It wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped. In fact, we were freezing. Back in January, when the director of the Block Island Historical Society had been in touch with me, offering me a week’s work in April, on an island I knew to be, well, somewhere vaguely south
of us, drifts of snow three feet high had bordered the sidewalks and buried the gardens and yards of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live with my five-year-old son, Henry. Seven more inches had accumulated during the night, temporarily beautifying the filthy piles of ice, sand, and salt that lined the streets.
As I’d gazed out the window of our second-floor apartment and down at the fluffy white mounds I would soon be shoveling, I didn’t go so far as to dream of tropical drinks with little umbrellas or sunblock scented like Polynesian fruit. But I sure didn’t imagine that come the last week in April, identified on Henry’s school calendar as “spring vacation,” my son and I would be riding the Block Island ferry wearing mittens and scarves and three or four layers under our puffy down jackets.
School had been canceled that day in January, leaving me with a familiar dilemma: I could be a great mom or a not-so-great mom. A great mom would seize the moment and take her child sledding at Fresh Pond, then cheerfully agree to host whomever he wanted to ask back to the house for cocoa and popcorn and grilled cheeses, and a serenely supervised afternoon filled with board games and fort building and tent-tunnel making, using sheets and blankets and all the tables and chairs.
The trouble was, I had work to do, and as a freelance bookbinder working from home, I couldn’t call in sick or take a
personal day. Sure, I could just not work,
but our financial cushion, never plump in the flushest of times, had recently been getting flatter and flatter.
I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t feel like I was bleeding money, but I hadn’t actually had time to sit down and go through all
the bills and receipts. And what was the point of that, anyway? It wouldn’t change the simple reality: I was obviously earning too little and spending too much.
Many single mothers wouldn’t be happy with the agreement I have with Henry’s father, but it suits me just fine. Declan is a Boston cop—a detective, to be precise—and by any measure, a first-class dad. He also happens to be married to someone else: Kelly, from whom he was separated when he and I had our little . . . thing. They ended up getting back together. I ended up having Henry. Then Dec and Kelly had two girls of their own, Delia and Nell, whom I adore, and with whom Henry now spends lots of time on weekends and vacations. It’s not the simplest of family arrangements, but it’s ours, and it works.
Dec and I had the talk about money before I even took Henry home from the hospital, when we were both overwhelmed and completely in shock. At that moment, he would probably have said yes to anything. But I have my pride. I’m healthy, hardheaded, and college educated. No way did I want to get a check every week. If he could just relieve me of the responsibility for our son’s health insurance and his college education, I told him, I was sure I could handle everything else.
And I have.
But the call from Block Island felt like manna from heaven. The man from the Historical Society, who identified himself
as Caleb Wilder, had gotten my name from a bookbinder with whom I’d worked the previous fall, Sylvia Cremaldi. The Society had received a modest grant.
“What kind of grant?” I’d asked.
“To create a new collection, based on a set of historical papers.”
“What kind of papers?”
“They have to do with something that happened here about a hundred years ago, a collision at sea.”
“Between a steamship and a schooner,” he continued. “The Larchmont,
the steamer, was making an overnight trip from Providence to New York City in February 1907. There’s disagreement about how many people were aboard—the passenger manifest went down with the ship—but the number was somewhere around a hundred and fifty. She was hit by a schooner, the Harry Knowlton,
and sank in fifteen minutes.”
“Wow! What happened to all the people?”
“A lot of them went down with the ship. They were asleep in their berths when the crash happened. The ones who made it up to the deck weren’t much better off: the boat was sinking, they were in the middle of a blizzard, and the seas were vicious. Most of the folks who got into the lifeboats were in their nightclothes, so even if their boats didn’t capsize, they froze to death.”
“That’s terrible. Did anyone survive?”
“Nineteen people. Though many were never the same.”
“And how does this—what does this have to do with Block Island?”
sank just a few miles from here. A couple of the lifeboats reached us by morning, and the island became the center of the search-and-rescue mission. But there weren’t many people to rescue. A few of the bodies washed up on shore the next day, and fishing boats picked up twenty or so more, but the tide carried most of the victims out to sea. All in all, it was a fairly big event for a fairly small island.”
Caleb went on to describe the nature and scale of the project and the salary they were able to offer me, a sum that struck me as more than fair. But he, or someone else, must have thought the pot needed sweetening, given that they were under a very tight deadline to get the work completed. For reasons he didn’t explain, the money would not be available until April first, the volumes needed to be bound, and a new website, which someone else was going to design and launch, needed to be up and running by sometime this summer. So I was going to be housed free of charge at a Victorian inn that was under new ownership, a place right on the water called the Grand View Hotel.
Meals were included. And all expenses.
“It sounds fabulous,” I said. “I’d love to do it.”
“Terrific!” cried Caleb. “Wonderful! Now if I could just get some—”
“But you see,” I added, interrupting. “It’s a little hard for me to travel. I have a son who’s five. It’s just the two of us.”
“Could you bring him?” asked Caleb.
“Well, I could, but I wouldn’t get much work done.”
Caleb laughed. “I know the feeling. My daughters are eight and six. Does he have a spring vacation?”
“I think so,” I said, “but I’m not sure which week.”
“If he’s on vacation the same week our kids are, the Block Island School runs a full- day drama camp—from nine to
“Nope. They do a musical every year. I hear this year it’s Grease
“He’d love it!”
So that’s how, on a Saturday in April, Henry and I happened to be making a bone-chilling journey across Block Island Sound. We’d been warmer that day back in January, when, entirely pleased with myself for coming up with eight thousand dollars’ worth of work (well, all right, saying yes to
eight thousand dollars’ worth of work), I blew off the day and took Henry sledding. We brought a pack of people home with us, kids and parents, ten or eleven in all. We got pizzas and movies and beer for the grownups, and it was great, even if it did take me three days to get the apartment back to normal.
So in the end, at least that day, I got to be a pretty fair mom. So much of it depends on luck.
Excerpted from The Ice Cradle by Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.