Fifty-two years ago my parents bought a house overlooking Quitsa Pond in Chilmark. The land had been owned by the Huntingtons and before that by the Pooles, who arrived at this spot some 200 years before. In short course Dad and Mom more than doubled the size of the small cottage, and I guess it may have seemed large to the neighbors when they were done. How strange to think that what was so grand then seems relatively plain now. In all the years we lived there, little changed from the day we moved in. By the end most floorboards creaked, the electrical system issued occasional threats, the oil tank was rusted, the kitchen was archaic and most beds were worn and uncomfortable. Sure, we painted and scrubbed and swept, but she always had that bittersweet smell of mold, mothballs, and brine, the whiff of decay; the couch with its broken springs, the curtains faded and splotched, the window sashes, the ridgeline, the fascia rotting and ever in need of patching. The house was like a grand old dowager — no matter how much makeup, no matter how bright the smile or strong the cane, she was in slow decline, still noble but strained at every seam.
Plans came and went to renovate, but Dad never seemed to want to change anything. “Why spend the money? It’s fine the way it is,” he would say. The only room in the house we ever fixed up was a downstairs bedroom that we expected Dad would move into, as he was no longer able to negotiate stairs. After two nights in there, he said the hell with it and pulled himself back up the banister to his old bedroom, a creature of habit until the end.
The day came, as it always does, when it was Dad’s house no longer. By around 2003 he was too old to make the trip from Arizona, and it was left to my siblings and I to decide what to do. Do we pay for a full-on renovation? Do we buy new furniture? How much do we spend? Do we paint the whole house or just the parts with peeling paint and mold? Do we sell the place while he’s alive and simply not tell him? Do we ask his opinion at all? Do we rent? It became even more complicated as we discussed how much we should pay each other to use the house. Who would manage the property? Would they be compensated? The discussion quickly threatened to sap all joy from the place. Repair fell upon repair.
Looking back, it seems as if we held on as long as we could in a kind of no-man’s land between loving and leaving. Finally, a vote was taken, three to one, and the house was put on the market. Until it sold in 2010 I would go up there each year, and knew each one might be my last. How would I let go? Sometimes the memories felt like a weight, the days caged in an impossibly long embrace. The impending goodbye cast a shadow across moments of delight.
Many Island families have dealt with this scenario, and more will soon enough. Some are able to share property with siblings, but for far more, the only practical choice is to sell. This was the case with our family, whose members were spread around the country. Once sold, these old summer houses are often as not torn down and replaced by something far larger and more lavish. Adding on seems old-fashioned these days. Families are faced with a dilemma, knowing that whoever buys their property may build something that threatens a landscape that has remained unchanged for what seems like forever.
On the Island there is a constant, sometimes cloying refrain that began many years ago and goes something like this: the Island is changing too much, it’s being ruined by development. In the large scheme of things, it amazes me how little things have changed compared to what might have been. The Island planning boards have done heroic work. But in many small ways I do see change that undermines some of what I have always cherished about the Island. I think often of what is gone, perhaps joining the ranks of nostalgia-bitten old coots.
What’s gone are folks like Capt. Donald Poole, Everett’s father, who lived with his wife Dorothy on our shared driveway. This crusty character was straight out of a Melville book to my teenage eyes. If my memory can be trusted, he wore two brass earrings, had an inscrutable, weather-beaten visage, he walked as if he were perpetually on board a rolling boat, never smiled at me and rarely talked. If he saw me in the rearview mirror he would purposefully slow down so that his primeval truck, whose license plate said “Tired,” barely moved. He glared and I cowered. Here was a man whose roots stretched all the way back to the whaling days, a time when the Island was the center of a robust fishing industry, back when the very idea of huge summer homes, sold-out ferries, fancy restaurants, and pollution were inconceivable. I suspect that Mr. Poole’s idea of neighborliness was one of quiet respect. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.
Every summer Dad and Mom would have a cocktail party and invite the people on our driveway. To my knowledge Donald and his wife always declined. However, a certain politesse was observed. Dad might pass by Donald in his yard.
“Good morning Mr. Poole.”
“Mahnin’, Mistah Harrison.”
“How are you and Mrs. Poole?”
‘Fine, Mistah Harrison.” And that was it, year after year.
This story has been told before, but here it is again. My Mom was long gone from cancer, and Dad spent more and more time on the Island. Donald Poole was in his late 70s; he and Dad and had been neighbors for some 30 years. Dad, who loved to do the lawn and fieldwork, was on his mower. One morning he looked up, and there was Donald Poole standing in the field. Dad cut the motor, greeted his neighbor with some surprise. Donald stood silent for a moment, and then said, “I just want to say, you’ve been a good neighbor.” He thrust out his hand, turned, and walked back across the field to his home.
