Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Ram’s Head reverie

Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.

— Walt Disney

News of the sale of the Ram’s Head Inn has brought me to my childhood, and beyond.

The way I heard it, innkeeper Joan Covey built her dream, The Ram’s Head Inn, in 1929, and that dream struggled through the Depression, changes in ownership and a variety of different managers for the next two and a half decades.

In the mid-1950s, once a summer, my father would take us and whichever weekend houseguest he could corral, to The Inn. To me, at 9 or 10, the drive from our summer house in Silver Beach to Ram Island seemed interminable. The locations were about as far away from one another as you could get and still be on the Island — a 15-minute drive at most, but, in kid-time, endless.

On the upside, a fog of mystery always seemed to thicken as we approached Big Ram. In fact, I never remember going there when it was sunny. It now occurs to me that my father must literally have saved this particular excursion for a rainy day.

The Inn would rear up suddenly out of the mist, a rambling three-story natural-shingled building staring down on us as my father’s station wagon climbed the hill and curved to the right into the parking area. Inside it didn’t disappoint (assuming you were a child who enjoyed the slightly creepy). Two big, dark rooms stretched off from either side of the entry hall. The one to the left was cavernous, its population of dimly lit tables disappearing into the gloom at the far end. The room to the right of the entry was also large, the long bar against one wall guarded by a row of empty stools.

It seems to me that there was never anyone else around but us and the bartender, and yet there was a sense of another presence, a feeling that caused me to glance over my shoulder even as we kids sat, perched high up on those stools, sipping our Shirley Temples. Decidedly creepy but somehow benign. Whatever accounted for that unseen presence, the last thing that 10-year-old me was thinking as she sat, legs swinging, was that one day her kid brother, the pesky 5-year-old on the stool beside her, would someday own and operate that very place.   

Like those calendar pages flying by in old movies, fast-forward a quarter century later, 1981, to a birthday blow-out weekend at The Inn, in honor of that same kid brother who was now turning 30.  It’s my 10-year old daughter, legs dangling from a bar stool, who’s sipping on her Shirley Temple, in the same room, at the same bar, although my brother and his wife, the new owners, had swung it around to occupy the opposite wall. This time, however, the room is light-struck with golden September sunshine playing off the gleaming wood floors and fresh white paint.

My 7-year-old darts happily in and out of the French doors from the bar to the flagstone terrace and the lush sweep of lawn beyond. Party guests are strolling together or sitting in amiable congregations on the Adirondack chairs, the air humming with conversations and sudden flares of laughter. The Inn’s transformation is like a dream — positively cinematic — like that scene in the movie when the dowdy girl with the horn rims changes her dress and takes off her glasses revealing what the audience already knows: she’s a beauty.

Though somehow, wisps of mystery still remain, eddying in, around and through the rooms, the laughter and the early autumn light. Timeless. By the next summer I’ve moved myself, my kids and my cats out to Shelter Island to live full time.

For the next four decades The Inn became a centerpiece for our whole family, where most of us worked, played, performed, celebrated and mourned, too, marking most of our family’s milestones. Dreams came true there, too, not just for my family, but for so many of us, off-and on-Islanders: prom dreams, wedding dreams, party, performance and reunion dreams, but never more so than during this past season, the summer of COVID, when the Inn truly opened her arms and welcomed all into her timeless safe harbor of good faith and good fellowship. 

In spite of the masks, and the hand sanitizer and that strict, 6-foot apartness, we still managed to come together while the years and the fears drifted away with the children’s voices across the wide lawn. With a rose-gold sunset igniting the glassware, we could finally take a deep breath, sit back and, for a while, dream again. 

The Ram’s Head, a dream herself, more beautiful, more timeless than ever, may change her ownership, her dress, her accessories, but her dream remains forever.