Sep 21 2011
Regular readers of this blog (hello Mother) are probably a little tired of the old photograph that runs along the skyline of the homepage. It’s a scan of a wide panoramic black and white photo I found in a family collection of daguerreotypes and assorted old scenes of Cotuit. The scene is the upper end of Cotuit Bay, facing east towards Osterville’s Grand Island, over Old Shore Road, near what is known today as Ropes Beach. I think it was taken around 1910. Old Shore Road is unpaved, probably just two bright white tracks of crushed oyster shells, and the pier at the far right of the scene, with a small shack on the end, is where an ice cream parlor once operated. The stubs of the ice cream dock’s wooden pilings still stick out of the mud today at low tide, the ends worn down to nubs.
This is a very familiar view to me. Probably the most Proustian view in my life. I took swimming lessons on the beach at the far left, sailing lessons a little further down at the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club. A video transcription of an old 16 mm home movie exists of a two-year old version of me, in a sagging cloth diaper, toddling in the mud. The family has always moored its boats in this part of the harbor. At the top left corner, where the beach and bluff ends is Handy’s Point — where my oldest Cotuit ancestors, the Handys, once lived and built ships in the 18th and 19th century. I drive past this view four times a day on average. In the winter I can see a blue heron wading on the boat ramp in my headlights. This is my cove.
Every afternoon, around 3, when I was working from home, the dogs would annoy me to take them for a quick walk down the hill and out to Handy’s Point. The three of us would do this nearly every day that we could from October through April, even in blowing snow storms (especially in blowing snow storms), me impatient with them pissing on every phone pole and tree alongside Old Shore Road, tugging at their leashes and reminding them that the sooner we got the beach, the sooner the leashes would get unclipped and they could run free and collect some new ticks in the beach grass.
The highpoint of the walk, the one point of dramatic tension, was the crossing of Mister Rickel’s Marsh Bridge. Mister Rickel is David Rickel, a good friend, a great carpenter/electrician/plumber and fellow lover of Gator Hammock hot sauce from Felda, Florida. Some ten or fifteen years ago David decided to build a trim little planked arched bridge over the natural spring that flows out from underneath Old Shore Road into the harbor. He then fenced off the marsh with posts and ropes, erecting a little sign that says “Fresh Water Spring.” By doing so he cleared the area of dinghy’s and Sunfishes and other grass-killing boats and the result has been a nice rebirth of the spring.
The bridge has a graceful arch, is founded on some stout posts that rest atop the sand, and gains its strength and arc from a stack of laminated stringers crossed with unpainted planks. The dramatic part was getting two leashed dogs and myself over the bridge without knocking one or both or all of us into the sluggish stream below. The late terrier Ned was fond of taking a very large, very public roadside dump before venturing across — the reason I always stuffed a blue New York Times delivery bag in my pocket before departing the house — I guess he was probably jettisoning ballast before making the traverse, but the foot of the Rickel Marsh Bridge was his preferred toilet and where I got to get all disgusting with a blue bag over my hand.
During the recent almost-Hurricane Irene the bridge washed away and was in danger of being crushed beneath an errant Grady-White sports fishing boat that wound up on the tarmac of Old Shore Road. The bridge floated away and became wedged beneath the chine of the wreck where I couldn’t tug it free. The bystanders seemed surprised I would expend so much vigor on a long weathered piece of wood instead of trying to push off 10,000 pounds of run-away Fiberglas — but the bridge was the Mostar Bridge of Cotuit and had to be saved at all costs.
Eventually Old Shore Road recovered from the storm. Huge cranes lifted big boats off the beach and the bridge destroying Grady-White was returned to the harbor. But the bridge lay a bit tattered next to a driveway, waiting for reconstruction.
As Ned took ill and began to decline, I resolved to give him one last beach walk, but alas, he was too weak to make that trek and we had to content ourselves with one final stroll around the Town Dock (his second favorite place) where he took one last embarrassing poop in front of everyone and then rolled in a puddle of seagull shit for old times sake. Three days later he passed away, and every time I drove down Old Shore Road past the missing bridge I felt a twinge of nostalgic regret that he didn’t get to trundle over the bridge one last time.
