Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 10 • July 8-14, 2010
now in our 40th season

Hidden Volumes

by Robert P.Barsanti

Years ago, before there were high-speed ferries, DVD’s, and $500 bottles of wine for sale at the package store, my mother, Mary, and my uncle, Father Jim, came to the island for one warm weekend.  I showed them the houses falling into the water at Cisco, we walked the full bluff walk in Sconset, and they ate muffins from the Morning Glory Café.  On their last night, we swung by Sayle’s for four live lobsters.  With our new passengers in the back of the car, I backed out of the slot and headed back to town.  My uncle touched my shoulder at the Kayak beach.

“You want some ocean water,” he said.


“It’s the best thing to cook lobsters in.”

I rolled my eyes, brought the car to a stop, and found three empty bottles in the back of the Chevette.  Without their help, I walked across the sand, took off my shoes, rolled up my pants and collected 36 ounces of the famous Nantucket harbor water (We know of no other seawater that costs so much to brew and age….)

Back at my apartment behind Sue Vallette’s house, I dutifully emptied the harbor water into the pot, heated it to a boil, and dropped the bugs into the steam. The lobster meat was sweeter than any other I had had. My Uncle James was, of course, correct.

They are both dead now.  My mother died sixteen years ago at the end of a long twilight struggle with cancer.  My uncle died two weeks past after five years of intermittent surgeries, therapies, recoveries, and more surgeries.  My mother’s belongings were slipped from our house by an aunt and some neighbors over the course of a long weekend, but my uncle’s belongings still fill his rooms at the rectory.

My brother and I have been dipping in and out of his belongings since then.  We pass through Boston, stop at St. Columbkille’s, chat with the Monsignor, and then become marooned in his room.  There are a dozen canes, two dozen grabbers, and an empty Dopp kit; there are twenty Hawaiian shirts, two full bags of ugly sweaters, and two hundred T-shirts in various sizes, colors, and designs.  Most of all, there are books.  Hundreds of them, lined up on shelves, stacked on the floor and arrayed in boxes.  Books on tape, books on CD, and books still in their bags and boxes; we have a whole library and a lifetime of paper.

The death of an old person is the loss of a library.  Inside their minds lay shelves of a lifetime:  volumes of love, of history, of sad lessons, deep joy, and the boring luxury of living every day.  The island lost Mimi Beman, Gilles Bridier, Ann Killen, Tony Viera and a host of others this winter and spring.  Each took with them a lifetime of trivia, tricks, and wisdom that the rest of us on the north side of the dirt will have to relearn the hard way.

As for my uncle, we lost his knowledge of Greek roots, his personal map of Bolivia and Peru, and the black and blue wisdom of twenty years.  Instead, we have three solid feet of videotapes on archaeology, four different versions of the Harry Potter series (print, audio, video, and Spanish), and ten commentaries on the New Testament.  However, deep inside the reserved stacks (now closed) were far richer volumes.

I am sure there was more than enough outdated and unnecessary trivia as well.  Just as libraries sometimes contain the 1955 World Book Encyclopedia, so too do our elders have outdated ideas and beliefs.  I wouldn’t look to my dearly departed uncle for advice on computers, personal finance, or physical fitness.  I have other relatives who have only barely filed away their neuroses, sexism, and racism.  Libraries have lots and lots of books, more than a few of which are pretty repellant.
To enter that library, to access the wisdom within, a younger person needs a healthy dose of skepticism, an open mind, and need for cash.  Poverty sharpens the intellect and unplugs the ears.  The valuable wisdom comes from surviving your mistakes.  Most of the valuable life-long lessons that I have learned came with a bruise and a bill; the ones that didn’t came from a patient and judicious ear.

My uncle could not rebuild a transmission, rake for scallops, or bodysurf.  He could, however, finish the New York Times Sunday Crossword in an hour, bake a lamb roast in pastry, and hike from village to village in the Andes.  James had picked up more than his share of bruises. From his library, I wanted to read his grief and his joy.  I wanted that slim leather bound edition of hard and sad wisdom.

I only got to see glimpses of its dark cover   He kept it hidden away for the most part.  He could share his cooking tips (“Only use unsalted butter!” “Whiskey is better than Sherry”) and his reading habits, but the valuable stuff was filed away in the deep stacks.  He wouldn’t volunteer too many words about growing up in the Great Depression, his life in the priesthood, or growing up with my mother.  For my part, I didn’t have the time to go searching.  Kids had to be fed and entertained, students needed to be taught, and my own life was lurching from sea to mountain and back again.  I was in too much of a hurry to stop in Brighton, and he was too slow to catch up to me.

I thought there would be another summer.  School would end, the driving would cease, and we all could be on the porch with shrimp and a tumbler of Red Breast.  The past would open its doors and bring all of life’s houseguests out for afternoon cocktails and croquet on the back porch.  Let all of those teachers, neighbors, coaches, and parents leave their rooms and come down to the bar.  Let us walk from chatty group to chatty group in the warm golden evenings of July when there is finally Time Enough.

They never come down.  The rooms stay locked and quiet, with only the barest of whispers audible through the paneling.  Instead, I wait for them down on the porch, surrounded by all of these kids and students.  What am I supposed to say to them?


Nantucket’s most complete events & arts calendar • Established 1970 • © © 2019  Yesterday's Island •