It could be the place
Peebles Island lies at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, in upstate New York. It boasts an interesting public history (an important Indian settlement, Revolutionary fort, and original site of a patented process that pre-shrinks fabric). But it was a particular segment of its private history which drew me back, after an absence of more than 40 years, to its ancient clacking bridge, its high water tower, its nestle of manufacturing buildings, its abandoned farm and overgrown pastures.
When I was a child, living in Massachusetts, my grandfather had a modest summer home on this island. Down the pasture hill and through the farm was the Cluett, Peabody Bleachery, at which he was engineer. Every summer my mother would take her young children (accruing in numbers from one to four) and spend several weeks with her father at ''the camp.''
My grandfather was a central figure in my life, those summer weeks were particular magic, and when he died suddenly when I was 11, I felt as though part of my life's core had fallen away.
Since that time, no member of my family had ever returned to Peebles Island. When I found I would be driving alone and passing not far south of the area, I decided to stop, and try to look around - though I knew the house was long gone. By now the island had been bought by New York State as a historic site, and I wrote to the State Capitol in Albany, explaining my interest.
I received a letter back from the Bureau of Historic Sites, now located in the old Cluett, Peabody Bleachery on Peebles Island. Yes, they knew from nearby villagers about my grandfather's camp having been here. Yes, they would welcome my visit. And so I set out, carrying with me images of sun-drenched petunias growing in the front yard, of the blue and white metal washbasin hanging by the back door, of the way the kerosene lamp made an island of light as we sat around the table in the evening.
The director greeted me cordially and introduced me to the division archivist , who would drive me over the now rutted and overgrown island roads.
We got in the truck. Which road to take - the upper or the lower? I guessed the upper road.
We rumbled up the hill. The surface vegetation was all different - the pasture hills covered with six-foot growths of sumac. I couldn't even see the river. But I remembered land contours. Surely I could locate it all again.
We drove the branching road, getting out to look at sun-filtered patches of forest, at waterfalls, at groups of ducks tilting and drifting. But nothing that looked like my place, nothing that called my name.
We returned by the lower road. Nothing. ''Please - could we try again?''
We drove up the first hill once more. Slowly. ''Wait.'' A particular grove of trees, small, with low brush around it. And, on the other side of the road, a high knob of hill, with a giant tree. We had passed it before, but this time - ''Wait.''
We got out and walked into the grove. ''Look.'' A pile of cinder, or was it slag, ash? - it could have been pushed across the ground to cover the scars of an old house. ''Look!'' A lush growth of ferns - ''It could be over our well.'' A little farther - ''See this!'' - a piece of broken clay pipe.
The archivist, thoughtful, looked at my successive pieces of evidence. ''We've wondered about this area,'' he said. ''There were lilacs here.''
Lilacs! I remember bushes by the front gate. ''And look!'' I pointed - ''Aren't these lily-of-the-valley leaves?'' I remember my mother's love for lily of the valley.
I gazed around - at ferns, bushes, trees. Was it? Might this ...? ''It could be the place.''
He had found something else. ''Look - a rosebush.'' Down in the grass, a deep pink flower - one rose only, standing in green scrub, a spotlight of sunshine shafting onto it. A cultivated rose, gone wild. I remember rosebushes. Or is it only that I want to? Yet I am almost sure....
I would decide. I was sure enough. Since now it mattered only to me, I would name this as the place - claim it on the grounds of unprovability and the rights of old love. ''I'm going to believe this is the place,'' I said. ''I am content with it. Thank you for sharing my journey.''
He nodded, pleased.
I stood, savoring the place. Then we rode down the hill, to tour the Historic Preservation offices before I went on my way. The work being done here seemed fully worthy of my island and all the aura with which I'd surrounded it over the years. Even though my own historic sites lay along the weed-grown upper road, there among the residual leaves of lilac bushes and lilies of the valley, the huge tree, and broken pieces of clay.