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In the Wind of Thanksgiving

Dirt Road through the moors in the fall

On the day before Thanksgiving, the 3:15 boat was fully booked.  The line for the 4:30 boat bent around twice and filled all the available luggage carts. The sky was lowering, clouds raced above and a spray of salt water blew over us.  Good spirits burned in small campfires; lots of luggage, lots of strollers, lots of puppies nosing their way around for a snack.  Forty guys with lunch pails stepped off the boat.  Three hundred with strollers and backpacks stepped on. 

The boat left the slip late, and then moved out of Hyannis harbor and into the Sound.  The wind picked up, the boat rocked, and everyone got cheerful.   The young and childless balanced their drinks and smiled at the adventure.  The parents brought out the Cheerios and the iPads and hoped that no one threw up.  The crew surreptitiously slipped “Popcorn Bags” to the Mommys and Daddys and waited. 

I didn’t wait for the cheer to subside.  I slipped out to the back deck and enjoyed the cold.  I returned to the island as Ishmael had, with a “cold and grey November in my soul”; I wasn’t ready to watch “ParaNorman” with Christian and Calvin in the next seat.

Thanksgiving has changed on island.  I remember packing the car on Wednesday morning, getting coverage for the last period on the Wednesday half day, then racing for the Noon boat with everyone and their brother.  Nantucket, back in my familiar past, was a place you left on Thanksgiving.  In the intervening years, while I wasn’t watching, the world changed.  Now, they come for Thanksgiving.

For them, it makes sense.  America has made Thanksgiving a five day holiday weekend.  If you aren’t playing football in the morning and don’t want to wait at Best Buy at night, Nantucket promises.  The island has empty beaches, brown and red moors, cobblestoned roads, hawks turning in the wind, and china blue skies.  We offer the plunge on Thanksgiving morning, tree lighting on Friday, and long walks in the scrub and mud. 

The young are right.  Age, money, and children make it so, as they always have.  Twenty years ago, they were right when they stood in line at the Chicken Box and the Muse.  Ten years later, they were right to get married at the Where-O-Where house, and they are right now when they line up the strollers at the Yuletide Fair.  To the young, the island provides great settings for the events of their lives: “We met here, he proposed over there, and we got married at Brant Point.  We can’t wait to bring the kids to the Christmas trees.”

For gray beards like me, the island keeps changing.  Swain’s Wharf becomes Old South Wharf: the ice house gives way to the bandstand which gives way to Straight Wharf Restaurant and Cru.  Sometime in the future, perhaps, children’s clothing stores and surf shops will take over from the restaurants and the wind will keep on blowing. 

I don’t want that wind to blow so much.  If we could shelter ourselves from change, perhaps we could get another plate at wing night and settle into a long afternoon at the Expresso Cafe.  Even better, the crowds that come for the Plunge and the Christmas Tree lighting could stay back in Natick and Greenwich and the leave the winter to us. We could spike the Chamber of Commerce madness that comes when the beaches aren’t open and let the middle-aged and overweight stare at the sea.  The wind, unfortunately, still blows.

To live on island is to harness that wind.  If we want our children to live out here under the purple clouds of winter, we need to consider what windmills we can build for them.     Our island is not a real estate island, or a bartender’s island, or even a builder’s island; it is a visitor’s island.   We live on tourism, in one form or another.  Nantucket is the setting for families, for weddings, and for reunions.  The future belongs to the young, both theirs and ours. 

At present, Nantucket is closer to the mainland than ever before.  The high speed boats bring carpenters, plumbers, and dental hygienists as well as weekenders.  The internet and capitalism has wiped away the back room jobs at Yates, the electric company, and the banks.   Even the doctors and nurses at the hospital have switched from real estate to rotations.  The island remains twenty-five miles out to sea, but those twenty-five miles are easier to get over than at any time in the past.  Lawyers and laborers both must look across the Sound to see what is coming. 

The island has also shrunk.  The Land Bank and the Conservation Commission continue to segment off more land from development.  Other land becomes compounds and not streets.  Each new house requires fire service, police protection, sewer, water, and trash: each new house costs the taxpayers money.  The old farms and fields have been plowed under and built up.  Naushop and Nashaquisset won’t return anytime soon.  As a result, the trades will continue to move from building to rebuilding.  Soon, a cement mixer will be as valuable as a whaleboat. 

Finally, the climate has changed.  In Al Gore’s future, we will be able to enjoy Virginia’s weather while we wait for Bermuda’s storms.  The weather will get weird and wild.  Cranes and egrets will visit the ponds more often while sharks and seals swim off shore.  October may spread until Christmas and March might extend through July.  Hundred year storms will start to come every other year and they will have their way, whether we use coir bags or not. 

I am thankful for the families in the cabin.  While they keep on coming, they will buy sandwiches, walk in the moors, and buy ornaments at the Yuletide fair.  They wander about the great Yankee stage of Nantucket and snap pictures at the mill, the lighthouse, and the oldest house.  Their children will look forward to Downyflake Donuts, Watermelon Creams, and, eventually Whale’s Tale Pale Ale.   They will put money in our pockets and messages on our answering machines.

But I am more thankful for everything I have outside of the cabin.  Great Point still flashes every five seconds, the spray blows up from shoals, and Orion steps overhead.  Change will keep coming to the island, but most of it reorganizes the wood and dirt on top.  Down deep, the island remains what it has been for thousands of years.  And for another several thousand years, it will remain sand, wind, water, and stars.

(Photo credit:  Peter B. Brace)



Fantastic piece, Robert.

I moved back to the Nantucket I remembered in the Fall of 1992 - twenty years ago.  Except, it HAD changed just as you described. 

Tourism is (now) our life's blood, but dammit, they keep thinking up more Robin Hood Holidays, and we keep less and less of our home.

Next up is the Xmas Stroll, then, Godhelpus, we are now acquiring a New Year's/First Night wingdangdo, just like "Everywhere Else."


More and more, I understand why The Nantucketers sell, and go to Somewhere Else.