Come May for the past two years, a pair of ducks have come to nest on Rose Styron’s lush lawn overlooking the outer Vineyard Haven harbor. “They eat a lot, at least the mother eats a lot, and the father, a gorgeous green-necked mallard, guards her. And when she’s fat enough, she goes to make a nest under the dock,” Mrs. Styron said, looking out at the water from her porch.
The ducks had 12 ducklings both years. “Now they all come back, so I have two generations of ducklings . . . my lawn is just a mass of ducks and it’s fun,” she said.
It’s easy to see why the ducks come back to this lawn at this home, which was bustling Tuesday with a summer scene of children and grandchildren standing on the dock and darting through a hole in the hedge, and a dog panting on the lawn. A breeze comes up from the harbor, which is full of sailboats, and in the evening Mrs. Styron watches the moon rise over a dock floating on the water. This perch near the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club has also exerted its pull on Mrs. Styron, a poet and writer, human rights activist, and now year-round Vineyarder who started coming to the Island with her late husband, the author William Styron, more than 50 years ago. She and her husband were, and are, a central part of a lively community in the neighborhood, with their friends the Buchwalds and the Hackneys, the Wallaces and the Herseys, and scores of visitors who dropped in during the summer.
And like the ducks, the brood comes back. The Styrons’ four children and 10 grandchildren come for summer visits, staying at the house next door. Mrs. Styron’s granddaughter, Martha, runs across the porch with Art Buchwald’s granddaughter, Tate, the third generation of Island friends.
“So that’s my view, my theatre, which gets very active this time of year,” Mrs. Styron said Tuesday evening, looking out from the porch as her 10-year-old grandson got ready to take a boat out for a spin.
“It’s a never-ending little theatre of delight here.”
This year, for the first time, Mrs. Styron got a glimpse of life as a year-round Islander. “It’s never boring. In a way after my husband died and I sold the house [in Connecticut] and decided to move here full-time, I thought, am I putting myself out to pasture? Will I still want to be involved with the rest of the world? I mean I came here a lot in the winter when I taught at Harvard, but I’d never spent full-time here,” she said, then answering her own question.
“I loved it. It’s a great place to write. I lucked out that it was a mild winter, because I like to sit outdoors writing. Here, this is where I write,” she said, sitting at a round table circled by white wicker furniture, “Or over there, where the sun is. And I was able to do it almost every day this winter.
“It’s very quiet in the winter, but you still get the birds, and occasionally the boats. Sunrise and boats. It’s my favorite scene, so of course I like it here.”
Then there are the people, year-round and summer visitors, she counts as dear friends, many of them well-known names with their own places in history. “There is such a wonderful concentration of interesting, lively people and other writers that I’ve gotten to know better since I’ve lived here, whether it’s Geraldine Brooks or Tony Horwitz or Ward Just or lots of writers who come, and that’s been fun for me, too. If you’re here for the winter, you sort of have a small group. But they’re all involved in things.”
For Mrs. Styron and her Vineyard friends, the connection to the Vineyard runs deep, but so do passions and causes that take them far beyond the Island. Mrs. Styron’s fears about staying involved in the greater world proved groundless.
“I’ve traveled more this winter on the Vineyard than I ever have in my life,” she said.
Mrs. Styron, who has a long involvement in Amnesty International, recently returned from Dublin, where she was on hand as Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years in house arrest in Myanmar, received the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. “It was fabulous. It was so moving,” she said.
Mrs. Styron was involved in the founding group of Amnesty International U.S.A., which she joined after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1968. Mr. Styron had just written The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Mrs. Styron had published translations and adaptations of 20th century Russian poetry. During the trip, they joined protests in Tashkent, and when she returned, she joined Amnesty.
“I was very lucky to be in on the ground floor of that,” she said, noting that many people involved emerged to be leaders of their country.
Mrs. Styron has been involved in causes for women’s rights and women’s empowerment, as well.
She went to Sarajevo at end of the war in Bosnia, where the State Department said it would offer funding to women to restore Sarajevo — “a devastated, melted city” — and other cities. She and others helped to secure money for 15 women who had applied as non-governmental organizations.
“It’s just all different kinds of women doing things empowering other women,” she said.
On July 11, closer to home, Mrs. Styron will speak at a benefit for Women Empowered, an Island group that works to help men and women change their lives.
“I want to talk about the women of this Island who have really been at the forefront of this, who are still organizing, originating, conceiving of organizations that empower women and girls.”
