How One Writer Rediscovered the Beauty of the Ocean State
A native Rhode Islander comes to learn family visits aren't always what they seem.
I left Rhode Island nearly three decades ago and didn’t look back. Having grown, in my own estimation, too big and worldly for the place once marketed as “the biggest little state in the union,” I had little sense of nostalgia. I was relieved to divest myself of the neighbors who knew everybody’s business, of the peculiar accent, all dropped r’s and elongated a’s, of the snickering when people asked where I lived and I replied, “I live in Harmony” — the actual name of my northwestern town, green and overgrown, its sidewalks cracked and gritty with sand coughed up by the tires of passing cars. What was once charming and easy to navigate, with one end barely more than an hour from the other, had grown predictable, close, nearly claustrophobic.
Though I’d assumed things would never change in my home state, in the time I’d spent building a career, getting married and traveling over four continents, parts of little Rhody, especially in downtown Providence, had been dramatically remodeled. I blinked again, and highways were rerouted and historic buildings renovated. Entire neighborhoods had been created by the time I had unwittingly slid into middle age and very wittingly gotten divorced, much of my extended family had died or left, and my own mother died, fitfully, in a haze of morphine and regrets, the day after Thanksgiving while I was on my way to her hospice center.
In June of last year, my father sold his house across the busy Route 44 freeway from Waterman Lake and moved to a rental cottage on the water on Warwick Neck. I came out from upstate New York with my new husband, Floren, to visit. The drive seemed composed of highway through the least scenic stretches of the state, its multitude of construction zones outlined with bright orange cones tipped in white reflective tape. Nearing the three-hour mark, we were spat off the highway and into the middle of Warwick’s commercial center. I rolled up my window against the ever-present smell of exhaust fumes.
A few turns later onto Warwick Neck Avenue, the landscape transformed. Commercial buildings were swapped for neat saltboxes and Cape Cods wrapped in cedar shake, their windows and porches lined with rectangular planters of bright impatiens. As with all coastal areas, the shoreline boasted the largest homes, like something out of a Nancy Meyers movie with a title like She’s Gonna Be Alright. Even the lawns seemed trimmed to a matching two inches. I rolled down my window and took a breath.
The GPS routed us onto Paine Street, a dead end with a fabulously out-of-place mini mansion at the tip and a hodgepodge of smaller houses along the remainder. Most were built as summer beach cottages in the 1960s and 1970s. Though they’ve been added on to and winterized over the years, the people who’d had the foresight to purchase land when real estate was cheap weren’t exactly Vanderbilts — they and other bluebloods built their swishy estates on the shores of Newport — and the homes have remained stubbornly of another era.
My father’s rental was no exception. Between its unusual orientation, with its shortest dimension facing streetward, and its mishmash of wood paneling, carpets and Formica, it probably hadn’t seen an update since I was in diapers. But Dad was besotted. He showed off each room, weaving through the mess of boxes and plastic storage bins, the accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of things we never use and never want until it’s time to downsize.
In the kitchen, a large window opened onto an inlet of Greenwich Bay, a mix of small cabins, large estates and tranquil marinas lining both sides of the shore. The tide lapped against the hulls of moored boats painted the color of hardened snow. A trio of dragonflies so large I nearly mistook them for hummingbirds flitted by the window before alighting on a patch of black-eyed Susans. The hull of a trawler quietly sliced through the water just offshore. It was the antithesis of my parents’ old house, where the sound of traffic slowed only during a snowstorm.
We helped Dad load empty storage bins into the attic. We hung art — “I just want to add some color,” said my father, who, in the fifty years I’ve known him, has rarely paid attention to the color of anything, let alone shown a fondness for brightly painted fish and sea critters. We discussed the placement of extra shelves and cabinets. We dawdled by that water-view window.
Ready for lunch, Floren cleared his throat and tapped his wrist. We piled into Dad’s car and made the four-mile drive to Oakland Beach.
This particular, hurricane-battered shoreline has become the redheaded stepchild of Rhode Island beaches, the place to visit only when more popular shores are too crowded, or for lesser-trafficked kayaking coves. Or for hearty coastal snacks at the small cluster of restaurants along Oakland Beach Avenue, including Top of the Bay, housed in the old governor’s residence. Across the way, we found a table at Iggy’s and ordered more food than we needed — Manhattan clam chowder, a battered cod sandwich and lobster rolls, served Maine style, with chunks of claw and tail meat in a cold mayonnaise sauce. Plus the food that comes to mind first when I think of Rhode Island: clam cakes. A handful of other coastal states serve the seafood fritters, but the ones I grew up with — golden brown and crunchy on the outside, tender and mildly sweet on the inside, with chewy bites of clam — are the originals.
