Children are everything to this is land. It doesn’t matter if there are just one or two, or as many as eight or nine, a place is set at every table at every meal for every one of them, no matter who their parents are. There are always eyes swelling with love and protection, ready at any moment to jump in and become a real pain. The island kids think they are free spirits. True, they have no limits, no traffic, no extortion, no bullies and no boundaries except the sea and only two rules. The first is that no one goes onto a dock without a life jacket until they’ve learned to swim. Way too embarrassing for these old sea dogs. They’ll tell you they could swim before they were potty-trained. Just let them brag. The other rule is that children are never alone; whether they know it or not, there is always someone watching. Someone who probably wishes they had been watched or had watched someone more closely or had taken the time to notice or be noticed. Childhood, in all its forms with all its complications and contradictions, is at the bottom of every story that comprises what we call the town, a place where all life response is built on a foundation buried so deep as not to be faced or understood or used as a manual for the life following. There is a child in every pocket, watching, re-learning, trying to understand, trying still to get it right.
Christmas is the one time in the whole year that we can go to the town hall or anywhere else on the island for that matter without a huge knot in our stomachs. The day begins with the men gathering the tools they need to go clamming, which means beer, beer, more beer and a couple of rakes. Sometimes the tide cooperates and a few clams are actually raked, but mostly these clamming expeditions involve sitting on the rocks and telling lies. Even the epithets are kind and funny, though quite crude and not fit to print. Then there’s the nap.
Evening festivities at the town hall begin with the usual class of three or four school kids putting on a play and reciting poems. No eyeball rolling here. We are in for the long haul, about 15 minutes. The children decorate the tree with ornaments they’ve made from the things collected on their daily nature walks which the teacher Eleanor insists on — rain, snow, hurricane be damned. The result I’ve noticed, to this day, is that my kids can spot a bird from a mile away and tell you what it is, what it’s doing, if it’s missing any flight feathers and where it will be going tomorrow. All this while I’m stuck at, “Where? What bird?”
Eventually Santa arrives to call each child up onto his lap for their 15 seconds of fame and a carefully chosen gift. Elsie Gower sits quietly, not smoking, listening intently and wishing a Merry Christmas to anyone who makes eye contact, leaving us wondering about our other theories about Elsie, if just for a minute. Santa is usually 300-pound Robbie Greene, but sometimes it’s a rare visitor, maybe even a newspaper reporter looking into Christmas on the edge of the world, who’s always wanted to be Santa but has never been at the right place at the right time and drunk enough — before now. (Robbie always agrees, being just a kid in school himself, he wants presents, too, but the lap is definitely out). Santas come and Santas go, but there is one thing the kids know for sure, Santa has beer breath, even Robbie. A comforting constant in an inconsistent world. At this party you would never know that there was a problem in the world. Everyone mixes and is cordial, catching up with the past year, laughter being the noise of the evening. The food is roughly the same fare, the mac and cheese thing with the addition of the annual steaming bowl of short lobster tails affectionately known as Cuttyhunk crayfish. We don’t know where they come from and we don’t ask. Even Dickie (prime suspect) Becker comes wobbling and sidestepping into the party. It’s the only time he’ll set foot in the town hall. He doesn’t mind getting all political, working somebody up into a lather down at the dock but he won’t do it at the town hall. Hell, he won’t even come up to vote. But at this gathering he loves everybody and everybody loves him, teeth out and grinning from ear to ear, pretty relaxed (at least we think it’s a grin). If confronted with the dramatic difference in atmosphere, the islanders will all answer the same: “It’s for the kids.”
And always there are the eyes of Alfred, watching through the window. He spent all day making centerpieces for the tables from dried things he collected on his nightly walks. He won’t come in, though; he’s a hermit.
Merry Christmas and be kind to someone you don’t like. It’s not that hard, really.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.