The painted wooden sign resting on the base of the podium in Ocean Park read Savor the Moment, and when celebrated poet Sonia Sanchez stepped to the microphone to begin her program during Della Hardman Day on Saturday, it was impossible to imagine doing anything else. Words on a page are poor conveyors of the rhythms and intonations of Mrs. Sanchez’s commanding voice, which has been holding audiences rapt for decades.
“It’s not often that a peer is also a role model,” said Charlayne Hunter-Gault in her introduction of Mrs. Sanchez. “Sonia has been a model for so many of us who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Mrs. Sanchez read aloud from several of her works, including a long piece written in not only her voice but also those of her father and brother, and the story of How Rain Was Made. She concluded the program with a haiku from her newest collection, Morning Haiku, written in honor of jazz percussionist Max Roach.
Ms. Hunter-Gault introduced Mrs. Sanchez as a Renaissance woman, one of three being honored during Della Day — the other two being Andrea Taylor, Mrs. Hardman’s daughter, and, of course, Della herself. Since 2005, the town of Oak Bluffs has designated the last Saturday in July as a day to honor Mrs. Hardman, a longtime resident and town columnist for the Gazette.
“It is an honor to be here honoring [Della],” said Mrs. Sanchez in her remarks. “To say simply that not only was she a Renaissance woman, but also . . . in my new essay called A Thunder of Angels — she’s one of the angels I talk about, a woman who simply looked at the world and said simply, ‘I’m not going to reinvent myself, but I’m going to reimagine myself.’”
During her 83 years, Della Hardman was a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother (two great-grandchildren, Avery and Quinn, attended the day’s ceremonies), writer, painter, photographer, potter, weaver and scholar. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from West Virginia State University and a master’s in art from Boston University. Fifty years later, at the age of 72, she received her PhD from Kent State University.
Mrs. Hardman’s legacy as a scholar lives on in the form of an annual essay contest at the regional high school. Contest winners Caroline Fournier, Kayla Johnson and Maggie Johnson were recognized at Saturday’s ceremony, along with honorable mention awardees Oliver Filley, Max Miner and Justin Oslyn.
But perhaps above all else, Mrs. Hardman was a member of her community. Oak Bluffs selectman Kathy Burton underlined this point in her remarks, reading aloud from a 2001 town column in which Mrs. Hardman wrote of a little first-grade girl she had met at the post office. The girl chatted eagerly with Mrs. Hardman about her class’s science project, raising a caterpillar in a box; Mrs. Hardman asked her new friend to call her when the caterpillar had become a butterfly.
“What a wonderful first grade science project!” read her column. “If only you could have seen the excitement and anticipation in Annie’s eyes.”
The little girl, Annie, was Mrs. Burton’s daughter — and she happened to be celebrating her 16th birthday on Della Day, a coincidence that drew murmurs from the crowd.
The murmurs turned to laughs when Andrea Taylor took to the podium to thank the attendees and sponsors of Della Hardman Day, telling the story of how her mother had decided that the best place to write her dissertation would be the East Chop Lighthouse.
“She said [to the lighthouse keeper], ‘I have proposal for you, and the proposal is this: I’m working on my dissertation, and I’d like to do the writing from the lighthouse because it’s a great view . . . and so I’d like to set up a desk. I’ll need a lamp, and I’d like a key, and I’m going to come in and work on my dissertation in the lighthouse.’”
“And he was so flabbergasted,” Mrs. Taylor recounted. “No one on earth had ever asked him before for such a request. He didn’t know anybody else who had done their dissertation in such a setting. So he gave her a key, and put up a lamp, and she did a lot of the writing there.”
The East Chop Lighthouse was the site of Friday night’s sunset choir concert held in honor of Della.
“There are a lot of stories like that,” continued Mrs. Taylor. “It takes a whole village to make a day, and we’re very grateful for that village. It’s just really a blessing to be able to celebrate . . . in this glorious space with my mother’s spirit.
“As long as people remember you, you are alive.”
An exhibition of Della Hardman’s photographs on display at the Oak Bluffs Public Library will remain on display until August 12.