Finding Martha's Vineyard
At least once a year for half a century I have made the trip to the island of Martha's Vineyard, seven miles off the coast of Cape Cod. It is only recently that I have come to understand that my trips to this small island are a pilgrimage. I come here in search. Of what changes with the years, the seasons, the state of the world and of life. The constant is that it is to the Vineyard, this island that is only one hundred square miles but contains a world in itself, that I come.
As a child what I sought was straightforward. The company of other children my age-who I met, remet, grew up with each summer-and endless fun. The easy, desultory, undivided attention of my mother who, when out of New York City, where we lived, was not distracted by work, or managing four children and a husband, or the everyday stresses that make city living so full of pressure. On Martha's Vineyard my mother, A'Lelia, relaxed, and so did her four children. Here it was fine to wear my bathing suit from sunup until I peeled it off at night, took a bath, and fell into bed. As a child on the island I spent most of my time in the company of children, unaccompanied by any adult, something that did not happen in the city, where there was much to look out for and avoid. There were so few dangers here. Summer days were planned solely by us kids, most often around multiple trips to the beach. we walked or ran or rode our bicycles where we needed to go; most everything was within reach, encompassed by the borders of Oak Bluffs, the town where we lived. In this one place we could swim, fish, go crabbing, pick blueberries and flowers, play tennis and basketball, go to the library, play board games and cards, or just sit on someone's porch steps or in a big wicker rocking chair, talking and watching the people pass by. Back then, there weren't nearly as many.
Most of the formality of life that defined the rest of the year was abandoned during our three months here, the rules of the household relaxed until they were almost nonexistent. Make your bed in the morning, let me know where you’re going, don’t go in the water by yourself, and be home for dinner were the only regulations that survived all easily complied with. Most days, lunch was a sandwich hastily thrown together and eaten with friends in between more important activities. Dinner was more likely to be a cookout than anything else, shared with other mothers and their children on the island for the summer, often the same kids we'd spent the day running around with. Hot dogs, hamburgers, corn, and salad eaten off paper plates, followed by watermelon or, if we were lucky, ice cream. The kids sat around an old picnic table or lay in the grass or sat on the porch steps eating and laughing, seamlessly continuing conversations begun early that morning. During the week most of the fathers had gone back to work and would not return until the weekend, so our mothers sat in chairs on the porch, laughing and talking as the sun slowly fell below the horizon. They ate slowly, the sound of ice tinkling in cocktail glasses and the music of Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, or Gloria Lynn softly weaving around them in the growing twilight.
It is not until I am a grown woman and a mother myself that I recognize and understand how much these days on the Vineyard meant to my mother and all the other mothers. On the Vineyard, chores could be neglected, laundry pile up, books and magazines left wherever they fell, meals simplified. During these summer months our mothers could imagine themselves whoever they wished to be, and disregard the fact that nine months of the year they were teachers, or social workers, or librarians, or doctors. On the Vineyard, freed from the constraints of identity, habits, and expectations, the parameters of who they were nine months of the year were, if not fully erased, then definitely blurred, and they could reinvent themselves. Pursue dreams and interests that there was little or no time for the rest of the year. Here, Mommies took painting classes and seriously worked on their art; read all the books they'd had no time for during the winter and started a book club; played tennis twice a day, competed in the annual tennis tournament, and sometimes won; spent lazy afternoons on the beach with their women friends, laughing and keeping one eye out for their own and one another's children. Monday through Friday, and sometimes for weeks at a time if Daddy had to work on the weekend or couldn't face the then grueling trip to the island, we lived in the soft, intuitive, casual world of mothers and children. The more formal meals with Daddy, or entertaining Daddy's friends, or trying to be really good and not too loud because Daddy worked so hard and was tired and sometimes grumpy when he arrived, were vanquished until Friday night when the "Daddy Boat" pulled into the harbor in Vineyard Haven. On Fridays before Daddy came we cleaned the house, piled the magazines in their place, and returned library books. It was only on the weekends that we had a real dinner like we used to in the city, at a table indoors, complete with meat, a starch, and two vegetables.
Yet many weekends even Daddies couldn't resist the pull of the Vineyard. Having made his pilgrimage, there was nothing to do but submit to the easy life. Even my dentist father, Stanley, a man who held incredibly high expectations and could deliver devastatingly harsh judgments to those who disappointed him, relinquished many of his regulations. Some weekends he arrived and was magically transformed-by the island, laughing Mommy with the short shorts and bare midriff, or his children brown as raisins, happy, still squabbling occasionally but with less intensity-into a laughing adventurer. At such times my father took us on long rides around the island, turning up new roads, stopping whenever he felt like it to enjoy a view, pick blueberries, and tour a farm. In the I960s you could still make fires on the beach, and we'd go to the beach beneath the clay cliffs of the town that is now Aquinnah but was then Gay Head, on the westernmost tip of the island. We would swim, run the beach, and eat all day, then make a bonfire and cook lobster, new potatoes, and corn on the cob in an enormous pot filled with seaweed and ocean water. It was on such days I had my strongest feelings that we are a family, not by happenstance but by disposition. I wonder if my parents felt the same way.