She credited several other Island women: Phyllis Segal, who has a programs for retirees to go into other careers of giving back to the community, Lucy Hackney, Emily Bramhall and Tess Bramhall.
“There are so many people on this Island who do things,” she said.
In other travels, three weeks ago, Mrs. Styron was on a boat touring Crete, Turkey and Santorini for Peter Matthiessen’s 85th birthday.
But summer means the Vineyard, and the return of good friends. “Good conversation, good times on the beach and the lawn, the water. Probably conversation is what I look forward to most,” she said. “Smiling faces. Everybody’s at his best in the summer.”
“Because we’ve all had such wonderful summer experiences on the Island. Our best friends are here, the ones we’ve made for life we’ve made on the Island, which is really nice. And our children and grandchildren are all best friends, too, down to the third generation. Which is fun.”
Mrs. Styron has already hit the tennis courts this summer, and she’s teaching her 10-year-old grandson how to play Scrabble. Her stack of summer reading includes Jorie Graham’s new book Place, and Helen Vendler’s Irish poetry after her trip to Ireland. A Paris Review, half read, is on the coffee table.
And on the porch, Mrs. Styron writes, longhand, in the early mornings. She is nearly finished with a new book of poetry.
“I’ve published a lot of the poems that are in the unfinished book in the last couple of years but I don’t have the book yet. It’s shaped for the last years of my husband and after, but it’s a different kind of book, sort of about late marriage and after, and the new things that come up in one’s life when you’re one instead of two.”
“So it’s interesting. I was married for 53 years, so it’s quite different now, so I’ve been trying to do a different kind of a book.”
Last week she finished work on a book of her husband’s letters, which will be published in December, and an adventure chronicle/memoir that she has a contract for, has been stacking up in chapters. “So I’m trying to start that this summer.”
“Because I’m a poet, I love being here because our poet friends come here. We have a big poetry summer community,” she said. “It’s very inspiring, and you can be alone and you can not be alone. Poets need both.”
Over the last few years, some of her dear friends have died, including her husband, Mr. Buchwald, and, this April, CBS newsman Mike Wallace. All battled depression and called themselves the Blues Brothers. Mr. Styron and Mr. Buchwald are buried in a nearby cemetery; Mr. Wallace will be buried there later this month. “So they can go on talking forever underground,” Mrs. Styron said.
“It’s scary how many people have died or who are not in the best of shape,” she said, reflecting on the last few years. “But there are still a lot around, and many wonderful younger ones around, which is terrific, and of course I would rather be with younger people all the time if I could, because it’s so much more fun and invigorating and so forth.
“But it’s sad, a lot of my friends have died in the last couple of years and tons of them in the last five, and so they seem to be disappearing.”
But “there’s never a dull moment, as they always say,” she said. “It can get very quiet in the winter. Sometimes sitting here I don’t see a light anywhere except over at the Hackneys [longtime friends Sheldon and Lucy] on the other side of the yacht club. I can see their lights and they can see mine.”
But this is the Fourth of July, a favorite season due to her love of fireworks displays. There were fireworks for daughter Alexandra’s wedding, and for Mr. Wallace’s 75th birthday. “I’m a real pyromaniac, I love fireworks,” she said. She used to assist George Plimpton — the unofficial fireworks commissioner of New York and noted pyrotechnic aficionado — with his displays.
In 1966, the movie The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! was in theatres, and Mr. Plimpton came for a Fourth of July visit, with “all kinds of illegal fireworks” in tow. When Mrs. Styron met him at the ferry, he was nervous that he had been observed carrying the fireworks across state lines. “Do you think we can set them off tonight, on the third of July, instead of waiting for the Fourth, because I’m afraid they’re going to come and look?” he asked Mrs. Styron.
So they called up John Marquand Jr., who had a house on the Edgartown Great Pond, and they set off the fireworks — really big ones, Mrs. Styron emphasized — on the beach on the third of July.
“Nobody expected to see it,” Mrs. Styron said. “And Otis Air Force Base got an alert from somebody who said the Russians are coming,” and they sent the Air Force out over the beach to see what was happening. And when they found it was only fireworks they were outraged, they threatened to arrest George and John.”
Mr. Plimpton “fled the Island,” Mrs. Styron said, though nothing ever happened.
“That’s one of my first memories of fireworks on this Island,” Mrs. Styron said, sitting on the porch at the dawn of another Vineyard summer.