She is a modern-day Aphrodite. Maternity nurse, wife, Chappaquiddicker and open land advocate, Nancy Hugger has designed and lives a life dedicated to fostering nature and beauty.
On most summer days, Nancy begins her mornings in her large Chappaquiddick garden where she grows everything from lettuce and borage to peaches and plums. This particularly hot summer day is no different. She has spent the morning alternating between weeding lettuce beds and tending 120 or so new asparagus plants and cooling off in the heart-shaped pond her husband Skip Bettencourt made for her.
Six feet tall in flats with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, she has a natural beauty that takes over a room. She wipes some dirt off her face. “My husband is not a flowers kind of guy. He made me a pond. And —” She points to a spectacular large branch that serves as an archway and entrance to their home. “He does grand gestures like that.”
In the summer, both Nancy and Skip, who is a caretaker for some 30 homes on Chappy, spend the mornings working and afternoons at the beach together. Nancy walks into her kitchen to rinse her hands and get ready for the beach, kissing Skip hello. “Even though we have been together for 30 years and married for 27, we are madly in love,” she declares.
Skip grins and nods. Nancy continues the story. “I had the biggest crush on him. And he didn’t even know I existed! He co-owned Courtesy Motors — where I got my car fixed — and I would always go in hoping he’d ask me out. When he finally did, I was dating someone else. So I decided that I could just have lunch with him. We went to the Starlight Diner.”
Skip adds: “It was October of eighty-three.”
Nancy continues, “We kissed at lunch. It was incredible! Hot! That night I went to dance class and told everyone that I had kissed another guy. I felt so guilty. I went home and journaled, did some soul searching, and kept saying to myself, you can’t go out with him. The guy I was dating was this very upstanding respectable guy and here I was drawn to this grease monkey. But it was undeniable. I went out on another date with Skip and on that second date, I moved in with him.”
At the time, Skip was living in Vineyard Haven, but soon he sold his share of Courtesy Motors and began to build a house for them on 15 acres he inherited from his father. Nestled in the heart of Chappaquidick, the garden, pond and house all feel and look like a fairy tale. And everything — trees, bee hives, asparagus, furniture, cars — has a story.
They dance around each other in the kitchen. Nancy zips from the sink to the blender to the freezer, assembling ingredients for a smoothie. Skip slides back and forth from the fridge to the kitchen counter, snacking on some chicken salad, fermented fish and pickles Nancy has made. “Eating fermented food has helped to heal me, my gut and my immune system,” she says. She opens the fridge and shows off Ball jars filled with fermented fish, kim chi, pickles and other vegetables. She pulls out a cheese stick for their Yorkie named 2C. “It’s his reward when we get to the beach,” Nancy says.
She talks a little more about the rhythm of her day, which begins in the garden and ends at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital where she works as a maternity nurse. “I like to have a bit of down time before a 12-hour shift. I can’t sleep in,” she explains. “So I get up, do some work, then get charged up by the energy of the sun, the ocean in the afternoon.”
Nancy and Skip walk out to the car holding hands. They climb into their turquoise and green 1948 Plymouth that Skip has restored. Nancy slides over to be closer to Skip.
On the short ride to the Edgartown harbor, she talks more about their land. “We’ve put all of it into conservation. Nothing more can be built. For a while we had goats, made cheese and beer, too. Skip hunts. We fished. Really lived off the land.” Skip adds, “We still do.” Nancy finishes, “But not as much. It was too much.”
They pull into a sandy parking area and Nancy hops out of the car, 2C tucked under her arm. They walk toward a small beach area near the ferry on Edgartown’s bustling harbor, and Skip reels in a red motor boat that resembles a vintage Corvette. “My best guess is that it is a 1960 Renken,” he says. “I found it washed up on the shoreline after a big storm. No one claimed it. After a week or so I asked the harbor master about it. He said I could pull it, put it in my backyard and advertise that we’d found it. I had to wait six years to see if anyone would turn up looking for it.” He smiles and climbs into the boat, “No one did, so it is mine.”
