When I met Johnny Mayhew, my future husband, he had just returned to Brown University to finish his education after three and a half years as a World War II Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific. He was a handsome 26-year-old veteran, and I was a 20-year-old naive college sophomore, with no clue as to what my future might hold.

After growing up all over the Orient and then fighting in a war, Johnny was eager to settle down to a more peaceful existence on the Island where nine generations of his forebears had lived. As an English major, he had no specific business skills, but his cousins Everett and John Whiting, along with their friend, Willie Huntington, were starting up an oyster company on Tisbury Great Pond. They called it the Quansoo Shellfish Farm.

Everett’s main occupation was farming, John Whiting was a professor of anthropology and Willy was an artist. They needed someone to do the actual work of gathering and marketing the oysters. My husband was only too happy to spend his days on the peaceful pond instead of in the air.

I had never tasted a lobster, let alone an oyster, until I had grown up, married and, in 1947 settled on the Vineyard. I had grown up in Westchester County, N.Y., which wasn’t too far from the water, but my mother, born and raised in the Midwest, was not a fish eater. We ate a lot of chicken and pot roast and meatloaf when I was young. And I hadn’t learned how to cook. For years when Johnny introduced me, he liked to say, “She didn’t know how to boil water when I married her.”

Albert O. Fischer

I did know how to boil water, but I was nonplussed when, on our first morning home after our honeymoon, he wanted scrambled eggs for breakfast. I had never scrambled an egg. And I had no idea I would be slurping down live oysters in my first year of marriage.

During my last months of college, I did some research on Ostrea virginica, the type of oyster grown on the East Coast of the United States, so I wouldn’t appear ignorant to the man I was trying to impress. I learned the meanings of the terms used by oyster farmers — spat (the newly-hatched tiny oyster that swims freely about for 10 days before attaching itself to a rock or shell where it spends the rest of its life; cultch (the material, generally oyster or scallop shells, spread by the farmer for the spat to attach to); and mollusk (an animal without a backbone but with an outer shell). A mollusk is often called a bivalve, which means it has a shell in two parts held together by a hinge. To open an oyster, that hinge must be cut. I tried to drop these tidbits into the conversation when we were out walking.

We spent the first 12 years of our married life with the Quansoo Shellfish Farm from 1947 to 1950, and then with the Vineyard Shellfish Company, a small corporation we formed in 1950, trying to support ourselves by growing oysters while we produced three children and dreamed about a house of our own.

After some initial opposition from fishermen in town, we were able to lease 100 acres of Tisbury Great Pond bottom. Then we leased a parcel of land on the pond belonging to Mildred Purdom, and built a shucking shed. In 1951, we had a specialized boat made by Luther Blount of Rhode Island. It was designed to fit the needs of dredging oysters in a pond. We named it Deborah June, after our daughter born that April. Johnny hired several young men to help run the boat and dredge the oysters. Kib Bramhall, Tommy Flynn, George King, Albie Scott, Kent Healy and Roland Authier were among some of the young men who spent their first working days dredging oysters from the Deborah June nearly 60 years ago.

Farming oysters is a hard way to make a living, and that was especially true in those days. The winters were colder, and when Tisbury Great Pond froze over, the dredging — and our income — came to a halt. In early summer the oysters reproduced, and while the spat were in their free-swim phase, the weather was crucial. An early summer storm could wipe out the entire population of those free-swimming, tiny oysters. That meant, that five years hence, when they would have been mature enough to harvest, there would be no harvest.

It wasn’t easy, and we ate a lot of oysters. The year-round population of the Vineyard was only about 5,000 in those days, and not many of the Islanders ate oysters. So we shipped them to Boston to wholesale seafood dealers for $3 a bushel or $6 a gallon. Surprisingly, some of them were shipped back to the Edgartown A&P — there was no local food craze in those days.

For many years I never served an oyster dish to company. I thought of oysters as food for the poor, as we were then. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that I served an oyster stew to a few friends who dropped in on Christmas afternoon. When they were enthusiastic about it, I realized I had a good thing going. I learned how to make a delicious oyster casserole, as well as a few other oyster dishes. Johnny became known for his broiled oysters on the halfshell, and his oysters Rockefeller. Later, when he began to set a few lobster pots and go scalloping in the winter, we rarely served meatloaf or chicken to our guests.

Oyster stew on Christmas afternoon became a tradition that we carried on for almost 30 years. Our elders died, babies were born, and some years we had three generations attending our party. Johnny would dredge a bushel or two of oysters in December, when they are at their best, and then stand at the kitchen sink opening them. It is a skill that I never learned. But on the morning of Christmas Eve, I would turn eight pints of oysters into two gallons of stew, flavored with a little sherry. Over the next 24 hours, the flavor of the oysters and their oyster liquor would mingle with the milk and the cream and the butter and the paprika to produce a tasty wintertime treat for the palate. The dry sherry was the crowning touch.

As the years went by and we approached our eighties, I continued to make the stew, but the effort of getting the oysters and opening them became too much for Johnny. Our party moved around the corner to daughter Deborah’s house, and the tradition, begun in the early 1970s, goes on. Johnny died in 2012, and I moved to an apartment I built onto Deborah’s house.

An average of 50 adults and children, now mostly adults and teenagers, still congregate each year to renew love and friendship after a morning with their families, giving and receiving presents. It is a fitting way to end the Vineyard holiday season.

Shirley Mayhew lives in West Tisbury.