Part of the magic of Martha's Vineyard is that we were, all of us, more free here than anyplace else. On the island we did not have to worry about our personal security. We did not lock doors; we left keys under the mat in the car, slept with windows wide open, absent the need to protect our person or property from outside invaders. The endless cautions and worries of life on the mainland virtually disappeared for the summer. No speeding cars, sinister subways, lurking nuts or potential perverts and criminals waiting to pounce. The litany of what to watch out for that was a constant of life off-island was essentially unnecessary here in this place, where a few rules and just enough common sense would get you through the summer without incident.
As important for African Americans was that on the Vineyard we were insulated from many of the racial assumptions and expectations, most of them negative, that at the least intruded upon and at the worst defined many of our lives off-island. Here, we were not the only one, or one of very few, as was so often the case where we lived, worked, and went to school. On the Vineyard in the town of Oak Bluffs we lived in an integrated community, one with a significant number of black families. A community largely composed of people who were college educated, many of them professionals, all of them hardworking. There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good as or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony. For the months of summer the weight of being race representative-and all the political, emotional, and psychic burdens that come with demanding that an individual represent a nonexistent monolith-was lifted. Absent these constraints, the Vineyard was an ideal place to figure out who we really were underneath all the other stuff. Here, it was enough that you simply be yourself. As I have grown older the challenge often has been figuring out who exactly that was.
The live and let live, we're all in this together, don't mess with me and I won't mess with you nature of the Vineyard made such exploration, internal and external, possible. I think this is partly attributable to the sensibility of New Englanders, who in my experience and observation are basically neutral folks who want to go about their business and for you to go on about yours. These are people who interact when necessary and shy away from the superfluous. Add to that regional persona the reality that islands, where everyone and everything must be carried over water, either by boat or plane, inherently create a sense of community. Here, the intellectual understanding that we are all in the same boat becomes concrete and specific. Bounded by water, it is nearly impossible to ignore the fragility of the environment we share. If bad weather prevents the ferries from docking and delivering food, we are all without. If there is an outbreak of disease, all of us who are here are vulnerable. Physical space is finite and delicate. There is only so much water, waste, trash, and building that this small island can sustain. The same, too, for people. The ever-expanding popularity of the Vineyard over the last decades-some say it began with the Kennedys, others the summer visits of President Bill Clinton in the I990s, many argue that it was impossible that this beautiful island remain a secret forever-has profoundly stressed the island's infrastructure, changed its physicality and character in many ways. This lovely island has become a place that has cachet. With that have come many more people, cars, lines, and an odd frenzy that seems to boil down to "I need to hurry up and relax!" What is surprising is the ways the island has not changed. That with all the cars, houses, people, and hassles it still remains an odd, physically beautiful, eclectic slice of paradise.
As a child spending summers on the Vineyard, it seemed the only thing that could hurt us was the Atlantic Ocean that surrounded us, and we were taught to treat it with respect. Don't go swimming alone, don't go out too far, never chase after a raft or inner tube blown out by the wind, watch out for the undertow. We adhered to these admonitions, and the ocean welcomed us, became a constant companion in these long, lovely days. Taking a swim or a dip punctuated the daylight hours: eat breakfast, go swimming; mow the lawn or sweep the porch, go swimming; go to the tennis court for lessons, go swimming; race on bicycles around town with a gang of kids, through the little parks that dot Oak Bluffs, then race through Warwick Avenue, where the houses were gray, abandoned, turned inward as if haunted, and, once we were hot, sweaty, exhausted, go swimming again.
Swimming continues to frame my days here. I wake before the sun comes up and write, then go swimming at the Oak Bluffs town beach (known by some as the Inkwell, a name whose origin has spawned many stories but one I'm not fond of), either alone or with the Polar Bears, a group of summer residents, some of whom have swum together since the 1940s. Then I write, garden, read, work in the house, run errands, and on most days swim again. Sometimes it is not until early evening that I am able to return to the water. The beach is almost empty, the last straggling families slowly packing up their stuff for the trek home, the sun hanging in the western sky, as often as not deep red as it sinks below the horizon. Whatever the day has brought with it, the water, cold as it usually is, soothes and rejuvenates. It is true what my younger ·brother Ralph says to me one summer, "I have never regretted going into the water here."
