From the article... "I've driven by it for 35 years, my wife and I, and it's a personal dream come true."
As a child, did you ride your bike through there with your friends? Did you swim by there? Did you stash the sailboat you found that time and sail from there 'til someone else found it? Did you dream of keeping horses there? (Very small horses, but I was 8.)
My family moved to Tiverton RI, two houses down from The Convent in, I think, 1970. It was easy to see why the Narragansetts had named the area Nannaquaket (which means "the most beautiful spot in the world") long before it became The Old Church Estate. We thought that meant it was owned by The Church, not named for the owner, Captain Nathaniel Boomer Church. "Of the schooner Exile out of New London." I have no idea if that part's true. (That was the first name I found in Starbuck's way back when, and it always stuck. Damned romantic-in-training.)
My first memory of The Convent is the nuns. They were the Holy Union Sisters who used the place as a Summer retreat. You could see them walking among the wild lilies along the path. The nuns were all cheery yet, at the same time, pensive, especially to a kid on a brand new 5-speed. I'd stop, say 'hello.' They were nice neighbors.
Come Fall, there was always somebody there watching that beautiful patch of nature, even if you didn't see them. There was a strong solid solemnity there that wasn't like church or catechism class. It was peaceful, "spiritual." Even as kids, our re-enactments of James Fennimore Cooper's best pioneer and Indian fights took on a reverential, timeless air. Along with the whoops, "ka-chows" and skinned knees.
That place is the reason why history is so important to me. You couldn't help but smell it and feel it and run through it and lay down in its grass and study its architecture and meet its residents, people or flora or fauna, past or present, real or imagined. A child's natural curiosity about his world is magnified a hundred times when there's a well cared-for but seemingly-abandoned historical landmark in his neighborhood. The questions just kept coming, and the mysteries, so often waved away by the adults, became fodder for trips to the library, questions for the doddering old neighbors. And moments like :
- The time, around the Bicentennial, when H.M.S. Rose dropped anchor for a few days in the Sakonnet, just off one of the concrete wharves that thrust the estate into the river. To see that bright yellow strake of the gundeck, the masts surrounded by our ubiquitous neighborhood green, the old manse belonging to -- we thought -- a wealthy whaling captain... Years later, I would be a part of the Rose family, first as coordinator/manager of a production of Pinafore on board and then as crew...
- The time I found a "Hello My Name Is" tag that said "Sr. Mary Lou Simcoe." A few years later, I was introduced to Sister Mary Lou when she became my homeroom teacher and English teacher. And a great influence. She's communications director for the Holy Union Sisters and works with the U.N. now, it is said...
- There was a clump of vegetation down by the wharf, a pile of cuttings and discarded branches that were left there by a groundskeeper. (I say groundskeeper, but we knew most of the groundswork was done by the nuns. And they kept the place gorgeous.) Inside the pile, however, someone had carved a small chamber where we found a mysterious bag filled with trading cards. I went away to school and someone burned the pile. The charred spot lasted quite a while.
- Coming back from college, on breaks or for the Summer, I would drive along Main Road and see this sight. That old estate always meant I was a minute from home. It was home. No matter how much that semester had challenged me. No matter how much I didn't get along with that particular theology prof. No matter what relationship had crashed and burned. No matter what concert/play/paper/edition didn't turn out exactly as I'd wished. I'd see that big white house and know I was only a few steps to my own bed, my own dog, and my own basketball. My tenuous lease on childhood joy would be renewed as soon as I mowed my lawn, climbed to the treehouse, rode my bike through The Convent.
- Of course, I dreamed of one day owning The Convent and turning it into a seaside retreat for cute celebrities, like Diane Lane. (Yes. Even back then.). Plenty of room for cool people and their cars, with a fully-stocked bar and pantry. I even had plans for a recording studio all drawn up. On the back of a napkin. Where all important things begin.
I was at a party the other day on a 22-acre estate in South Dartmouth. It has one house, a barn, a pool, gardens, and some outbuildings. Comfortable enough for the owners, some guests. I can't imagine splitting that place up into 5 lots. Unless I wanted to get my $5 million back in a hurry. Because that's what developers do. A friend, also a former Tivertonian, who was a few glasses ahead of me, had nothing nice to say. "He'll pull down that magnificent stone wall [that protected the estate from reality], tear down that exquisite building and put up some cookie-cutter eco-unsound McMansions and send away the fishermen. And nobody will want to fish there anyway, since they'll have to start fertilizing their foreign species lawns with chemicals that will run off, and they'll plant invasive imported groundcovers that will choke out the native plants and flowers, and every time someone flushes --and you will hear them! -- it'll send another bloom of some e.coli or other into Nanaquaket." But that's development, I answered ironically. It is some men's destiny. Although I want to see how he weasels his way around the nuns' "five building restriction" when garages are suggested.
I remember this new owner saying, when he had failed to convince Tiverton to allow him to drop a BigBoxPowerCenterKohl'sDepot into its pristine woods, "Whaddaya want, trees and rocks?"
Yeah, I do.