The Shadow of Nantucket

by Robert P. Barsanti

The thunderstorms cleared the air last night and brought back the stars. I found them when I was evaluating the soaked car upholstery. In the clear 3 AM air, the stars hung low in the early morning. The early morning dark lets you know your place in the universe and it isn’t very roomy. The sky was active, however. The summer ends in meteors. They flashed across the Milky Way and then disappeared. The summer constellations still play through the evening, but in the early hours, Orion, the principal, starts to rise and shuffle everyone back to school.

After the rain and the dawn, I stood in line at the Downyflake. Like the sandbars, the lines on island have been forming in odd ways this summer. On this morning, a twenty-minute line extended out the take-out door for donuts while tables inside sat empty. We were a long line, but a friendly one; we stood with our not entirely amused and patient children and tried to keep them calm with a mixture of games, stories, and veiled threats about the Ravenous Donut Goblins. A Mercedes SUV with Wyoming plates parked in a slot beside us, and a father left his iKids in the car to join us in line. A conversation arose; “You have a place in Jackson Hole? Me, too. Small World, isn’t it.”

Fall hasn’t arrived yet, but it has made reservations. The blackberries have deepened and swelled; there are no more hard green berries on the vines. The farm tomatoes fill buckets and the corn is heaped in piles. Nonetheless, the fields of Hotchkiss and Tufts are patrolled by babysitters and ice cream scoopers, and their parents watch the stock market as carefully as they once studied the weather reports. Even the cars have begun to migrate; they have massed by the dozens in Hyannis. Most of the visitors will join them over the next few weeks and leave the sand behind.

And not just visitors. The Cap and Gowns from May are moving into their dorms, picking out tapestries, and figuring out what they can talk about with their new roommates. Our graduates have had many blessings living out here between the sand and sky, but learning about new people isn’t one of them. They have been around the same kids since Wee Whalers; now, they have to make common cause with a young man with gauged ears from Weehawken or a young woman in a dashiki from Ghana.

Changes are going to come. Changes come when you realize that you can order pho at two in the morning. Or when you realize that you can’t hear the surf anymore, but you can hear the traffic on 91. Learning always involves pain. At its best, it comes from watching your prized myths melt in the hard buzzing lights of a library. At its worst, it comes with a punch in the nose; the cheapest educations just cost money.

Our graduates of Nantucket don’t need to soar, they need to bounce. Not everything will work out, not everything will come with a smile, a handshake, and a receipt. Tears and ice cream arrive in the early hours of the morning. They just have to stick. Knowing that Nantucket waits for them with a job, a smile, and a warm bed, they still have to stay, show up, and stick it out. If they are sharp and lucky, they will find a place for themselves where no one has had a Morning Bun, made a Madaket Mystery, or travelled to Altar Rock. Except them.

All sorts of people have graduated from Nantucket this August. The music has stopped on the Nantucket Shuffle, and those without beds and bathrooms need to get a boat ticket. Longtime bakers, chefs, and candy makers are closing doors and moving on. The yard sales and websites are selling couches, beach chairs, and tools. If it doesn’t fit in the truck, it goes on Nantucket Consignments, and then to the dump. This year, the Steamship has sold many one-way tickets. A diploma isn’t the only paper you get when you graduate Nantucket.

The island changes. It pushes people off and welcomes others on. For a decade, a year, a month, home has sand, salt, and mildew. And then you move on.

In ten years, on a lake in New Hampshire, a husband and wife will sit around a fire with their friends. Under the same sky, one of them will say, apropos of nothing, “We lived on Nantucket for a time.” Everyone else will nod and someone will ask.

What do you say? Perhaps that you always heard the ocean or that you were surrounded by a flat horizon. You might say that the Stop and Shop was a Town Meeting and you could walk a beach for three hours and see only gulls and seals. You could say that the electric bill was bigger than a Montana mortgage, that you had to work three jobs to make the months turn and keep the heat on, and you got paid more for mowing a lawn than you would get for donating a kidney. They might talk about frigid fog in June or tropical rain in February. Or you might say a thousand other things that would describe the shadow of what it was like to live on this island.

And it is a shadow. For our graduates, Nantucket will cast a shadow over everyplace they live from now on. Pale and vague, it stretches across the Adirondacks, the Bronx, and San Francisco Bay. It is a small world in the shadow of a smaller island.

“Where we love is home—home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”