I experienced many of the rituals of adolescence and young womanhood on this island. It is here I have my first serious crush, first kiss, learn to slow dance and flirt with boys. On the island, even the adolescent insanity of hormones run amok, moods wildly swinging, my body morphing almost before my very eyes, are mitigated and soothed. The possibilities of wild experimentation and making youthful mistakes are rife here and tolerated; the consequences are less extreme. Here there are multiple communities that watch out for childhood and youthful transgressions, creating a sense of community and collective responsibility absent on a mainland and cities blessedly left behind. For the most part, the police and other authorities, drawn to the island for the same reasons we all are, react with consideration and restraint, choosing to resolve rather than win. Growing up here I was chided, warned, occasionally sent home by police officers, but never abused verbally or physically. There was, for the most part, the presumption of everyone's right to be here, the goal peaceful, law-abiding coexistence.
As an adolescent and teenager, the physical, tactile connection to the community of Oak Bluffs in which I live helps keep me grounded. Here, I am always someone's daughter, sister, or friend, recognized and acknowledged as such. I have a place. The expectations of others, while here, are simplified. What is necessary here is that I be cordial to others and act responsibly. I learn what this means at ten or eleven, when I ride my bike past a friend of my parents' sitting on her porch and do not wave or say hello. When I get home that evening my transgression has been reported. Even though it is evening and I am tired, sweaty, and hungry, my legs aching from a long day biking, my mother sends me back out to ride the six blocks to this woman's house, apologize, and say good evening. I do not remember neglecting to speak after that.
On this island, embraced by the community and the water, indulgence and experimentation are both possible and prescribed. This is a place where, growing up, it is safer to experiment than where we came from. So much privacy to do what we want, yet the truth is we are seldom out of sight of a grown-up who knows who we are. Growing up here, it is more likely that I will be caught talking dirty or acting badly by some friends of my parents who won't hesitate to admonish me publicly and then go tell my parents, than by the police. Even when someone is caught by the police on the beach at night, making out or sharing an underage beer, it is more likely that the cops will warn you and tell your parents than arrest you. Growing up, this is a place where, if the cops overreacted to crowds of black kids on the beaches or on Circuit Avenue, our parents got involved, held meetings, and demanded response and redress from the chief of police and town officials.
Certainly the Vineyard is not a racial utopia, but it was and is better than most places. Or at least for the most part it seems that way, maybe because there has always been a finite, acceptable number of black families here. The obvious bond of race is augmented and in recent years perhaps trumped by the bonds of class. It is a bond we share with one another and with most of the seasonal visitors to the island, other than the day trippers, who arrive on an early boat, without cars, and leave in the evening. It is not until 1995, when thousands of young black people come to the Vineyard to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend and are treated abusively by the police, that the fabric of our racial solidarity and protectionism, rent before, is torn. That year, it is as if the island exceeded an invisible tipping point, and all hell breaks loose. For months after July 4, the public and private discussion rages, and letters to the editor are published in the island newspapers, the Vineyard Gazette and Martha's Vineyard Times. I am surprised and saddened to find that the discussions, many using the nomenclature of "Them" versus "Us;' are participated in by people of all races. Now, the dividing line seems to be longevity on the island and ownership. Sometimes "Us" is used by black homeowners with years of roots here, who refer to "Them" as the weekend visitors, newcomers, who presumably lack the requisite longevity and black bourgeois credentials that would entitle them to the peaceful enjoyment of the island that is a public right.
Yet as much as we are united by class and race, neither is absolute. These obvious identifiers are trumped by the seductions of the physical and psychic separation of Martha's Vineyard from the rest of the world. In the plaza in front of the Oak Bluffs post office are two mailboxes. For years one was labeled "On Island;' the other, "America.” The fact that we are on an island, detached from the mainland, isolated consciously or not, necessitates a level of mental detachment from many of the demands of the so-called real world. We may come here by choice, but it is also true that we are trapped by geography. On Martha's Vineyard there is no simply getting in your car or on a plane and leaving. Once here, we are all captives, dependent on the ferry schedule, the weather, and the season. It is these factors that define our comings and goings. Voluntarily captive, we are forced to figure out ways to coexist, live and let live, to create a reasonably civil society that encompasses all who are here.
My mother, Leil (named A'Lelia after black hair products queen Madam C. J. Walker's daughter, for whose company my mother's father was general manager, who we kids nicknamed "Leil" as teenagers), always said that what convinced her and my father to come back after their first visit in 1956 and eventually buy a home here in 1968 was that there were other black middle-class families here, that her children could be free here, and that the island itself was so beautiful. Yet I am convinced that the pull for her, as for me, as for most of us who return each year to this place, whatever our religion or lack of it, is also deeply spiritual. Arriving here, there is always this sense of something lifting, a burden lightened, even if you did not consciously know you were carrying one. More often than not, this lifting is both figurative and literal. This is how it manifests: Boarding the ferry in Woods Hole shrouded by clouds or rain or fog, I still cannot resist sitting outside on deck as the boat moves toward the Vineyard. More often than not, as the island comes into view, the clouds abruptly lift and the sun shines through, if only for a few moments. Or coming in on the small propeller plane from Boston-we fly through thick clouds or fog, disoriented and with no sense of place, it seems as if we are almost drifting in a sea of gray, lost. Then we begin the descent, flying through the clouds and suddenly there it is beneath me, Martha's Vineyard, the red, gray, and yellow cliffs of Aquinnah, the beach at Katama, the harbors in Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs or Menemsha clearly visible beneath the clouds.
