So Block Island

Island Life, One Column at a Time

Martha Ball has been sharing her stories of life on Block Island for 25 years

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Martha Ball has a way with memories, words and images as faint as April sun steaming rain off cupped cedar shingles or as strong as those comforting kitchen smells of a Roll Call dinner. For 25 years, her words have graced Block Island’s weekly newspaper, balancing local news, impassioned editorials and year-round pleas for seasonal housing. Since publisher Peter Wood first printed a story by Martha about a simple tractor and realized how special her writing was, her words have remained a constant on an island that continues to change.

Martha has island roots reaching back to the 1660s, when her ancestors left Massachusetts to farm and fish along with a handful of settlers. Perhaps it is that sweeping historical perspective on an island once forested with maples and oaks, without walls to divide and proclaim possession, that is now bustling with travellers and three-night visitors into the broad-shoulder season which affords Martha such a lovely view of Block Island.

As is common with islanders, Martha remains devoted to the community and her church. Her personal history is rich with decades of service to boards, commissions, conservancies, volunteer groups and, for more than twelve years, the Town Council. Politics, save for the rarest occasions, finds no home in her column; the topic can be divisive and contentious, often without intention. Observations from her family home on Mansion Road are uniting, if anything.

“Here, in this town where the ultimate arbitrator of time is the boat schedule, we live by the quirks of the calendar,” Martha writes. In a style reminiscent of Joseph Mitchell, she uncovers details of the everyday, not coloring them for our entertainment but brushing them with light to help us understand. While a cascade of visitors arrive each summer, it’s Martha who focuses for us on what’s beneath a temporary varnish of crowded mooring fields and cartways. She sees through the windows of her home that overlooks the low hills of Mansion Beach, over a sweep of blackberries crowding and scratching the sides of Snake Hole Road, and the windows of her car, endlessly smudged with the nose prints of Autumn, her
beloved dog.

There are facts and figures attached to every landmark and generation; only those who dig deeper into the spirit of a place come to understand its history and significance. Martha’s readers absorb both the literal and the lovely, the truth of the magic of some frozen kettle pond or the perfect place to stop and see how December light finds a line of windows, giving back a moment in time like a faraway blaze. Martha’s words give images permanence, printed for us to discover and rediscover, to help us remember what we may have or should have seen.

From her family’s home, Martha muses about muskrats, bridges, crooked wooden telephone poles and “winter-empty” ponds. She has entertained, enlightened, taught and reminded her loyal readers about how special, even in its most simple features, the island remains.

For 25 years, Martha has led us down honeysuckle paths with her lovely literary images, her walks and talks through the square footage of Water Street, the West Side and Cooneymus, through wandering reminiscences and her presence of mind. All of this is what makes Martha Ball so valuable.