‘Once Upon an Island’

She was born in New York City – her father was an architect there – and she lives in Norwell, Mass., but Leslie Silvia’s spiritual wellspring has always been Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor.

Her grandfather, Alex Bies, who’d emigrated from Poland in 1889, was assigned to the island’s Army post, Fort Andrews, as a tailor in 1904. “My family’s wonderful and unusual life on Peddocks Island began in 1904,” wrote Leslie’s mother, Matilda Silvia, in the latter’s memoir, “Once Upon an Island,” published in 2003.

In time, Alex bought a two-story house; moved his wife to Peddocks; transported their home by sea to the other side of the island; had children, including Matilda; and settled into a self-sufficient and satisfying island life. Running water was made available in 1907, and electricity came in 1910.Vegetables were grown in the fertile soil, and fish were caught from the family skiff to supplement the larder. Preserves were jarred for the winter. Most families had boats, not only for fishing but also for quick trips to the mainland for supplies and emergencies.

“Gardening on the hill was almost a social event,” Matilda wrote, “as each evening, after retreat and ‘chow,’ families gathered to weed and hoe, and water their plots and, naturally, to exchange gossip, explore rumors, and discuss events of the day.”

In 1928, Fort Andrews was abandoned, and, in 1934, disaster struck the family: Their home, and everything in it, was destroyed by fire. By 1936, a new structure had been built, uninsulated, without electricity, and heated with a wood stove. New rhythms of life joined the mix, and by the late 1950s, infant Leslie Silvia was making her first visits to the island. Many idyllic summers followed for a little girl with a big imagination. What Matilda called a “wonderful and unusual life” had passed easily down two generations and tempered her already tough and resilient daughter.

Today, Leslie, a visiting nurse – IV Team Home Care – is studying to be a nurse practitioner. She’s been a commercial vessel captain for 20 years, running the Hingham to Boston ferry, the Boston to Provincetown ferry, and skippering a small tug during the Deer Island project. She also owns two horses, is a certified riding instructor, and has a degree in equine management.

When asked what she sensed when she was a little girl, lying in her bed on Peddocks, she answered, “It was mostly the smells: They were different depending on what the wind was doing. When it was from the east, we knew it immediately, because it had that salty, briny, clammy smell. When it was from the southwest, you could sometimes smell the mainland, and it would be very dry and warm.”

“And,” she continued, “if it was a flat-calm night, with no wind whatever, you could hear the cars on Morrissey Boulevard. Northwest were the ones that kept us awake at night. They kept us cold, and were never gentle. You’d stay up all night and wonder if the boat would break loose.”

When southern New Englanders think of nor’easters, they conjure images of “three-day nor’easters” battering the South Shore of Boston – Hull, Scituate and Cohasset. When I asked Leslie about these intense storms, she replied, “Our side of the island was sheltered from the northeast, so it was fun. We’d head down to the beach, walk to the tip of our cove where the northeast wind blew hard, where all sorts of treasures would wash up on the beach.

“Islanders are scavengers; we saved everything. We’d look at everything that washed up to see if we could use it. In the 1970s and ’80s, Boston Harbor wasn’t cleaned up yet, so we’d find lumber, coolers, parts of piers, big timbers, barrels – we’d drag it above the high-tide mark so we could come back later to get it.”

After more than a century of rich family life on what was known as The Rock, the home was taken by eminent domain. Recalling her mother’s phrase – “my family’s wonderful and unusual life on Peddocks Island” – Leslie smiled and said, “When you live on an island, it changes you; you’ll never be the same. It made me who I am.”

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