Growing up alongside New London Harbor Light

One romantic notion of living near lighthouses is the image of a beam of light washing by at regular intervals, peeking at night into windows as it swings by.

For John and Elizabeth Ring, who live hard alongside New London Harbor Light, the original keeper's house for the seventh-oldest lighthouse in the country, the reality is a bit less romantic.

Indeed, the tall and thin 1801 lighthouse is so close to their own house, the Rings can barely see the beacon, even when they go outside and look up.

They can see it wash across the water beyond them, though.

Still, the big adjacent light — at 90 feet, the tallest in Connecticut — is a reassuring presence, and for Mrs. Ring, whose family has owned the keeper's house since the government sold it as surplus property in 1928, a very familiar landmark.

I paid a call on the Rings last week because I was curious to learn more about the history of their unusual house, now that the battle by the New London Maritime Society to get zoning approval to open it to the public has reached a dead end.

"This house holds so many wonderful memories for me, and there are still relics from the previous three generations in the house," Ring wrote back to me, after I first asked if I might visit.

The Rings were generous and amiable tour guides of their unusual home.

They also welcomed a chance, they said, to clear up a few lingering misperceptions from the bruising zoning battle.

First, they noted they have never objected to the society using its own right of way from Pequot Avenue, which the government deeded along with the light. The Rings said they only object to the use of a path located on their property, directly beside a glass door from their living room.

And, they said they would like to clear the air of a perception some people have that they are newcomers who bought the house and are trying to keep away the public.

Passersby sometimes jeer at them, they said, and one of their cars was keyed while parked in the driveway.

Elizabeth Ring grew up in a house a few doors down the shoreline, where her elderly mother still lives.

She hung around the keeper's house, then her aunt's home, her entire childhood, she said. It was a gathering place for family reunions and holidays.

It was, and you can see still is, a cool place to hang out, with its spectacular view across the mouth of the Thames River, steady breezes from Long Island Sound and the sound of waves lapping the sandy beach.

The house originally was purchased by Elizabeth Ring's great-grandmother, Alice Learned Bunner, who bought it as a widow after moving back to her native New London in the early 20th century.

Alice Learned was a poet who married Henry Cuyler Bunner, an acclaimed poet and novelist of his time who was also editor of Puck magazine.

She was the first president of the New London Garden Club.

One of Alice Bunner's children, Laurence, also a poet, eventually inherited and became the steward of the house, living there and maintaining it for many years. He was also kind of a keeper, alerting the Coast Guard when something needed tending.

He had no children and when he died in 1974, he left the house to a niece, Alice Dimock, who also had a home in New York City.

Alice Dimock lived alone in the keeper's house until her death in 2013. She had no children but continued to host family visits during her many years living alongside Harbor Light. Her sister, Elizabeth Ring's mother, lived just down the beach.

The last succession of the keeper's house was decided by agreement between the Rings and Elizabeth's siblings. Among all of them, the Rings, then finishing careers as school psychologists in the state of Washington, were the only ones interested in returning to live next to New London's lighthouse.

It took about a year to settle Alice Dimock's estate and do some long-neglected repairs to the house, which was built in 1863. They moved in a little over two years ago.

Elizabeth said she cherishes the chance to refresh so many old memories.

The day I visited, they welcomed a crew from the Coast Guard that was making a periodic visit to service the lighthouse.

In the old days, she said, visits by the Coast Guard prompted a call sent out to family members, because it was a chance to go inside and climb the lighthouse.

The Rings have three children who live on the West Coast, but they say no decisions have been made yet about succession at the keeper's house.

One mark of the changing generations at the house, though, is a sundial installed by Laurence Bunner on the front of the keeper's house.

The inscription on the dial reads: "Time is a ship that never anchors."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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