beams of which had already started to rot away, I had switched that protective role with my father, making sure he did not hurt his somewhat unbalanced, seventy-nine-year-old body as he insisted on casting his rod again and again on his last fishing trip. But that day everyone except him got “skunked”—he was the only person on the dock to catch a good-sized flounder, expertly flipping it up and onto the wharf despite his now stiff joints. That was in August, 1989. Four months later—four days after Christmas—he passed over, on his hospital table a piece of driftwood I had found near the dock and had imbedded with stones from our various Bay fishing spots, along with braided fishing line and a couple of hook-less lures.
Now, while my heart grew increasingly heavy as the tour boat came closer to Dutch Island Light and the Fort Getty wharf a few hundred feet beyond, I suddenly became aware of
another, insistent, but vague feeling. Just as I had become disoriented earlier when we had first cruised south on an unfamiliar part of the Bay, I was now perplexed, closer than I had ever been to the Light and also seeing a side of it I had not viewed before; from this perspective, even the wharf a short distance away looked oddly different, improbably interesting. Curiosity, even a kind of fascination, began slowly to displace the malaise in me.
Before the tour boat operator pushed the throttle forward, I suddenly looked right and back along the shoreline, trying to find other fishing spots I had known as a youngster near the high cliffs and massive granite formations on the mainland shore: Saunderstown, where one of the first ferries from the mainland to the Island had been docked long ago, and South Ferry (which, for some unknown reason my father called Fort Coney) where I first learned to cast a fishing rod not far from the dock now taken over by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. I could find neither. And, yet, what I did find was a topography, picturesque, but strange to me, since I was looking at it from a vastly different viewpoint. As the tour boat captain pointed out the cape when he steered past it, even Bonnet Shores, where my first love lived in the summer, was almost unrecognizable, yet truly exquisite.
Travelling between the Island and the mainland on our approach to Beavertail Light at the tip of the Island, I looked ahead and saw a dark shape looming up from the water. An eerie excitement started to flood my body as I wondered if this was the mysterious “thing” that I had observed first from Beavertail when I was a youngster and about which my father had no clue; I had supposed it to be the conning tower of a submarine that had left the Quonset Point Naval Station for the ocean.
But it had not moved then and did not do so now. When the tour boat slowed down and circled the structure, the operator declared this to be the caisson remnants of the four-story Whale Rock Light, constructed atop a treacherous reef in 1882 with a focal plane height of 73 feet—the highest lighthouse ever built in Rhode Island. In the freak, Category 3, 1938 Hurricane, most of the lighthouse, along with Walter Eberle, the keeper, was swept away, possibly by the ferocious 120 mph wind and/or by the huge storm surge and/or even by a tidal wave observed in the general area. But this sudden demise of the Lighthouse, said the tour boat captain, was only the last of several dramas involving previous keepers, including the attempted murder in 1897 of keeper Judson Allen by his crazed, knife-and-shotgun wielding, assistant keeper!
I was momentarily bewildered by these revelations, so unsettling were they to my erstwhile beliefs about the structure. By the time the tour boat turned east, southeast toward the Beavertail Light, we were at the edge of the Atlantic ocean.
And I was afloat in a new world.
As the catamaran rounded the Light, I could recognize the building and some of the huge rock formations splayed in a half-circle around it. With some effort, I was able to detect those particular, sometimes dangerously slippery platforms my father and I had spent much time on, hauling in huge tautog when we weren’t losing rigs to the numerous rocks just below the water’s surface. Still, in spite of such vague remembering, the coastline was not the same, for I was seeing the giant slabs from another angle and thus viewing aspects I had not imagined existed before now.
It was like seeing the other side of the moon.
That sense of intriguing strangeness continued as the boat coasted north now, up the East Passage of the Bay between the east side of the Island on the left and Newport on the right. I was less familiar with this part of the Bay, though my father and I had fished at times amidst the gorgeous rock landscapes around the resuscitated, yet still partially dilapidated Fort Wetherill. But now, from my offshore vantage point, that area, too, seemed from another world, as did the other lighthouses I had never seen: the squat Castle Hill Light, barely visible in its niche among the rocky cliffs; Lime Rock Light and Goat Island Light and Rose Island Light, the first hardly seen amidst the many structures in Newport Harbour, and the second and third eclipsed by the looming bulk of the Jamestown-Newport Bridge somewhat further north; and, finally, the Conanicut Light nestled among much taller trees at the northern tip of the Island.
When the tour boat had finished its circumnavigation of Jamestown/Conanicut Island and had settled back into its berth at the Quonset Point dock, I walked down the gangplank to the land, wondering what had happened to me; for I was no longer depressed and, in fact, was somewhat invigorated. On the way back to our motel, I muttered largely incoherent thoughts to my wife, trying to make sense of the shift.
Soon, however, I sensed that the watery journey I had just taken was also a soul excursion designed to open my awareness beyond certain limiting beliefs. Since the moment I had stepped aboard the tour boat, I had entered a seemingly known world made often curiously very strange by my now seeing what I had not observed before and now learning what I had not known previously. Though the various losses and consequent pain were real, particularly given the absence of the old Jamestown Bridge, the deterioration of the Fort Getty wharf, and the seeming disappearance of my Uncle’s beach house, I did not feel as devastated as I might have been because my rigid beliefs about what was and was not present to me had loosened. I was reminded now of the Gestalt psychology perspective on change: things change, not by becoming something different from what they were, but rather by revealing more and more of what they essentially and always are. Focused as I had been on deterioration and loss, which made anything I observed different from what it was, I had to be pushed by Spirit to see what else was present, to see a wider and different context, to see the other side(s) of what I supposedly knew.
