On Our Way Back Home

by Robert P. Barsanti

I spent the weekend in New Hampshire, a long way from home. On the way up, the swamps and wetlands were punctuated with burst of red and yellow, but once at the lake, the hills and mountains remained a deep photosynthetic green. Sailboats crossed Winnipesaukee while a small, top-heavy ferry tooted its way into a small dock. The slips still held most of the motorboats of summer. Overhead, three levels of clouds meandered over each other.

One of my aunts had come to the end of a full and well-loved road, and we were sending her home in a rare gathering of the clan. I have reached an age when I only see my uncles and cousins at memorial services. When we once clustered in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, we have now exploded across the country in streaks of jobs, bills, and children. But for this moment, we have returned to a porch, and a buffet and a bar overlooking the southern end of the lake. At that golden moment, so far from Nantucket, they thought my pants were salmon colored, a man in a suit and unbuttoned tie came up to me. “Say,” he said. “Is that house on stilts still out there on the beach?”

Our island is everywhere.

You can’t see Nantucket from the mainland, unless you use memory or imagination. If you have never crossed the Sound, Nantucket is a slideshow of calendar photos, dinner stories, and Yelp reviews. It is a promise and a question. When you step off the ferry, the image that pops into your mind becomes superimposed on the reality that appears before you. Things have changed and are not where you were told they were, but the sketch fills in with the new reality. Perhaps it is for you, perhaps it is not.

But if you have lived on the island, you will never be quite the same. The island that I remember is the island that I moved to. Cyrus Peirce School still stood, the India House served brunch, and downtown hummed and smelled vaguely of diesel. When I think of home, I travel back to that year. Then, when I am off-island, even though I know the island is now private clubs, Land Rovers, and Cisco Brewers, my mind brings back the dark, the diesel, and the dead. They still serve Cheddar Cheese Soup in my home.

The road back from Winnipesaukee is lined with towering oaks. We drove up and down the hills, among the strip malls, used car dealerships, and meat markets of New Hampshire, and passed under oaks hundreds of feet high and years old. The woods stretched off, just beyond sight, into hills and darkness. The horizon was cluttered.

If you had a life on Nantucket, you took it for granted. After a while, it became invisible. You get used to everything on this tiny sandhill, and, then when you are away, the world seems weird. Once, I came off-island for errands and became bewildered by Staples. How could there be so many different types of folders? Superstores exhausted me. Everything cost less, but the choices befuddled.

You drive through traffic lights and stop where you shouldn’t. You get bored driving more than ten minutes and the traffic moves impossibly fast on Route 6. It gets too cold, and your sinuses hurt in the dry air. There are too many lights at night and too many noises during the day. Then you get used to it.

But you don’t, not entirely. If you have lived on Nantucket, you look for friendly faces in every room. Back home, you can walk into the boardroom at the Sankaty Club and know someone, even if it is just among the waitstaff. Grocery shopping is a social act, extended by any number of conversations and tactical evasions. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they know what you are buying and why. When you live on Nantucket, someone is always taking attendance. They know what you are eating, what you tipped the bartender, and where you spent the night. And they may know even more than that.

Off-island, you can cut class. Nobody recognizes you, marks you present, or assesses demerits. On-island, you are caught in the net of community, but off-island, you slip that net into a vast current. When the state police stop you, your automotive sin remains the business of you, the hat, and the insurance company. Your friends, your boss, and classmates don’t tug on your arm in the produce and commiserate. Sinner and Saint walk up and down the mall, invisible to each other. Anonymity frees you to be the person you always wanted to be: anonymity strips you of the person that you have always been.

Eventually, the sun set in New Hampshire. The roads we drove had few cars, businesses, and houses. Our headlights lit the dark in front, but disappeared behind. On a route we may never drive again, we passed as if we were crawling along the bottom of the ocean. Above us was only darkness and wind. Inside, we listened to the Red Sox and thought of home.

We are always headed back home. We measure time in Steamship schedules and calculate whether we can still make the late boat. We compare prices in the stores. We look for familiar faces. We wonder what they are doing there now. Are they sitting on benches in front of the Pacific National Bank? Are they walking along the Sconset Bluff? Are they sitting at the Tap Room?

Home remains where it has always been, just over the horizon and into memory. The cobblestoned streets, the fog, and the surf are there still, just out of sight. The surf roars, the air tastes of salt, and the old voices are murmuring. If you once lived on the island, every evening you start back home.