It has been ten years of mounting loss: my mother, father, marriage, favored Aunts and Uncles with children of their own, and finally, the dearest bachelor Uncle who belonged mostly to me. The cumulative weight of it all stole my footing, left me imbalanced and tired.
The first thing I did once Uncle Bobby took his leave was make an appointment with the sea: to think, to write, to breathe.
As I write this, I glance at the Horizon of Napatree Point, on the southeastern most tip of Rhode Island. I hear fog horns, and the clang of ship bells. The tide is low and so the waves do not pound, but rather lap rhythmically. I haven’t breathed this easily in ten years.
I was plucked from a Catholic Charities orphanage in Saint Paul, Minnesota at six months old. Louise and Bill Toole became my parents and brought me home to Rhode Island; the smallest of states which boasts a remarkable 400 miles of coastline.
Serendipity and the sea began for me at a very young age.
My grandparents had a home in Weekapaug, a tiny hamlet of Westerly, just north of Watch Hill. I didn’t know, when I was a girl, what a privilege it was to be by the sea.
Summers vacations were spent running up, down and around my grandparents seven-bedroom, clapboard shingled house on the shore at Weekapaug. It had a long front stairway which led to a sprawling porch a few hundred yards from the ocean. On a clear day, you could see Montauk Point.
My days began at the beach and ended tucked in, sunburned and sleepy in a tiny trundle bed, studying the sea glass I collected after dinner from the stretch of rocky shore in front of the house. Blue, clear, dark olive green, turquoise, and brown. I would roll the smooth, opaque treasures in my tanned fingers as I drifted off to sleep enveloped in crisp, clean white sheets. The sound of waves was like a gentle lullaby.
That family home was sold sixteen years ago, forced by the complications of an aging generation and the next dispersed with their own growing families. The concept of a shared “family” vacation home became impractical. The sale of High Loft was heartbreaking.
I drove by that beautiful place last week, like some Peeping Tom not wanting to be seen, but wanting to see how our home weathered the last sixteen years. I had done this drive of reminiscence before, but never when the new owners were home. Sure enough, a gentleman walked down the steps to see my stopped car and I felt “caught”. Rather than move along, I took a chance and rolled down the window.
“Hello, I’m Ellen Toole”.
It took him but a moment to make the connection and he grinned,
“Well, hello there! Would you like to come in and see the place?”
Frank and Clare Toole had owned that marvelous home since the early 1950’s. Their name had not been forgotten.
I parked and walked up those wonderful stairs, as I had so many times, and saw that the home’s name was still in place: “High Loft”. Rather than go right into the house, I walked immediately to the magnificent deck and was amazed to see that the green and brown wicker rocking chairs so familiar to me had been re-caned to perfection, and the wrought iron furniture of my childhood was still in place. In the center of the deck remained a vertical beam, which serves as the center hold of a circular table, painted hunter green still.
I could almost hear the chatter and laughter of so many summer nights spent on that deck. In my mind’s eye, I pictured my imposing grandmother in a colorful shift dress, and my elegant, sweet grandfather in a seersucker shirt, his wire-framed glasses suggesting dignity. My mother’s laugh flooded my senses and I could almost see my dad, sipping a martini on the deck of the home he loved the most.
Adults with proper cocktails and the requisite cheese and crackers around 5 p.m. Cocktail hour was a signal to the kids that dinner would soon follow.
As well, the presence of Uncle Bobby was sharp. He would stop there on occasion for a cocktail before heading back to Providence after a beach day in Misquamicut. Uncle Bobby was an in-law, not a Toole. But Grandma Barry, Aunt Rita, and he were always welcome and memorable visitors to High Loft. The Barry’s and Toole’s were a model of melded families.
I entered the house from the back screen door, my unexpected host pleased to hear my rambling narrative of memories. Each room brought a smile to me, so much of the home completely unchanged in the intervening years. It was purchased “as is”, and so the kitchen and pantry were a special delight.
I spied an old-fashioned, red-trimmed glass maple syrup server often used for Saturday morning breakfast, and the dishes, with a soft pink floral design, remained unaged. Glasses, shelves of them, were the same as I remembered.
We worked our way upstairs, by the tiniest lavette I’d ever known tucked on the first landing, and then upstairs to the bedrooms which were frozen in time. The same beds, bureaus, mirrors and chairs, refreshed with new coats of paint. While in my time I’d slept in each room but the master, I hastened to my favorite: the first bedroom on the left.
That room had two things going for it: a lethally soft mattress which enfolded even the slightest body and a door which led to a porch. As children, my brother, various cousins and I would sneak from that porch and climb the shingled roof which hung over the deck. From that perch the view of the Atlantic Ocean was unparalleled and during cocktail hour you could safely eavesdrop on all adult conversation. Climbing was taboo, but we rarely got caught. If we did, it was likely that my dear dad would be sent up to retrieve us. He would, with a wink and a smile. It was just the sort of shenanigans that tickled him.
I’m not the first to revisit a childhood home and won’t be the last. Regardless of any reality I’m missing, my childhood memories at High Loft are sacred.
The current owner was armed with questions about our history there. I answered as best I could, but have no idea of my accuracy. I’m a curator of family history, but my memories have a gauzy film; a soft lens which knows the soul of the place better than its bones.
I was called to task recently by an old someone I used to know that one of my innumerable flaws includes being “privileged”.
I would guess they’re right: an orphaned child from Saint Paul, Minnesota finds her way to a loving family with a magnificent summer home by the sea?
Privileged seems the right word. In my world privileged equals blessed.
As I walked to the car, the owner asked me to wait a moment and he raced up the steps to return with a piece of stationary featuring a pencil sketch of High Loft. The sketch was done by my Aunt Jeanne in 1990 and was somehow left behind. He handed it to me as a gift. He was the perfect host.
I wasn’t in my old home more than thirty minutes, but I left warmed by the grace of my host and the sureness I have that High Loft is well loved and its’ history, honored.
My visit was an unexpected gift; a great privilege.