In my musings, I was abruptly aware of having been guided by navigation aids, those mostly small lighthouses around the Bay, many of which were hidden to me until now, symbols of guidance signals from Spirit often ignored or simply unseen because of limiting beliefs about what is and is not. Even the fond memory of the no-longer-visible Jamestown Bridge necklaced in ethereal light offered me the opportunity to soften the hard edges of those beliefs. In addition, though the beach house was not readily visible, my Uncle’s fifty-year-old words about the peace of the rain had sounded strongly again, reminding me to perceive anew, to see what else is possible. And what about those hair-raising, human-interest stories waiting to be relished in the history of that seemingly inconsequential “thing” washed by the waves in the middle of the West Passage!
Still, my earlier journey to my childhood home and Federal Hill seemed devoid of new context, new awareness, for me. All that loss was definitely all that it was, or was it? It was not until my wife and I had retired for the night in the motel and I had picked up and scanned a new book that I had brought with me, The Source Field Investigations by David Wilcox, that I knew Spirit was guiding me also in that first journey; I would have known that earlier if only I had opened to what else was present. In his book’s third chapter on the significance of the pineal gland, Wilcox noted that many ancient spiritual traditions focused on this pea-sized structure in the center of the brain as the place where “telepathic thought transmissions and visual images are received” (p. 40) from others and from Spirit. The gland was known as the Third Eye by the ancients, which is not surprising since modern research has determined that “direct photic events may occur in the mammalian pineal gland” (p. 57), even though it seems not to be exposed to light, given its deeply embedded location.
But what caused me to sit bolt upright on my motel bed was Wilcox’s note that the word “pineal” came from the Latin pinea, which mean “pinecone.” In fact, said Wilcox, “pinecones are prominently featured in sacred art and architecture from all over the world—in an apparent homage to the pineal gland” (p. 41). The Egyptians, Romans, Mexicans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Hindus, and Meso-Americans revered the pinecone; likewise the Popes use a staff featuring a carved pinecone. Moreover, in the heart of my ancestors’ country, Italy, the Vatican embraces The Court of the Pinecone, where a gigantic, bronze pinecone is displayed.
In an instant, I realized with a tingly awe that La Pigna, the pinecone, a symbol of direct connection to Spirit, had overseen from high atop its arch the whole of the Italian
enclave where I was raised! (The arch was another bridge, like the Jamestown Bridge, that I needed to pay attention to and perceive fully to “bridge” from a limiting to an expanding belief). My driving under it was an invitation to me to view my entire experience in the stunning Light of the Divine. I began chuckling and even outright laughing at this turn of events, of perceptions. While the actual pigna had been erected over Atwells Avenue long after I had left my childhood home permanently, even that fact symbolized the gradual realization by the community, and by me, of what was and is always present and true: that Spirit is everywhere, that, as I said in a previous post, “Heaven on Earth,” All That Is is really all that is.
And then another revelation: in finally seeing what else was present, I was saying Kaddish for my childhood environment, somewhat the way Allen Ginsberg had said Kaddish in his poem by that name for his mother, Naomi. In his long prayer for his dead mother, Ginsberg incorporated parts of the original Hebrew prayer of mourning. But, unlike the institutional prayer that glorifies God but says absolutely nothing about the person who has passed, Ginsberg’s Kaddish recounts in vivid detail, not only his mother’s pastel vision of a peaceful world, but also, among other horrors, the wrenching pain his politically active, but ultimately insane mother brought to herself and her family before her death. In writing this way, Ginsberg was insisting, in my view, that the Divine is truly encountered in its fullness, not at all by looking away from this world with its displays of seeming ugliness, loss, pain and horror, but by looking unflinchingly at all of it with an open heart until its essential Divinity reveals itself.
If I am willing to see beyond the rigidity of limiting beliefs, then everything is ultimately disclosed as holy, then everything is purposeful and serves my mission here: all the obvious joy and sweetness, but also the weeds in the yard of my Atwells Avenue home, the deterioration and demolition of structures on Federal hill, the babbling and drooling horrors in my mother’s nursing home, the rust eating away at the ultimately destroyed Jamestown Bridge , the reconfiguration and even invisibility of my Uncle’s beach house, and the destruction of the Whale Rock Lighthouse. And nothing is ever really lost, not only because All That Is remembers all that is, has been, and will be, but also because in feeling deeply the apparent losses, I paradoxically preserve what is gone all the more vividly as parts of who I am. Moreover, the seeming darkness that is loss can serve ultimately as a potential illuminator of other aspects, not only of that which has undergone change, but also of us, if we choose to avoid clinging to ossified beliefs and, instead, find our hearts’ opening more and more to perceiving all as Divine. My journey is to continually rediscover those truths and so be released from the blindness that keeps me stuck in perceptions that limit the full and ecstatic flowering of the world in my consciousness.
So, Dear Reader, what resonates for you in my account of transforming my understanding of the transformation of my childhood environment?
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.