Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 3 • May 21-28, 2009
now in our 39th season


by Robert P. Barsanti

I returned to the island recently from a land far away. 

Usually, when I travel to and from the island, I fly.  Flying costs more, is less comfortable, and does not serve cold beverages, but the actual traveling is over in about twenty minutes.  If you plug yourself into your ipod as the wheels leave the tarmac in Hyannis, after one Jimmy Buffet album, you emerge on the cracked island pavement minutes later, same as when you started.

Those minutes saved are important.   My time is not my own.  I share it with lovers, friends, and students—all of whom have deadlines, expectations and desires.  She needs to be picked up at eight, everyone is meeting at the Brotherhood at nine, and those essay grades should be on the desks by 8:30 in the morning.  You have to keep the plates spinning.

Then the fog happens. Ten miles inland, the Technicolor hills are alive with the sound of music.  Further down the road, a purple curtain descends.  Hyannis Airport becomes a large parking lot.  The water and the wet air is gray and silent and still.  You catch the plates, corral the pool cues, set them on the table, and make your phone calls.

Off-island, the weather is an afterthought.  It comes 22 minutes past the hour, accompanied by a hello to the fourth grade at Don Kent Elementary and a lot of bright, swooping graphics. Perhaps we need a coat, perhaps we need a sweater, perhaps we need to start the windshield wipers.   On-island, we know better.  The ocean will turn, the wind will pick up, and suddenly we will be without boats or planes for a few days.  The ocean just wipes out your desk calender.

So it did on this Friday.  By the time I passed the Cape Cod Mall, I had put my sunglasses away, turned the air conditioner off, and located my polarfleece.  The slow boat awaited.

You have to surrender to the slow boat.  Whatever it was you wanted to spend these three hours on, that time is now paid to the Steamship Authority.  You can read.  You can work.  You can play cards.  You can sleep in your car or on a bench.  You can stand on the deck in the wind and follow the whale road out to the horizon.  But these three hours have been taken away from friends and family and given back to you.

You also have been given a hundred new acquaintances.  You may not talk to the family with the three dogs, but you notice them.  You have so much time, you can’t help but notice, catalogue, judge, and label.  You notice the truck drivers, the band going to the Box, the Latvian housecleaners, and the boss that fired you twenty years ago.  And they notice you.  Even if you sleep in your car, someone has taken attendance and you have been marked present.  The fog, ironically, has melted away your anonymity.  We all know you.

By accident, the slow boat acclimates you to the island.  Not too long ago, the dominant way to get to and from Nantucket was by slow boat.  Memorial Day brought long lines of Wagoneers and Country Squires into the Woods Hole terminal parking lot.  Then, for those four hours, you adjusted to the island.  By the time you started the car again and rolled off the ramp, you had left the culture and concerns of Madison Avenue and State Street behind, and had replaced them with those Broad Street and Macy Lane.

This boat, the last one on a Friday night in May, brought me back home.  It was too warm, it smelled of chili, and the seats clung to my pants.  Outside, a steady south-westerly wind threw a heavy, rolling chop to the boat.  Inside, I took advantage of the gift of time and read a little.  Former students and parents nodded to me as they walked by.  I nodded to the familiar faces I saw.  When I was off-island, I had forgotten who I was.  As I slowly passed the time on the boat, I remembered me home.

A memorial does that.  When you look at one, you don’t remember who  the names were: instead, you remember who you are. When I stand at the head of Main Street and see the name “Leander Alley,” I don’t remember the hero who died on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. I never met him.   Instead, I remember that I was  lucky enough to live through what others did not.  A war memorial strips away the cares and overdue bills of the day and forces us to confront the naked truth of being alive and being free.

Not all memorials are war memorials. The simple and mundane can strip away who you think you are, then confront you with your real life. The  steamship is one such memorial.   By the time you finish the two hour cruise, you have lost the guises and masks you wear off island.

The island is full of memories and, hence, of memorials.  The ones I look to, when I return to the island, aren’t granite and don’t have many names on them. I could list the tastes and foods that remember me home: the Watermelon Cream at the Juice Bar, the cheese special at Henry’s, the Madaket Mystery, the fried clams, and the grinding of sand on a chocolate chip cookie.  But my most important markers are people, be they the ones I taught, the ones I worked with, or the ones I fathered.   They remember me for who I am and what I live for.  My memorials wave from the driver’s seat, smile in the grocery store, and know all of Harry Potter’s spells. 

By the time we rounded Brant Point, my off-island guises had been folded and put away.  I wasn’t going to be a tenant, a professional, or even a commuter.  My memorials bring me back to being a friend, a neighbor, and a father.  All I had to do was to keep those three plates spinning.

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