In the twenty-first century, storms come to Nantucket well announced and named. The first whispers come from Twitter and from our Facebook friends who read the cryptic messages from the National Weather Service. We listen in well-earned doubt; we have heard this before. Every season brings a new warning and a near miss. Storms of the Century pass a well worn track to our east before bombing out in the Gulf of Maine and giving the fishes a quick spin. “This time...” the weathermen say, “this one is different.”
And it is. We see the curl on the radar and the thickening sky. Whitecaps pick up in the harbor. The wind builds. The boats cancel. Then the planes stop and the rain begins. The circle shrinks and closes out the mainland. It’s just us. The fever grows. The last of the cat food, milk, and diapers leak from the Stop and Shop. Budweiser and Miller Lite race to the bottom of the walk-in coolers. As night falls, we watch the TV while we can, and hear the rain build into shattering volleys. The wind moans through the power lines.
By dawn, the wind has turned northwest and the rain has frozen to the windows. The first flakes come through the rain and melt on the windows. Then, like cancer, they stick and multiply. The snow becomes general over the island. It falls somewhere over the water and gets flung horizontally at the land. It carves man sized bluffs, and scrapes the bare ground clean. The Sconset road becomes a beach, scalloped into dunes upon dunes. If the power will fail, it will fail now. If the cable will go out, it will go out now.
But then the wind abates, the snow slows, and a few beams of light poke out to the west. Life returns to the island. The plows eventually come through, although it often feels as if the DPW’s snow removal plan relies a great deal on sunlight, warm air, or rain. For the rest of us, we find where we hid the shovels and the ski gloves and we clear a path. Then we take the kids sledding.
In my time on the island, I have only known four places for sledding. The first is hidden deep in Land Bank land and cannot be revealed without the loss of my thumbs. Its location lies locked in my heart, as do my favorite beaches, scalloping grounds, and drink recipes. The second requires a heavy snowfall and a merciful town administration. With those two blessings, you can slide down Orange Street from the Unitarian Church to the Main Street. Those who are nimble and firm of butt, can make the turn at Mitchell’s and carry on down to the Pacific Club. If snow and the plows aren’t helpful, you can sled at Dead Horse Valley. In the plummiest days of the most recent boom, plans were laid for snowmaking and lights on this one track. Sanity regained control of the purse strings and returned the sledding to the dangerous, bush-lined, jump strewn danger path. When you go sledding in a grave yard, even a pauper’s graveyard, you need to pick your path carefully.
However, if you have small children, the best hills for sledding are in the Quaker Cemetery. If you hit it at the right moment, before the sun and the warm southern winds rise high enough, a long run starts at the middle hill and then descends to the deepest part of the field. As the snow melts, the sledders migrate to the shady southern corner which has a short ride, an easy stop, and parking for cold parents.
Not everyone is comfortable sledding in a graveyard. Most of Quakers did not decorate their graves with headstones or markers. As a result, thousands of Friends are buried under the slowly rolling hills. After several storms and a great deal of impious childish laughter, some sensitive soul is bound to post on Facebook or write to the paper about a lack of respect for the dead.
These letters are easy to dismiss. The writer has gone far down the track if he is upset at the laughter of children. On the other hand, If it gets people to think about the dead buried all about us, the letter has done some good work. On Nantucket, we forget an ugly and unpleasant truth; almost every acre of this island contains the dead. Farmers and Quakers weren’t shy about burial in the back forty, nor were the Wampanoag who hunted here for thousands of years previous. Richard III was just found under a parking lot in England; who is to say where all the Husseys, Macys, Starbucks, and Mitchell’s are right now? They are as likely to be under a Hydrangea bush as a gravestone.
In the new millennium, what do we remember of the long departed? Hundreds of years ago, they built fortunes out here. They sailed the Atlantic and then the Pacific for whales and oil and light. They built the houses downtown that the realtors sell and the carpenters gut. They brought cups and pitchers and tools for their descendants to use and then donate to the Whaling Museum. In the words of the poet, this is the end of the whale road and the whale. Their works have crumbled and burned, their heirs spread across the world, and their stories silent.
The dead visited me for coffee recently. The most recent storm coincided with the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. After seventeen years, most of her memories have gone underground; I can summon them should I need to, but it requires a map and a shovel. Instead, I have a few mementoes left from the woman who birthed me and changed my diapers: a few dishes, many pictures, some recipes, and a cow puppet on top of the refrigerator. Each year, I mark her death by going out to dinner and ordering dessert. Our bad habits makes us who we are.
As the people in your life die around you, you have to make decisions as to what you will keep. In those first painful moments at the hospital or on the telephone, time rips. Every item, once touched, becomes sacred: this was her wine glass, this was her new Cuisinart, this was her gradebook. The relics grow with grief. Somehow, if enough things are brought together, we could summon her back. Or, if we surround ourselves with enough pictures, clothes, and furniture, the everyday wind and wave won’t overwhelm the hard crystalline memories.
Crystal breaks. Time washes almost everything away. You can’t store it all in the basement, you can’t pay the self-storage bill forever, and nobody wants the furniture or the dresses. So, in the end, you keep a few things and send the rest out into the world to be recycled in someone else’s home. So it is with days. You mark what you want to keep and let the rest wash away. As for me, I suppose I could have marked her wedding anniversary or her birth date, but her death date somehow stuck.
My brother and sister have chosen different days to remember. We don’t have any significant nightmares from our childhood; as far as I know, we haven’t carried anything shameful forward. The tears dried a long time ago and the tragedy has become comedy. I am sure they chose ones that had more joy in them than her last day did. My brother and sister are far more optimistic and positive than I am; they have kept what they value. I believe they have many of her recipes and cooking tools. My brother has an odd Hummel figurine with a chamberpot, which tells you something of him as a child and his mother who memorialized the moment.
After enough moves and trash bags, we only keep what we prize. I could mark my mother’s humor and laughter by picking one of her better days to mark. She had plenty of laughs and cocktails. But I chose a day when she had to be strong and heroic in a futile fight. I chose a day when she entered the hospital as the snow fell, her dreams of a Disney trip faded, and her final argument ended. I chose a day when she had to show up. My mother had the everyday courage of medicines, coffee, and comfortable shoes. She kept showing up until she couldn’t show up anymore.
I remember this because I want this to be true for me, as well. I want to summon her; I want to call upon her common courage of the paycheck and the minimum payment, the heating pad and the aspirin, the dark humor and the darker coffee. When crisis comes, as it does on a fairly regular basis, I joke in its face and have a Ring Ding, as my mother would. I want to believe that she passed this on to me, along with her love of buttercream and a prominent forehead. This is what I choose to remember and this is what I want to inherit: iron and chocolate.
Time will break this glass as well. There will come a February when the to and fro of dinner, groceries, bills, and grading will seep over the date and wash it into the past. I have kept the day for seventeen years now, but eventually time will solve that problem too.
However, the date is as artificial as a gravestone (though far cheaper). I mark it to for her courage, but her courage has become my courage. The threads have been woven into the blanket and cannot be pulled out. Stories, poems, songs, pictures, and cow puppets echo what I know inside. The truth is buried deep beyond language and blood.
So when I see children sledding on the hills of the nameless Friends, I see a landscape shaped by their quiet might. We cannot name what has been given us, but we feel it all the same. The strength of the hills is his also.