After putting a for sale sign on another one of Skip’s boats (he owns three), they speed out of the harbor toward Cape Pogue and the Gut. As the water opens up into Cape Pogue Pond, Nancy points to a wide swath of land. “There used to be four houses there. We [the Chappaquiddick open space committee which she helped to found] were able to broker a deal with the land bank. I am so proud of the green belt that we’re creating.” She has devoted much of her spare time in the last 14 years to helping preserve hundreds of acres on Chappy. “It has been an enormous amount of work. Major hours. A lot of knocking on doors, phone calls and meetings. Edo Potter has been such an incredible mentor. And Woody Filley has such a creative mind. It’s been inspiring to work with them. I just love that we are creating an emerald necklace for this island. It’s a sacred place. I want to do as much as I can to support it. Protect it.”
She looks up. “Here’s our spot.” They like a place on the bay that is a nook just inside Shear Pen Pond.
Skip slows the boat down, throws an anchor over the side and the dog jumps off the boat, swims to shore and begins barking wildly. Nancy laughs. “He wants his cheese.” She gives him some and then they begin to stroll along the beach. She gestures at the extraordinary unspoiled beauty around them. “This place. This island just brings me peace. I love the nature. The simplicity of life here. I like not being busy all the time. You can create whatever kind of life you want here.”
She grew up in Westfield, N.J., one of seven children — “six girls and one boy” — and credits her mother with her introduction to Martha’s Vineyard. “We came here one summer and she just fell in love with the Island. She found a house on Sengekontacket that she loved. My father was against it, but she said to him, ‘Sometimes dear, you just have to extend yourself.’ And that was that.”
During her sophomore year at Georgetown Nursing School, Nancy’s parents divorced. The house went with the divorce, but Nancy began working on the Island soon after graduating from nursing school. “My mom was a nurse. I just knew I wanted to be a maternity nurse. No other kind. When I began nursing, I asked to be put on maternity right away, which they didn’t do. But they let me. So it is all I have done. Joyce — my boss now — is the best boss I’ve ever had.”
Skip looks at his watch. “Speaking of work, we should get you back,” he says. They take a quick swim, walk back to the boat and head home. Nancy snuggles next to Skip as he drives the boat. They talk about her family and his. She says, “There was a time in life when I wanted to have kids. But Skip already had three. It was hard. I had to decide: be with the man I love or have kids. I chose love.”
Once home, Nancy’s dreamy and reflective mood are replaced by a noticeable shift in energy. She becomes highly focused, efficiently showering, getting dressed and packing clothes and food for a night at the hospital. “We should be pretty busy tonight. One baby was induced today,” she says. She doesn’t know what she will see when she arrives the hospital at 8 p.m. The baby may be born or she may help the mother with labor and delivery. “I love labor and delivery. That is my very favorite part of my job. Every birth is so different. So amazing.”
She kisses Skip and 2C goodbye and heads to the Chappy ferry. Sometimes getting to work can be tough in the winter. Especially if a baby decides to come in the middle of the night when the ferry isn’t running. “Skip will run me across in our boat. But it is COLD!” Nancy keeps a car on the other side so she can always get to the hospital. As she walks onto the boat, she seems to know almost everyone and everything about them. Minutes later, she strides through Edgartown, throws her stuff in her car and heads to Oak Bluffs. She has her summer routes to avoid traffic, driving safely, but just above the speed limit. “I don’t like being late.”
When she arrives at the hospital, she puts on blue scrubs and spends about 45 minutes meeting with the nurses going off duty to get up to speed. Three babies have been born in the last 12 hours. “One a C birth, one induction and one baby who came a bit early. Two new moms and one who has another child,” she recites.
Nancy will help the new moms navigate through their first hours of motherhood, teaching them how to help their babies latch on, encouraging skin-on-skin time, showing them how to swaddle and bathe their tiny bodies. She will help all the families support these new beings in their first hours of life. Nancy beams: “It’s a pretty good way to spend the night.”
A Life Well Nursed
Age: “Fifty-four. My birthday is not for a few weeks, but I always like to be older.”
Occupation: Maternity nurse for 22 years. Chairman of the Chappaquiddick open space committee. Former dancer. “I stopped dancing after my knee replacement about eight years ago.”
Spouse: Skip Bettencourt.
Children: Three stepchildren, Kerry, Missy and Jenny.
Favorite food: “I’m a full blown fermento.”
Lives: On Chappaquiddick.
Pets: Yorkie named 2C.
Education: BNP, Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies.
Electronic devices: “I rarely use them.”