Overfull, we drove to Rocky Point State Park to walk off lunch. When I was a kid, Rocky Point, with roots in the 1840s, still retained its amusement park vestiges. Its midway hosted classic carnival games, concerts and stands selling serotonin-boosting junk foods like wispy cotton candy in rainbow pastels, crisp-chewy doughboys dusted with powdered sugar that stuck to your fingers in a slick of fry grease, and hot dogs with casings that audibly snapped when bitten.
By the time I left the state in my mid-twenties, however, it was consigned to the dusty reaches of memory. The amusement park succumbed to financial mismanagement and quietly closed in 1995. Within half a decade, weeds, graffiti and other signs of its elegiac decay became the photographic fodder of urban explorers.
In 2008, the state and the city of Warwick purchased the land and auctioned off the park’s more popular rides. The rest was demolished in the cold maws of mechanical cranes.
A few years later, the state refashioned the property into a park with walking and biking trails. Over its 120 acres, only a couple recognizable pieces of the Rocky Point I knew still stand, the sixty-foot-tall arch and a pair of hulking blue steel turnarounds for the Skyliner, essentially a chair lift that used to glide riders over the park.
My feet touched down on the park green to a disorienting rush of memories. A ride operator seating skinny preteen me on the inner side of the psychedelic-themed Musik Express car, so I wouldn’t be whipped against the metal frame by centrifugal force. Child me in the House of Horrors, giddily screeching at the rubber hands dangling from the ceiling, and the fiberglass boogeyman that snapped into view, as if affixed to garden rakes. College-age me getting motion-sick on the Enterprise, a sort of upside-down Ferris wheel on speed, then waiting for the nausea to pass before getting in line again.
Tired from the heat, Dad rested on a park bench overlooking the bay, three bridges — to Newport, Bristol and Jamestown — visible through the haze. Floren and I continued on to Rocky Point’s new fishing pier and walked out over the water, raising our voices above the rushing of tide against rock. We picked our way down the opposite side to a sunny beach I never knew existed. I looked out, trying to reconcile the mix of memory and discovery.
We rode home, a Styrofoam quart container of Del’s frozen lemonade wedged between my feet on the car floor. Back at Dad’s, we spooned the slushy mix and its bits of sour lemon peel into highball glasses, leaving two fingers of space at the top. My father filled them with vodka and we took the glasses out to the waterfront patio.
We talked and drank, letting the cold sugar slide down our throats. I noted to myself, not for the first time, Dad’s easiness. Our relationship had been so fraught at times that the difference was jarring. Whether because he’s happier in this new place, away from the reminders of illness and mortality, or because age has dulled the edges for us both, something had shifted, morphed, like a tadpole finding its legs.
With sunlight waning, Floren and I walked the neighborhood. We passed houses with small flower gardens densely planted with vivid bee balm and daylilies, their patios arranged with red Adirondack chairs or elegant curved iron bistro sets. Colorful painted wooden buoys strung on fraying ropes of alternating lengths decorated the sides of more than one shed. A copper scarecrow weathervane turned lazily, pointing one accusatory finger at me, then off into the distance.
The lamps were just starting to come on at Harbor Lights Marina and Pool Club. Along the docks, multimillion-dollar yachts sat alongside modest-by-comparison $50,000 cabin cruisers, gently bumping against one another in the quiet squeak of vinyl fenders. Floren and I sat on an elevated grassy area surrounded by blue hydrangeas and capped by a teak arbor, a popular spot for weddings and engagement photos. We watched in the last of the light as an egret, its pale feathers wraithlike against the coming dark, dipped its beak into the shallows.
A few weeks later, my father called me. “You wouldn’t believe all the beaches past Rocky Point,” he said. “You can see them from the boat. At least three I didn’t even know about.” “Boat,” I echoed. “What boat?”
“The one I bought,” he said matter-of-factly.
I rolled my eyes and shot my sister, Jill, a text: He bought a damn boat.
??? she returned. The first time he has a nest egg . . .
At my silence, he added, “Don’t worry. I bought it used.”