What had Dad done to deserve this accolade? I surmise the following: he always paid his respects to his neighbors and did not treat them as if they were invisible. He made the land he lived on a better place, caring for it gently. He kept to himself. He was quiet and considerate.
It seems to me that these qualities are part of what might be called the duties of citizenship. If we inhabit a piece of land, we must attempt to respect its history and protect its future. We seek the community and counsel of our neighbors. We live in a way that energizes and sustains the earth and those near us. The Vineyard will never be a fishing community again, and the era of Donald Poole is irrevocably gone. But as houses are replaced, and families disappear, all of us, sellers and buyers, newcomers and old-timers, are charged with a moral imperative best exemplified by a Wendell Berry quote from his book What Are People For? “A man with a machine and no culture is a pestilence.”
What is this culture that Berry holds high? I believe it is the culture of connection to those who came before, those living things that surround us, and those who will come after. I demonize no one and certainly claim no moral high ground for myself. I am homesick and I ache for those whose lives have been afflicted by the wrecking ball that swung through our old property. And I’m left with a lot of questions. How do we honor both the living and the dead? As a seller or buyer, what must be done to protect the future? We all have different, often irreconcilable needs. If my family had put deed restrictions on our property it might have sat unsold five more years and for half the price. Who among us is that generous? What if families can’t agree on what’s best? And should a buyer actually buy into the whole community and take on the time-honored New England principles of thrift and modesty? Or will they add every last square foot and creature comfort and blandishment that can be squeezed in, no matter the opinion of others? All the zoning regulations in the world cannot answer these questions completely. There is no black and white; instead the issues are complex, layered, and deeply personal. These are not quandaries that simply face the rich; many Americans must consider them.
We live in a time where it is increasingly common to have two bathrooms for every family member, double kitchens, imported marble, expensive hardwoods and air conditioning in every room for the few days when it gets uncomfortable. Volunteer planning boards are buried by expensive architects and lawyers. How this happened, and how it reflects on our land and culture, is something to ponder. We do not need to elevate old Donald Poole or my father to sainthood to point out that old-fashioned Yankee and native values have gone missing.
The other part of the story for me involves a deep sense of loss.
Countless formative moments occurred for me on the Vineyard. I met my best friend, I met the love of my youth, I played in my first band at the old Seaview Hotel, I learned to swim and leapt off the dock with many others into the pure joy of the water. There were string band parties on the lawn in the 1970s that gave birth to a band called The Flying Elbows. There were drop lines in the hand-dug pond out back, where Craig Kingsbury wandered through the poison ivy barefoot. It was my great fortune to have occupied this incomparable spot.
From our perch on the hill in November, when all the moorings were empty and no human sound remained, I would watch the scallop dories silently wend their way into the corners of the pond, all day in the cold, a lone figure leaning over to pull up the dredge in a timeless rhythm. I would watch night squalls roar across the pond, as doors began slamming and windows rattled and then explosions of lightning lit the shore a quarter mile off. Within minutes calm would be restored, the boats back to their murmuring on their moorings, halyards clicking their odd time signatures against the masts.
On my last day on Quitsa Pond I sat on one of the last remaining pieces of furniture in the living room and allowed myself some time to see all the way back to my first days. I saw myself dancing to a scratched LP of Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly at age seven, I saw card games with mom and dad on a rickety old table. I saw teenage friends passed out on the couch and I heard endless jam sessions and a parade of Island musicians. I saw my Dad, sitting alone on the porch in his last summer, silently staring at the water. Once as he looked out past Chalker’s Creek, he gently asked me, “Have I forgotten anything?” How could I answer such a question? There was so much to say and yet nothing at all. All summer long Dad sat in a rocking chair and stared out at the water. He’d convince himself he’d be back again next year, and who could disagree?
On that last day I stared across the water too, straining to see my whole life spread out on the whitecaps. I briefly pictured the destruction that would soon arrive, but it was too much to imagine. I stepped outside next to the stump of a beloved tree that had just died, and suddenly I heard a whirring, otherworldly hum. It first seemed to come from inside, then behind, then over me. There, flying just above the ridge of the house were three great swans in a tiny V, their wings making a sound that could just have well come from the angels, as they bore north toward the sound. I watched them go until they disappeared in the distance beyond Gull Island.
This was my goodbye.
Joel Harrison is a former summer resident of the Vineyard for 50 years.