By PEGGY STURDIVANT
When we closed the Camp Ground cottage for the winter 40 years ago, it was serious business. The braided wool rugs were rolled, the refrigerator was cleaned and propped open, the water had been turned off and the pipes flushed, the delicate glass pane windows nailed shut. An official sign was affixed: No Trespassing. Oak Bluffs Police Take Notice.
My grandparents always closed the house before returning to Illinois for the winter, but it was my family that unlocked the once-a-year padlock and entered the cottage as though unsealing a tomb. Invariably it was twice as cold on the inside as the outside, where daffodils dared to bloom. The dead coldness of the air made your fingers ache and your breath visible. We went from room to room, rediscovering favorite items like a treasure hunt. The copy of Caddie Woodlawn on the shelf; the grandfather’s clock was shrouded but we could bring it back to life.
For a week in spring the cottage would crackle by night as wood burned in the Franklin stove. In the morning we’d crawl out of sleeping bags to the leftover wood smoke. If a single car drove down a Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association lane by night, our heads poked up to look out the windows by our chilly pillows. We’d sweep banked oak leaves off the front porch, but not yet put the cushions on the chairs. We kids grudgingly toted water buckets to the garden where the dirt was as poor and sandy as ever.
A generation later, my parents retired in their turn, come and go from the cottage is more casual than in my grandparents’ day. Despite warnings from the plumber, they risk returning to the cottage for Thanksgiving, closing off rooms with wool blankets nailed between doorways. By December they are gone, but the rugs are still on the floor and the cottage looks temporarily empty, not abandoned. But the oak leaves still bank on the front porch and the yard gets covered in debris from the assault of winter winds on the big old trees. Opening the cottage is still a process of discovery and one that seems like staking a new homestead claim each year, even if it is the 50th year in a row.
During the summer, with traffic flowing on Dukes County and Circuit avenue, the Camp Ground seems part of a bustling whole, but in the spring you realize it really is still one step above tent-camping. The streets are dark, only a few cottages are lit. There’s the thwack of an axe, a bluish wisp from a chimney pipe, evidence of a woodstove insufficiently battling the damp.
Among the few spring pilgrims there’s a sense of homesteading, reclaiming a ghost town. Bearing spring annuals and off-Island provisions, the seasonal residents arrive to remake their shelter. It’s so quiet in the Camp Ground in spring. The trees and bushes are still just budding so there’s no continual rasping as the mature leaves rub at each other night and day. No plunking of acorns on the tar paper roofs, no last-ditch sanding before November rains, fewer sirens, no bicyclists calling to one another as they ride home in the dark.
In the spring you can almost hear each cottage as it opens, as the Camp Ground collectively sweeps off its supports, uncovers mandatory front porch rockers and opens stuck windows. Months before the first choir practice in the Tabernacle or the flash mob of Illumination Night, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association parallels its origins as a revival meeting. Closed cottages are opened one by one, with each owner annually restaking their claim — and preparing for the Wednesday nights when families will once again sing their way home.
Peggy Sturdivant lives in Seattle and has summered in the Camp Ground for 48 years.