Though many shops lining the once-crowded streets of Vineyard Haven closed months ago, the doors and kitchen of Grace Episcopal Church have remained open.
Each Friday, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., the church hosts a winter soup supper where anyone can sit down, have dinner and find respite from the coldness and isolation which affect so many each Vineyard winter.
In a worn and frayed apron, Jeanne Trebby wove her way through the steamy kitchen. A member of the church since the age of 16, Mrs. Trebby is one of the core volunteers who keep the operation going year after year.
Mrs. Trebby scraped dirty dishes and stirred two cauldron-sized pots of soup on the greasy cast iron stove, one of two in the crowded kitchen.
"The church is so busy, there's not much free time in the kitchen," she said, explaining that various groups, from nursery schools to Alcoholics Anonymous, meet at the church and use the cooking area, leaving only a few hours to prepare for dinner.
Because time and space are so limited in the kitchen, little cooking is done there: Most soups are prepared at the homes of volunteers and transferred to the stove in the kitchen before the doors open for dinner. Other dishes are brought by those in attendance or members of the church, who sign up earlier in the week on a large sheet of newsprint taped to the kitchen door.
On average, volunteers prepare four soups and a salad with fruit donated from Cronig's Market. They also slice loaves of bread donated by The Black Dog and brew tea, not coffee.
"Some people don't leave as long as there's coffee," Mrs. Trebby explained.
Judging by Friday evening's feast, a "slow" night according to the cooks, volunteers are generous.
Macaroni and cheese, a seafood casserole, jambalaya, two plates of baked stuffed peppers, warm corn bread, brownies and a homemade apple pie lined the table, with a pot of tea at one end and an unobtrusive donation basket at the other. Soups included broccoli and potato, lentil, onion and clam chowder, bubbling in four giant pots on two stoves inside the humid kitchen. Those who wanted soup slid an empty bowl through the serving window, and it was returned a few seconds later, full and steaming.
Volunteers in the kitchen tool turns stirring the soups, clearing tables, and scraping and loading dishes into the stainless steel sterilizer, where they were washed clean with boiling water in two minutes flat.
Dinners are open to anyone. Edible contributions are appreciated, financial donations are welcome and everything is strictly voluntary. The open theme of the winter soup suppers is a reflection of the church's general attitude toward the Island community. Day and night, the building remains open, a constant reminder to citizens that everyone is welcome. Only once a year, when gifts are in storage for the Red Stocking Fund, does the church lock its doors.
First organized between seven and 10 years ago (no one agrees on the date), these winter evening happenings, more a social event than anything else, were originally meant to assist those struggling with finances.
"It was a time when the Island's economy was really hurting," said Audrey Leaf, another longtime volunteer who works in the kitchen. "We had a lot of single-parent families. Things were not terrific.
"But it's been a wonderful time to get together and talk. It's been very rewarding for us in the kitchen, and the people out there," she said, nodding toward the hall beyond the kitchen door.
Mrs. Trebby, stationed at a nearby stove, agreed with her co-worker about the rewards of cooking for others, adding: "I love to make soup, and my son doesn't care for it."
Friday evening, three of the four round tables were occupied by about 25 people, a small turnout compared to the average crowd of 40 or 45, soup supper veterans said. Couples, families and singles conversed, ate, and listened to a trio of musicians in the corner, improvising on the grand piano, violin and drum set.
Like the food and the people at these dinners, the band and the music it performs is in a constant state of change. The group has grown as large as six, as small as two. Some nights the group shrinks as the night goes on, while on other nights the ranks have increased by closing time.
Sheet music is rare. Musicians either play tunes they know, or play along with other band members, or improvise altogether.
Friday, Mary Ahmadi helped out on violin, while longtime church members Gladys and Edward Abbe played piano and drums. The only constant players in the band are the Abbes - Mrs. Abbe has been a pianist since the age of six, and has performed with her husband since they were married and she bought a cheap set of drums for him. The Abbes volunteer all over the Island, and play regularly at the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, whose clientele often shows up for these Friday evening dinners. Mrs. Abbe also sings in the church choir.
"Music is a really great thing. It's fun and it keeps us going," she said. "We've had people who are singers get up and sing. We have Gary Zwicky playing the string bass. Edson Rodgers plays a wonderful trumpet."
Someone at a nearby table remarked on how much Mrs. Abbe and her husband seemed to enjoy performing.
"It's what keeps us young," she answered.
Now and then people dance in the tiny space between the tables and piano, though most just listen. Now and again someone will show up, pour a cup of tea, sit and listen to the band, then head home without having dinner.
Charles Stockton was one of the many who stayed for dinner, taking in the atmosphere at this, his first winter soup supper.
"Enjoying the music here is better than staying home," said Mr. Stockton, an Oak Bluffs resident.
For dinner, Mr. Stockton enjoyed a stuffed pepper and clam chowder, washed down with a cup of tea. The music, he said, reminded him of his childhood.
"We had an old grand piano in the family room," he recalled, "and every Saturday or Sunday night we would bring it out and sing. That was 55 or 60 years ago," he said.
Though Mr. Stockton was new to the gathering, he was not alone. He sat with his sister, a regular at these dinners who had finally convinced him to give winter soup suppers a try. Mr. Stockton also had the company of yet another sister that night, the violinist Mrs. Ahmadi.
"Everything was very filling," he said. "I think I will come again."