My son went surfing yesterday. The swells in May are generally fairly gentle, but the water remains in the winter fifties. With the southwesterly winds, the beach has given up its cliff and has picked up the scallop shape and sandbars of the summer. He borrowed a dry suit and a board, rode out to a deserted beach with his friends, and spend the afternoon attempting to ride in to shore.
He doesn’t need me at the beach-and there isn’t much that I could do. I grew up in suburban Boston and spent my spring afternoons caddying at the country club or at home in front of the Three Stooges. The island doesn’t offer those amenities; it has wind and waves and a left hand break at low tide. Since I didn’t grow up within earshot of breaking waves, I no longer have much to offer the young and adventurous. At best, I could sit on the beach in polar fleece and jeans and take pictures. At worst, I could find a way to mess everything up. A time arrives in a boy’s life when his father holds the string and he flies high like a kite. A parent’s job is to stand back, buy some pizza, and trust that today isn’t that day.
My son isn’t the only one to go racing before the wind. The runners are out and the bicyclists have been working on the new paths. Even some of our summer visitors are here, walking up the middle of Centre Street.
Summer has sprouted in the backyard. The wind still bears down and the fog looms, but the moors are tinged with red and the donuts are back. The flowers appeared only a little early this year, followed by the old cars and the funny hats, and suddenly Nantucket was back in business again.
Winter has not flipped the table; downtown looks much as it looked in the fall. The wires are off the poles and you can get a soy mocha latte at the Hub now, but otherwise the street, the town, and the island look as much as they always have. We pray for that; islanders look forward by looking back. Houses are moving around the island, the cement trucks are spinning, and the realtors have pressed their pants to a keen edge.
We love our daffodils. The flowers embody the Nantucket soul in the spring. They come up early, the burn bright against the gray, and they just get more and more crowded year after year. The Daffodils don’t migrate across the field or need to get repotted and replanted every year. They are like us; they pop up in the same place, year after year, thicker and brighter. The scrub pines grow over them and the roads creep up, but the daffodils continue to multiply and thicken. Thirty years of daffodils fill the roads and yards of the island. In another twenty-five years, perhaps they will push through the pavement and shove out the hydrangea.
I would like my son to cling as tenaciously to the island as the daffodils do. Twenty-five years from now, if he is happy, golden, and hidden out of the wind and snow, the future will have been generous and kind. Any father who looks back thirty years to his own boyhood remembers a very different place.
I came to the island almost twenty-five years ago. Nantucket was a busier, emptier, and older place. Work crews were building Tom Nevers and Nashaquisset. The great wealth had yet to be earned by either the plumbers or the realtors. Islanders still owned the banks, the utilities and the inns. Cable was spotty, the power was generated downtown, and the police were still in town. Many got rich, some grew poor and others left. The daffodils continue to bloom.
Year after year, our daffodil life looks more luxurious. Yet, year after year, our island life is even more precarious. The most recent recession proved that the great real estate engine could not only stop, but it could slide back down the hill. Our changing tourist base left the Atlantic Cafe in the dust. But the greatest threat to the island comes from the weather.
Global warming remained a headline flight for the last twenty-five years. Movies came and movies went, but the hurricanes kept missing and October remained warm and comfortable. In the last year, the storms are coming closer and closer. For the first time, the big white ships can’t make their schedule. Without the big white ships, the tourists and their eighteen wheelers that they need become more and more unreliable. Without the boat and the visitors, we will all be picking cranberries. One winter’s worth of storms shifted the sands in Hyannis harbor. What happens to all of those shifting sands in the next season’s storms. Or in the next ten years.
The folks in Sconset no longer believe in the permanence of sand and turf or the ingenuity of engineers and pumps. The million dollar views have been discounted to free. The years will let you know how long Baxter Road will remain drivable. Nature, like time, remains undefeated. The waves will continue to break at the foot of the bluffs until all the daffodils washed out to sea.
Twenty-five years from now, I hope my son will be sitting on a dune much like the one that supports me now. I hope his son or daughter is well wrapped in a dry suit and can spring to the top of the board at the first curl of the wave. I hope they can still cling to their lives on island, as the daffodils do.