Then, last weekend, there was Mister Rickel, proudly standing next to the restored bridge. I rolled down the car window and hailed him with a “It’s back!” and he replied with “I keep reading that Internet thing and there hasn’t been anything new to read for while” — a subtle reminder that I’ve been slacking off in blog matters.
On Monday of this week, the last Monday of the summer, under turbulent skies with a scudding northeast wind that presaged the Fall, I went for a walk with Ned’s partner in beach walks, the diminutive tyrant known as Esme. She took her time sniffing and peeing all the way down the hill and I thought for a second she might find one last whiff of her couch partner. We turned the curve at the foot of the hill and there was the bridge.
I took a picture for old time’s sake and over we went, the arch slightly flexing under my weight.
It was a sad walk out to Handy’s Point. It was the first of the beachwalk season (dogs aren’t permitted on the beaches between May 15 and Sept. 15) and our first without Ned snuffling in the grass and looking for dead fish and spider crabs to roll in. A murder of crows sat portentiously in a silver locust tree at the base of the bluff. The Lowell’s dock, conveniently dismantled by Irene, was neatly stacked for the winter above the high tide line, the stink of the barnacles on the pilings attracting yellow jackets.
I plodded along in the sand, nervous that the little dog would get picked off by a coyote, stepping over the little rivulets of freshwater that scrawled over the sand from the springs under the bluffs, grateful to be barefoot.
At Handy’s Point — the turnaround point — I stopped to watch a blue crab swim sideways in Little River. Across the four-foot span of the stream was the former home of my great-great-grandmother, Florentine Handy Chatfield. Now rebuilt and remodeled to the point that it looks like a wooden wedding cake, the house sits on a slight rise above the harbor. It became the summer home of Mark DeWolfe Howe, a Boston Brahmin man of letters, and was, in its time, a literary retreat of sorts for the likes of William and Henry James. My family may curse the decision of Florentine to abandon Handy’s Point and the waterfront, but evidently she felt very abandoned and stranded there in the Little River district of Cotuit during the hard winters when her husband, Captain Thomas Chatfield, was off chasing whales with her brother Bethuel in the Okhost Sea off the coast of Siberia.
While Little River is indeed little, a woman with young children couldn’t be expected to ford it in the winter to make it into the village of Cotuitport for provisions. The only other way is to walk the long way around on the Old Post Road past Mosswood Cemetery and then up Putnam Avenue. So Florentine moved the family right to the center of the village, across from the village green to the house where I live today.
My great-great-grandfather was perturbed to return from his last whaling voyage to find the family had moved.
“When I left home, and the last time I heard from home, the family lived at Little River, and when we reached the road leading to that part of the village William Jones drove past. It was the first time I ever saw him. I called his attention to that fact, but he only laughed and said he knew what he was about, that my family did not live at Little River. When he stopped at the gate (right here) [854 Main St., ed.] it was the first time I knew that we had abandoned the old home for all time. I was not any too well pleased with the change. I liked Little River, and I felt strange up here. I had made up mind that after twelve years steadily in the same ship I would spend one year at home before I sought employment again: but everything had changed before the year was out. The election in the fall of 1860 resulted in the choice of Mr Lincoln as President, and brought the Republican party pledged to oppose the extension of slavery, into power.”
Little River was once bridged, there are stubs of old pilings on either bank. I must ask the local historian Jim Gould who lives on the Cotuit side of the stream if he knows when the bridge existed and where the path would have gone.
I stood and admired the marsh and vacant bay for a while, all too conscious that this was the usual point in the walk when I would yell at Ned to get the f%&k out of the water in the middle of February. He liked to wade — never swim — like a water buffalo, his coarse salt-and-pepper coat floating up around him and then climb out to throw himself, face first, in the sand and roll and roll and roll, wriggling on his back, collecting as much sand, seaweed, and stink that he could for the walk back home, into the eye-watering wind, and then back over his bridge and finally home for an afternoon in front of the fire, the little dog lying like a parasite on his back for warmth.