Sometimes the plane comes in right over Ocean Park and I can see my mother's house perched on the corner, waiting for and welcoming me. As we descend to the small airport runway I am simultaneously lifted, made buoyant by the aura of this island before my body has even touched land, before I have immersed myself in water. What brings most of us back to the island, I have discovered, is that sense of the end of a long pilgrimage, of homecoming that is tangible and intangible, objective and subjective, personal and public. We are, all of us who are seduced by and become addicted to this island, across class, race, geography, age, politics, all the other elements that can separate or unite us, in search of a place we can truly and sincerely and spiritually call home. What is amazing and magical about this small island is that it is possible for so many different people to find home, however they define that elusive place, on Martha's Vineyard. In the end, what unites us are the coincidence, commonality, and community of being at home on this island.
It is only as an adult that I begin to think about, understand, and articulate the water as something other than simply the Atlantic Ocean. Now, I believe the water rejuvenates, heals, if not all, then at least much; it is always good for what ails me. Tired, hungover, angry, hot, immersion in the water is always good. A scraped knee or later a hand slightly burned while cooking heals faster once the saltwater gets to it. Raised by two agnostics, I am not a religious woman: Perhaps all these years on the Vineyard have made me a spiritual one. I know that every morning when I immerse myself in the ocean I do so not only because I love to swim or because it is good exercise. It is also a nonsectarian baptism, an anointing necessary to my well-being.
Who, once fear is overcome, is not seduced by buoyancy, the weightlessness of floating, the gravity-defying, almost out-of-body experience of being in water? I have swum here for almost fifty summers and yet each time is like the first time: the shock of the cold water, the forced immersion, the seduction and surety of buoyancy, however heavy my body, mind, or spirit might feel on dry land. I cannot recall a time when the water did not make me smile, feel better. I come to this water not only on cloudless, hot, happy days, but in the midst of storms, external and internal. I immerse myself after funerals, fights, fantasies gone bad, with a heart so full of love it feels as if it might burst from my chest in ecstasy or so battered and shattered that on land I am afraid it might fragment into a zillion pieces. It was into this water that I dove after my first friend died over thirty years ago. Mugged by grief when my mother dies in January of 2001, it is when I come to this island in June and dive into the water that it finally becomes real to me that I will survive this terrible loss. The ocean revives, reminds, provides context.
It is both ironic and fitting that it is to this island in the Atlantic Ocean, the same ocean that brought our ancestors to the New World in slave ships, that so many black Americans come each summer to lay their burdens down. Perhaps this is what is meant by "let the circle be unbroken;' this sense that what goes around comes around, that the waters that brought the most profound oppression can, centuries later, provide no small measure of freedom.
Pilgrims, whether to Lourdes or Mecca or the New World or Martha's Vineyard, are united by the journey. We come to Martha's Vineyard in search of as many things as there are visitors: Some of these overlap, many do not. Yet I am convinced that we all cross the boundaries of race, class, age, religion, and geography to come to this island in search of home. For black Americans, this search for home is perhaps most profound. Most of us have no specific, tangible ties to our ancestors' homeland, the vast continent of Africa. For the most part, we do not know what region or country our ancestors came from, have no inkling of what name 'or address to put on the envelope if we wanted to send a letter home. Sometimes I think a yearning for home was implanted in the molecular memory of each person chained in the holds of a slave ship as it pulled away from the shores of Africa, to be passed down through generations. Language, history, families, and stories may have been destroyed or forgotten, but this desire for a home place abides. Our yearning for home is both greatest and least defined. We know we're looking for it, can't describe it, but will know it when we get there.
For many African Americans, "there" is here, on Martha's Vineyard. The routes we travel to get to this home on an island are as diverse as how we spend our days and nights here, what kind of work we do off-island, what our values are, how we look. Yet small as it is, the Vineyard has a magical ability to expand to accommodate just about everyone. A gorgeous screen, its backdrop the Atlantic Ocean, onto which we can each project the internal narrative that works for us. The wonder of it is that Martha's Vineyard, nine miles wide and twenty miles long at its furthest point, is expansive enough to accommodate all these different notions of what home can, should, and does mean. For those of us who are lucky enough to connect with this physical place in ways that are also profoundly spiritual, in finding the island of Martha's Vineyard we also find home.