Chris and Lynn McDonnell spent their vacation on the Vineyard this year the way they always do. End-to-end walks on Lighthouse Beach, filling Solo cups with shells, beach glass and wampum. Out to eat in Menemsha for fish and lobster. Down to the harborfront in Edgartown for ice cream. Up to Oak Bluffs to say hello to Johnny Cupcakes. Breakfast to go from the Edgartown Deli, eaten family style at the lighthouse.
This year is different, of course. But the memories are there, as vivid as the sunrise that washes over the Edgartown Light on an August morning. This is the place where Grace Audrey McDonnell learned to swim. Where she put bare feet in the warm sand and dreamed aloud of being an artist and living on Martha’s Vineyard.
Grace died on Dec. 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a day now etched in history. She was seven.
Last week Chris and Lynn, their son Jack and Lynn’s sister and brother in law, returned to the Vineyard for a family vacation. The McDonnells have come to the Vineyard every August since Jack, soon to turn 13, was a baby.
And this year they discovered that the Island was not only a place for so many well-loved family vacations, but also a place to begin to heal.
“Coming here felt like it always does,” Lynn McDonnell said. “We came with our hearts heavy and broken, but still we were excited and looking forward to it,” she said.
“And we found peace,” Chris McDonnell said.
“It just feels like summer again,” Lynn added.
They sat beneath the lighthouse last Saturday morning, the kind of perfect August day that makes you wish every day could be just like this. The scene around the lighthouse was a summer tableau. Early-bird beachgoers headed for the shore, colorful towels draped around shoulders. Children dug holes in the sand at the edge of a tidal pool. In the outer harbor a trio of kayakers paddled silently past. Lilly McDonnell, a black Labrador puppy and recent addition to the family, tugged at her leash. On the north side of the lighthouse lies a gray cobblestone, freshly engraved with Grace’s full name and now a permanent part of the Children’s Memorial that surrounds the base of the light. Flowers and scallop shells decorated the stone. This is the place where the light is always on for the children who are remembered there.
“It was one of the first things we did after Grace died,” Lynn said of the cobblestone. “We knew about this memorial because we had been here, of course, and we knew that we wanted Grace to be here.”
A ceremony is held each year in late September at the Children’s Memorial. The McDonnells plan to return for the ceremony, this year, every year.
Their first Vineyard vacation was decided on a whim, and it’s stayed that way since. They stay at the Harbor View Hotel or the Harborside Inn. “Whoever has room for us,” Chris said. They take whatever ferry reservation they can get. They always come the week of the fair and the fireworks. Grace was always the first one packed.
“When Gracie was four or five she took art classes every week,” Lynn said. “She looked at things differently. She saw beauty in everything. She would say, I’m just going to live on the Vineyard and paint,” recalled Lynn.
“We told her, just make sure there is a room in your house for Mom and Dad,” said Chris.
Following the Newtown shooting that left an entire country in shock and mourning, the McDonnells received an outpouring of cards and other expressions, including from the Island.
“So many people from the Vineyard sent us things,” Lynn said. “It meant so much to us.”
In the aftermath many people also gave them books, intended to help them cope. Mostly they couldn’t read them, Lynn said. But in one, a collection of passages, Chris came across a quotation that struck a chord. “It was about the need to go out and reclaim pieces of the person they had lost. And we get that,” he said.
“We can see and feel her everywhere on the Vineyard,” Lynn said. “Especially here at the lighthouse. This was one of her favorite places to be. We have so many pictures. Whenever we left we would bring pieces of the Vineyard with us.”
In a small break with tradition, this summer the McDonnell family stayed in a rented house off North Water street two doors down from the Harbor View. They went to the lighthouse every morning at sunrise. They wrote messages to Grace on small shells and left them on her stone. They made dinner reservations in her name. “Just Grace,” Chris said.
Lynn concluded: “We needed to be where she was. Coming here we got a piece of her back.” In December they will travel to another island Grace loved: Hawaii. They will go to other places too where they shared time as a family.
But first there was the end of a Vineyard summer vacation to savor. An afternoon at the fair. A drive to Aquinnah to the lookout where you can see Cuttyhunk. A last walk end to end at Lighthouse Beach to fill Solo cups with shells and seaglass.
“Grace always said soak it up. That was a favorite expression of hers. And that’s what we are going to do,” Chris said.