Share on Google+

Back to School


I have been digging through the cardboard boxes of family history in the last few weeks.  They have come to my downstairs bedroom and they wait.  After his parents died, my uncle took on their heap of memories, furniture, and artifacts.  He carried them, stored them, and, too soon, left them.  Now, they have fallen to me.

He hadn’t finished, or even started, the archiving.  My grandfather’s pay stubs are mixed in with the wedding photos and the obituary notices.  Someone had simply taken a desk drawer, dumped it into a box, and moved on.  After my uncle’s death, another Someone, intent on clearing a bedroom on a Tuesday afternoon, had dumped his desk drawer into that box.  My grandmother’s rain scarves and brooches now mix with Radiohead CD’s, bouillabaisse recipes, and a commentary on the epistles of St. Paul.  Before consigning the whole mess to the dump or allowing the Cosmic Someone to mix in my own posthumous desk drawers to the heap, I went diving and archiving.  Amid the clippings, coupons, and weekly church missals, I found a thin photo album.

They are a set of back-to-school photographs, ranging from first grade all the way to middle school.  Every September, my mother dressed us in our new clothes, lined us up in the front yard, and snapped our picture.  In one photo, my brother’s white belt and shoes gleam, my sister’s Marimekko dress waits to go back on a curtain rod, and  I appear to be wearing a cowboy shirt and corduroys.  The seventies were strange times. The photos end when I am in sixth grade when we were finally too cool to pose and she had to leave early for her job at an insurance company.

I don’t remember the events of any of the photographs, but I’m sure my mother used every piece of guilt and force to get us to stand still for one minute, look at her, and smile.  Afterwards, we slipped through the Conomachus’ backyard, through the woods and over a stream, to the kickball fields and Doyle School.  

When my mother finally finished the roll of film, several months later, she took it to Bourdon Studio, had it developed, then labeled and dated each photo in her meticulous, Nun-approved handwriting:  “September, 1972.”  Sometime later, when we had all moved out, she collected them in a thin brown plastic album and presented them to her mother.  She labeled it “The Children.”

Later in my life, I learned what went into those pictures. The rest of that desk drawer of appointments, bank statements, and payments piled up and became that photograph.  My parents had a dozen leaky balloons to keep in the air.  They spent their day scurrying around tapping each sagging balloon back up.  Mortgage, car repair, credit card bills, time, energy, marriage, aging parents, their own health, and each one of us kids, all floated slowly down to the ground.  We were unaware of the arrangements made for us to survive.   Each photo was an achievement; another year held off from the bank, the funeral director, and chaos.  Smile for the camera. 

Another September has come to the island and school is back in session. In the fading summer heat, children are lined up on the front step, embarrassed, photographed, and, sent on their way.  There they are: new shoes, new haircut, and our old home. Everything in that photo cost something; the cheapest only cost money. Each family has their own dozen leaky balloons that they have kept off the grass for one more year.

That picture could be taken anywhere. The kids could pose on the front step in Leominster, Agawam, or Timbuktu.   And it would be a lot easier keeping the balloons in the air Anywhere but Nantucket. There is work on the mainland.  The houses cost less, the groceries are cheaper, and you can go to Kmart whenever you want.  The kids can have a normal childhood of basketball leagues, bowling, and Big Macs.

On island, we take it as a matter of faith that Nantucket is a great place to raise children.  And part of that faith is the belief that there is less crime, more opportunity, better schools, and 30 miles of ocean between us and Best Buy.  The mainland, with its crime, drugs, and confusion, is held at bay. As the great gray lid of winter seals us in, as our myths warp and rot, and as we continue to ignore those “unknown” calls from California, we believe that, as bad as it is out here, at least we are not on the mainland. 

However, the strength of Nantucket is not its distance from the mainland but our distance from each other.  The island doesn’t so much push as away from America as it pushes us closer together.   To walk through the Cambridgeside Galleria is to wrap yourself in a cloak of anonymity.  You are neither seen, nor noted, nor remembered.  To walk down Main Street is to sign yourself in.  Our friends, acquaintances, and even our enemies take attendance.  Home is the place where they know where you are, what you are doing, what you will be drinking later (and why you are drinking it).

I grew up in the desert of suburbia.  We had our family and we had our friends, but most of my childhood was seen but not witnessed.  The back-to-school snapshot was my parents’, and only my parents’, achievement.  In the grove of Nantucket, my children walk and play under familiar eyes.  Their school snapshot is an achievement of the island’s.  The island built their school, the island assigns them homework, the island gives us employment, and the island will graduate them and send them out into the world. 

When they return to the island, whether for a weekend or a lifetime, they come back to a place prepared for them.  They return to a spot on the boat where there are duties, obligations, and frustrations, but there is also understanding and welcome.  Even when their mother, father, uncles, and aunts have passed and the years are stacked like cardboard, Someone will always know who they are.  Out here, they will always have a name.

Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published this summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.