Memorial Day 2009

What will the summer bring? This has been on the minds of Islanders throughout the long winter. As sidewalks and farm fields lay frozen beneath endless layers of snow and ice, as the economic downturn cast dark shadows across the nation, as Islanders pulled in their collective horns and counted their pennies along with their blessings — the question hung in the air wherever you went. What will the summer bring?

Now suddenly Memorial Day is here and it is time for a sneak preview of the season that the Vineyard so anxiously looks forward to when it is coming, and so fondly looks back on when it is gone: summer.

Of course it is still spring, by the calendar and by a greening landscape brushed with flowering dogwood, apple, pear and lilac. Lawns are alive with buttercups and meadows are dotted with wild mustard and bells of Ireland. From State Road in West Tisbury the Polly Hill Arboretum, a singularly stunning study in color and plant design, is like a French impressionist painting, smudged around the edges with western treetops illuminated by the late day sun as it sinks into the horizon.

On the south shore this week the Edgartown Great Pond was opened to the sea, attracting the hardiest fishermen to the spot where ocean meets pond, wearing high waders and casting across the rushing water with their long saltwater rods, hoping to catch a big bass.

In the down-Island towns shopkeepers are hard at work stocking shelves and there are new choices for sandwiches and hot soups, fortification against the spring air which still carries a chill off the cold ocean water (translation: don’t put the fleece away yet). In Menemsha the smell of fried clams hangs in the clean, briny harbor air faintly redolent of fish pots. There is new asparagus at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and North Tabor Farm is selling fat bags of spicy spring greens.

The Island is wide awake and open for business again.

And it feels good.

At the Gazette office the business of putting out a newspaper also has moved into double time and suddenly the phone is ringing off the hook with news tips and submissions from correspondents both far-flung and nearby. Authors who have been working on manuscripts all winter are ready to promote bright and literate new books; visual artists, craftsmen, and dancers also have new work to show. This weekend the Family Planning art show fills the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury and just down the road the Vineyard Artisans Festival begins another season at the Grange Hall. The Vineyard has finally grown up as a summer arts colony and already the inbox is full.

Of course Memorial Day weekend is about more than arts and entertainment previews, backyard barbecues, fishing expeditions and hellos to old summer friends who have returned to open their houses for another summer season. The long holiday weekend also is about remembrance, and flags will fly around the Vineyard as Islanders pause to remember those who have died in defense of their country. Today a procession of school children in Edgartown and another in Vineyard Haven will march to the harbors and throw lilacs in the water to remember those who have been lost at sea, a fitting annual tradition to begin the Memorial Day weekend.

The Vineyard has a long and proud record of wartime service that reaches into the corners of every town. Monuments listing the names of those who served can be found from Aquinnah to Edgartown.

The honor rolls inscribed on them show that twelve Islanders died in the Civil War, eighteen died in the Korean conflict and four died in Viet Nam. At this writing, thankfully, no one from the Island has died in Iraq or Afghanistan.

On Monday morning a parade will be held in Vineyard Haven as the Island joins the rest of the nation in celebrating Memorial Day. After that Vineyarders young and old are invited to the annual Tisbury town picnic at the head of Lake Tashmoo.

And so begins another season on an Island that traces its origins as a summer resort to the nineteenth century.

As such, it is fun to remember Capt. Zeb Tilton, master of the schooner Alice Wentworth. Captain Tilton used to say that the Island sank three inches in the summer with all the extra weight from seasonal visitors. Claimed he could prove it by tide marks on the beach.

Of course it was a tall tale, but like all good tall tales it had a kernel of truth to it. Because this much we know: the Island in summer is like no other place in the world.

To that end it is useful to remember Captain Tilton and his tide marks — and tread lightly please.