My pal Jack and I joined the lunchtime crowd at the Olympia Tea Room in (oh, how swank!) Watch Hill, Rhode Island. “This is a nostalgia tour,” I crooned while the college girl with a summer hostess job showed us to our table. “Fifty years ago, I drove the milk route from Watch Hill to Misquamicut. You got all your milk and butter and cream from me every morning at 5:30.”
“Here’s your table, folks,” she replied. “The crab cakes are good today.”
Suddenly, my story about the time I sold half-pints of chocolate milk to H. Bradford Westerfield (my poli sci professor), Robert McNamara, and Henry Ford as they came ashore from Ford’s powder blue, gargantuan yacht seemed irrelevant. 1964. Would she have even known McNamara? Ford? Does she understand that her nineteen years will turn into my 70 in two blinks of historical memory?
Still, the harbor at Watch Hill and the whaling captains’ weathered mansions high above feel serene and secure even though, in another age, the watcher in her widow’s walk often watched in vain, sent for a confirming word to the base of the hill, kept a hopeless beacon light in the rooftop cupola that now costs extra for the B and B guest of substantial means.
Better to go even further back; surely we’ll be welcome in 1954: the grand old house in Shannock where, in the hollow surrounded by the circular drive and its massive oaks, Joe Cunneen taught me baseball. Our one-man teams, my Yankees and his Bums from Brooklyn, trotted out after hundreds of picnic dinners, pitched and hit, erected imaginary runners, misremembered the score and the count, cheated mercilessly. Reach the barn on the fly: a ground rule double. Over the barn: home run.
We played within an hour after Hurricane Carol passed though the barn had been lifted and dropped six inches away.
Shannock was a mill town that wove cotton underwear and the elastics that kept your drawers from creeping up your thighs. Whiting’s Spa stood across the road from the post office/general store. Under its porch roof, Whiting’s lured you to the red chest half filled with ice. Insert your dime and you could slide a bottle of Moxie from its prison and be refreshed enough to pedal back up the hill to the Big House. Whiting’s, of course, is gone, and so is the general store. So is the train station. The tracks remain behind a fence, so you can’t try to find the penny you left on the track to be crushed by the train that Joe and Bernie took down to NYC for work.
The astonishing note no one would notice except the boy lurking inside the older man: the yellow paint on the Big House and on the smaller guest cottage where I spent the summer of miserable tonsillitis—the yellow paint is chipped, flaked, old, in serious need of replacement. When last I saw the houses, the white paint was chipped, flaked, old, in serious need of replacement.
Passing, passing, passing.
Even Wood River (1960? ’61?) where Polly and I swam well past dark and tried to smooth away each other’s cool evening’s goose bumps now bans swimming.
There must be a softer way. Time needn’t be quite so cavalier in dismissing us. Perhaps I should have been forearmed by the stop Jack and I made in New Haven on our way north. Starbucks, across the street from the Yale Art Museum, was greeting returning students. When next I see these young people, they will be veterans, and I will be on campus for my 50th reunion, an event they can scarcely imagine except as a risible historical afterthought. Now, they sit around the long Starbucks tables; they’re already reading Hegel; they’ve done the summer reading for Harold Bloom, my adviser half a century ago. They are vivacious and beautiful. Already learned and wholly naïve. They wear the same Yale tee-shirts that, before I leave town, I will buy for my granddaughters, seven and four. Maybe I’ll get one for me, too. Jack’s on his own.
We drink our coffees and visit the museum. A major event is open to us—the return of a Velazquez painting that’s been out for restoration for ten years. Though the university has owned the painting for ninety years, it was in such bad repair that its famous maker was not recognized until 2005. Now it holds an honored, ageless place in the gallery. The canvas shows a young Mary standing between her parents, Joachim and Anne. Both Mary and her mother point to a passage in a book, but neither looks at the page. Anne looks contemplative but worried; Joachim’s brow is deeply furrowed. Mary looks out at us with a calm so pronounced that her parents’ concern seems desperate.
This, then, is the moment when Joachim and Anne discover that Mary needs no education from them, no tutoring, no quizzing, no recitation. Having been born perfect, she is already infused with perfect knowledge. She is mankind’s repository of wisdom, humanity’s finest university. She is the prototype of those young people at Starbucks, sure of herself without quite understanding why. Nostalgia is not for her, just as it is not for the ever-bright undergraduates, not for the Olympia hostess, not for the vacancy at Whiting’s Spa. Ever onward, history declares!
Ah, but rising from the cold water at Wood River, warming Polly’s shivering shoulders, imagining a life, holding all that dear as if it could never fade: that was really something, wasn’t it?