"Christmas was about getting nothing," she says in clipped Yankee cadence. Lorraine Beaucaire Clark's family did not speak English when they came from Portugal; her great-uncle, a Chilmark resident for 55 years,speaks only Portuguese.
"We were extremely poor," she says. "Anybody who knows what a fisherman does knows it's not about money. So, we had four girls and there were plenty of times when there was not a heck of a lot to eat. I can remembering being about 10 and getting a box of handkerchiefs for Christmas. Who, at 10 years old, wants a handkerchief with a little flower in the corner of it for Christmas?"
It is clear that she sees no "them" or "us" among those who need and those who support. It is instead a community taking care of itself, everyone offering and receiving in a way that benefits each other and the community.
For the past 30 years, Mrs. Clark has been co-chairwoman of the Red Stocking Fund which, in November, December and again in March, when the winter has strained family budgets, insures that no Island child (from birth through eighth grade) goes hungry or goes without holiday gifts.
Established 64 years ago by Vineyard Haven resident Mrs. Harris M. Crist, the Red Stocking Fund has become the practical expression of the best of the Vineyard community spirit.
Kerry Alley, for 30 years the guidance counselor at the Tisbury School and for the past seven years, "snagged" by his childhood friend Mrs. Clark, is co-chairman of the Red Stocking Fund. "The organization runs because of the volunteers," he says. "We have no big, organizational structure. We have one meeting a year to simply decide on the dates and then everyone goes about their business and does their thing. And it happens. We don't ever meet again. Lorraine and I put in three or four hours a day for these two months, but the rest of the committee all have specific tasks and they just do them."
It's a simple system based on volunteerism and gently sought contributions. All the shopping is done in Island stores, most offering merchandise discounts. Vineyarders with children in residence submit one of the applications (printed in English and Portuguese), which is available at all Island banks, Martha's Vineyard Insurance Co., all elementary schools, the Food Pantry, Wampanoag tribal headquarters, the Boys' and Girls' Club and all community and social service agencies. Applicants, identified by number, list their needs and their children's clothing sizes.
Mr. Alley says, "We're all two generations away from being in the same position." He looks through the sheaf of applications he keep in a folder on his lap, picks one and reads aloud: "Our large family is finding ourselves having a hard time making ends meet this year, barely keeping up with the bills, especially the food bill. I don't have money for presents and I'm worried that the kids will be upset if there are no gifts under the Christmas tree. Thank you for your consideration. I would not apply unless there was a serious need."
Mrs. Clark says, "The Vineyard takes care of its people. People come from off-Island for the weekend and bring bags of new toys. The Girl Scouts bake gingerbread cookies so each gift bag gets a cookie. We get lots of money, not big money - lots of little money; we get kids coming to us with piggy banks; kids bringing money from lemonade stand sales."
Ticket proceeds from Great Chowder Contest Saturday at the E&E Deli, sponsored by the Tisbury Business Association, will go to the Red Stocking Fund.
Mrs. Clark explains that all the money received is spent for food and clothing. Checks made out to Red Stocking Fund may be sent to Martha's Vineyard Co-operative Bank, P.O. Box 688, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568, or mailed to treasurer Barbara Silvia, P.O. Box 74, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568.
Last year, 275 children were provided with gifts and necessities; $48,000 was raised; $52,000 was distributed.
"There are a lot of single mothers and fathers trying to raise kids," Mrs. Clark says. "I mean, figure it out; if you have one income and you're going out to buy sneakers and a jacket and a pair of jeans - put that on a piece of paper and figure out how much that would cost you."
And the volunteers appear without being asked, many longtime participants. Judy Mayhew coordinates the toy collection; Marcella Provost leads "the diaper patrol;" Shirley Robinson, "the peacemaker," shops the Island stores. Mr. Alley, mentioning committee members Peg Goodale and Mike Joyce, smiles and says, "They all just come back and say, ‘What day do you want me.' "
Katherine Stewart began supervising the gift-wrapping at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven 20 years ago, when she was 57. She says, "Without this community, there would be no Red Stocking. They open their hearts. It gives people on the Island a good feeling."
Barbara Silvia, the Red Stocking Fund treasurer for 17 years, says, "A child is a child. The Red Stocking Fund is for children whether they're native or have moved here. I know by my doing this a child is not going to go without something or be hungry."
Both Mrs. Clark and Mr. Alley, speaking in tandem and often making each other laugh as they share little truths, express gratitude to all the participating Vineyard organizations: the individual contributors, school children, most Island businesses, organizations and clubs.
"But we are in love with Harley Riders, truly in love with every one of them, because they do so much for us. And if we were in a bind and we ran out of money, they would take care of it. I mean a lot of other people would do it too, but they would do it," Mrs. Clark says.
The number-tagged gift bags are assembled on Dec. 19, containing food vouchers, new or handmade clothing, new, unused toys and in special cases, other necessities. "You should see what Grace Church looks like on Dec. 20," Mr. Alley says of the unforgettable sight. "It's wall to wall, pew to pew - it's everywhere."
Parents come to Grace Church on Dec. 20 between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., where only the nine-member executive committee is present, to pick up their family gifts. And Santa lives. Unless otherwise informed by their parents, children who receive the gifts will not know the source.
Although applications for holiday assistance are requested by Dec. 16, Mrs. Clark and Mr. Alley are loathe to neglect anyone and will occasionally hear of families who may not have applied, and send an intermediary to check.
"Very often, it's the neediest who apply at the very tail end, because they have so many other things to worry about in their life, like where they're eating or sleeping," Mr. Alley says. "They don't have time to worry about our deadlines.
"People who contribute money to us need to know that we do check out the family's needs if they're not families where we know the situation."
Barbara Silvia, herself a recipient of Red Stocking support for two years in the early 1960s, remembers: "I had three children in four years. And it was actually a school guidance counselor who came to the house and convinced me to get it. It made me feel very humble and very grateful. And I always promised myself, if I ever had a chance to give something back, I would."
Mr. Alley looks through the papers in his folder again and reads from another application: "Thank you so much for being there for us. Red Stocking puts children first, something my mother taught me early in life. You know the true meaning of Christmas."