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A place called Weetamoe

THE seascape everywhere has a familiar face. Ever since my youth along the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Alabama, I have been attracted to wetlands, lowland water-ways, and coastal backwaters. Mount Hope Bay in Bristol, R.I., stirred distant yearnings. But my memories were mixed with foreboding. It was an unusual experience going to live in a town where I knew absolutely no one. I had accepted an offer to teach for a semester at Roger Williams College. Ostensibly I moved there for the job, but the association of the bay with my Gulf home held a special charm. Each shore was exposed to the full force of late summer squalls. The locale fitted my temperament quite well.

Indian names, Poppasquash, Meta-comet, and Weetamoe among others, drew me to the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society. There I learned to my surprise that I had a link with the town's history.

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The farm I so admired as I drove to class belonged to John DeWolfe Howe. I had married his distant cousin. Roger Williams College sat on land that had been donated by the family. It was all intriguing.

The farm, I learned, is the site of a trove of historical drama, not all of it positive. ``Weetamoe,'' the name the farm still retains, is the Wampanoag name for an Indian princess. She was the sister-in-law of Metacomet (known as King Phillip), and she perished there. The fact that trade in African slaves sustained the farm and the community is not dry history to me. I am partially descended from African slaves and Indians. Still, in my children the three lineages could not be closer, nor could the children have less reason to regret the initially unhappy encounter of their ancestors.

I lived down the road from the farm. The full autumn moon hanging on the horizon seemed to rest there. Many times I stopped short of calling the farm with the rationale that I was neglecting some task. But my curiosity wildly struggled to overcome my inhibition. Weeks passed. I realized that I was needlessly tantalizing myself; a unique opportunity seemed to be slipping by me.

Bristol itself wasn't very important to me. I didn't expect to stay there beyond my teaching contract. I wanted to see too many other places in the world. Weetamoe, however, was on my mind more than I wanted it to be.

I had begun three projects during the fall. One was to finish picking up the late-ripened peaches on the lawn. The second was to take down two ancient and decayed maples. The last was to remove a mud coating from a rain stream that had flooded the yard.

Classes had been under way for weeks. Student gripes about the difficulty of starting projects met with my sympathy. It was my job, nonetheless, to assure them that the hardest thing about any unpleasant chore was making the first move. I might well have taken my own advice.

First I delayed removing the peaches in order to cut down the maples. Then I quickly learned that tree cutting was no job for an afternoon amateur. Tree cutters were also expensive. Picking up rotten peaches, of course, appealed to me less and less each passing day. The smartest thing, I decided, was to wait for rain.

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Removing the mud was hard, dirty work. Landscaping demanded experience, or the time to acquire it. Somewhere I had lost either my patience or my eagerness to learn something new. Gangs of bluejays, robins, and crows feasted on insects and worms which infested the peaches; squirrels, chipmunks, a cottontail, and a skunk shared the meal. One thing at least seemed to be taking care of itself without me.

The week I abandoned the yard was also the time when I finally got up enough courage to call the farm. But for several days I received no answer. After all I'd put myself through, I wasn't going to stop there. I drove up to pay a neighborly visit.

The large yellow gabled house overlooked the acres of farm stretching down to the shore. There were no cars in the circular drive. I assumed that the family was away when I entered the gravel path. Then a young man appeared from behind the house. He looked tired and apprehensive. I introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit. We shook hands. He was John Howe. He apologized for not being able to share much time with me. He said he was busy finishing up packing. I saw that the living room was nearly bare except for boxes and crates.

That very morning he had concluded the sale of the 250-year-old family property. Condominium developers from Boston had bought the homestead. The decision was a hard one, he said, but farming no longer suited him. Was this the first time, he asked, that I had visited Bristol? Yes, I replied, I rarely stepped in the same river twice. That was like him, he said, expressing a desire to see unfamiliar places.

The place would still be called ``Weetamoe,'' he said. Each of us was greatly cheered by that. The name gave value to the 50-acre site. It was the last of holdings that originally covered many miles of Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Kickemuit land. A glimpse of the shoreline ended my visit.

Perhaps few people have benefited from all of their experiences. But I've yet to see how I improved from my ignorance of anything. Had I not gone to the Howe farm I surely wouldn't have learned of its poignant end.

Weeks later Hurricane Gloria washed my domestic cares away; peaches, mud, and maples were swept into the street for the town to clear. Most of the neighborhood escaped serious damage. The farm by then had been empty for some time. The storm appeared not to have touched it at all.

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