I only know our routines. I presume most families on the Vineyard have their own. When guests or friends come to our house, our routines have a way of taking them by surprise, for how included and welcome they make them feel.
At our house in Edgartown, it meant that Dad was always up and in the kitchen just after 7 a.m., draped in his tattered bathrobe embedded with aging pancake mix and wearing his well-worn slippers — quite possibly home to mice in the off-season. We’d smell the weak Maxwell House being brewed and the sizzling bacon in the skillet. We’d get up — my siblings and I, one by one — passing through the kitchen to say good morning and grab a cup of coffee on our way into Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
It was our first-thing-in-the-morning gathering. And we did it every day.
This was the setting for our most meaningful family conversations, where we would catch up on anything and everything. Invariably, our laughter would drift to every corner of the house. When the smell of bacon accompanied it, you just had to wake up, if only to be there to defend yourself. Who snapped up the last piece of pie or drank too much the night before? And who won bragging rights for winning the last game of Scrabble or backgammon? It was also duly noted who turned off the last light, snuffing out their own laughter in the wee hours of the morning.
House guests and new girlfriends usually slept in. Clearly, they didn’t know the routine. If they did, they didn’t get it. Those who never got it didn’t last very long. Those who did eventually ended up in Mom and Dad’s room with the rest of us — fighting for real estate — and a place in the conversation.
With Dad on breakfast duty, his deserted spot on the bed would promptly be claimed. So would Mom’s comfy chaise in the corner of the bedroom. One of us would be dispatched to retrieve the Globe at the end of the driveway, followed by the boys fighting over the sports section. Inevitably, Dad would make his way back to the bedroom to dislodge the squatters from the bed.
But he loved it when we were all visiting. Family has always been Dad’s biggest joy. I can barely remember a time in their bedroom — all of us packed in — when he didn’t have a smile on his face. And Dad’s joy was infectious. We felt it and reveled in it. “Two pieces of bacon,” Dad would let us know. “No stealing!”
This was our life for 50 glorious Vineyard summers. Year after year, decade after decade, this was how it went. Until this summer, when everything changed.
Several years ago, Dad mentioned in his understated fashion that his doctor thought he might have a mild form of Parkinson’s. Mom didn’t buy it and Dad didn’t seem too concerned. He had slowed down a little bit. His golf game wasn’t what it was. His hands had become a little bit jittery.
A year or two later, his Parkinson’s became more pronounced and Dad even struggled to walk. He declined in other ways, as well. He gave up his beloved crossword puzzles and books, and eventually even his morning newspapers.
By last spring, we faced the sad truth that Dad wasn’t going to make it to the Vineyard this summer, and that he might never return to the Island. He would ask about catching ferries and old Vineyard friends, but he would be staying put in the nursing home section of his retirement community in Maine.
Meanwhile, Mom was steadfast about her own intention to return to the Vineyard. She made it clear she couldn’t wait to get to the Island and see her friends, sit quietly on the porch and take walks with Winnie the Norfolk terrier on Lighthouse Beach.
Our family, including Mom, gathered in Edgartown over the Fourth of July weekend. There was a full house with my brother, Peyton, and his family, my son Wilder and cousins, including Dad’s favorite nephew John Reily, and his two wonderful kids.
We would find Mom puttering about in her usual way. Sometimes, we noticed her on the porch, staring off — her thoughts unshared. All summer she had been excited about the annual Fourth of July Parade in Edgartown. She planted herself at the O’Brien’s on North Water street, the perfect place to watch the parade with friends and family. It was followed, as usual, by a crowded cocktail party on the beautiful lawn overlooking Edgartown harbor. Mom asked to be taken home long before the fireworks.
She seemed to enjoy having a full house, but she also seemed relieved when the last family member cleared out after the holiday. It would just be her and Winnie for the week. We’d call every day and ask how she was doing. “I’m just fine,” she’d say, but we noticed that she’d pushed up her daily glass of bourbon by a half hour, to 5:30 p.m.
And then she’d switch on Fox News, just as she and Dad did, loyally, every night. Like Dad, she’d turn the volume up way too high.
I got back to the Vineyard toward the end of her second week to drive her back to Maine. She told me she was ready to go and couldn’t wait to get home. “It’s too crowded down here,” she said, “just not the same.”
Did she think she wanted to come back in August?
“Not a chance,” she replied. She declared she was done with the Vineyard.
I thought she meant she was done with the Vineyard for this summer, but when Mom kept telling everyone she was done with the Vineyard, it finally dawned on me that she might be saying she was done with the Vineyard for good.
I drove her back to Maine that Sunday. We went up and saw Dad and told him how sorely he had been missed. He seemed to understand.
It wasn’t the same not having Dad in the Vineyard house. He’s always been the glue of the Fleming family, and without him, the spirit of the house just wasn’t the same.
And I haven’t had any bacon this summer, not since Christmas morning in Maine late last year with Mom, Dad and my sister Nan.
Sam Fleming is managing director of news and programming at WBUR. This piece was published last week on Cognoscenti, WBUR’s online opinion and ideas page.