Nantucket Essays

Watching Life Unfold

by Robert P. Barsanti

When you live on Nantucket, you become so accustomed to its luxury that it becomes commonplace and invisible. The ocean breathes in the distance. The roses climb up onto the roof and then bloom. The sky glows an electric blue. You grow so familiar with the beauty that you only pause and notice when something truly exceptional happens. Otherwise, today is just another day in Paradise.

What we have, out here, is privilege. We haven’t really done anything to earn the privilege of living on God’s Little Sandbar as opposed to living in Fitchburg or Islamabad. I am sure that the young men running the rickshaws through Shanghai work every bit as hard as any of our islander craftsmen. They don’t get paid as well, don’t see the ocean, and don’t get bathroom breaks. Our islander craftsmen make enough money to buy fishing boats and expensive golf clubs. Luck dealt us all a favorable hand; someone hired us at the right time, we bought land in the right decade, we married the right woman. We have this privilege of Nantucket, as if we just drew an inside flush. We still have to play the cards and win the hand, but no great skill or moral virtue brought those cards into out hands. We only have to avoid screwing it up. Those of us who live out here are Baby Rockefellers, Mellons, and Waltons. We are the lucky sperm.

My cards lined up nicely last week. I sat on white lawn chairs on the grass behind a private school that my son had attended for the previous nine years. The lawn included the play area, with Frisbee golf holes, a wooden jungle gym, and one of Underground Tom’s structures. On this June afternoon, the fog remained out to sea, the warm southerly breeze shifted the rosa rugosa before it fussed with the microphone, and the afternoon sun cast golden shadows. Five students were leaving the school after their eighth grade year, graduating if you will. They paraded before us, sang a Cat Steven’s song (from Harold and Maude), accepted sunflowers from the rising class behind them, and settled into their own lawn chairs, facing us.

The parents were a realtor, a carpenter, a masseuse, and a sandwich maker; we were islanders. We took pictures, made movies, and smiled hopefully at the children arrayed before us. As their teacher read a proverb for each one, we noted the accuracy which we hoped was true. Eventually, each group of parents received a bouquet of flowers as an acknowledgement of our contribution.

In another of my lifetimes, another middle school has pressed charges against seven of its students, although none of the charges involve drugs or guns, only sassiness. At another graduation, many of the parents need to get rides to the ceremony since the bus doesn’t stop at Tanglewood. At the ceremony itself, uniformed and plain clothes policeman stay vigilant in case a gang wants to take another shot at a victim they missed. Some of the girls appear with their babies. Many of the other students aren’t sure what Monday will bring now that school is over. The wrong cards came to them. The good luck passed them by. They have to do what they can with what they have.

My privilege sat on the left, next to the podium and enjoyed the benefits of alphabetical order. Just that afternoon, we had bought him Nantucket Reds and a french blue shirt from Murray’s, but he wore a beaded bracelet on one hand and his running watch on the other. In true islander fashion, he wore sandals. He sat before us with a smile, familiar and strange at the same moment.

What a strange concoction our children are! He is placed before me, as familiar as any face I have seen, yet distinct and unique. He has inherited my Irish grandparent’s teeth, sad to say, but he seems to have also picked up my Italian uncle’s grace and looks. He has my brother’s easy tanning skin and my love of the spotlight, but his mother’s eyes and her heart. Still, some things were a mystery. At fourteen, he is taller than both his parents and most of their siblings. He is kinder, friendlier, and more thoughtful than anyone in either gene pool. He stood before us as a familiar stranger. Dressed in our clothes, peering out from our faces, he was our privilege, and yet himself.

As a parent, you watch life unfold. I know my flaws and foibles; they have brought me up short many a time and oft. I am somewhat less familiar with my strengths; they live in the background of my life. You pray that the infant squalling in your arms picks up more of the latter than the former, but you never know. Most of the time, he sits noodling on his phone, burying his face in a book, or concocting mysteries with his friends. Who all fall silent as soon as you notice them.

His teacher called him up to the podium and my privilege could not avoid the exceptional sun. He wrote a book of poetry for his graduation capstone project (I had encouraged something in real estate or engineering, but he felt his future more firm in poetry). He described the process in creating the poems, in getting the work published, and for whose sake the money was dedicated. Then, he read two of his works.

The past comes racing up to a father at those moments. My son has a history of train tables and lego sets, of wooden swords and water guns. He is a boy I have thrown into a crashing wave, recited violent stories to, and changed many a polluted diaper. All of those boys receded behind him, in a stack of calendar days back to his first breaths in the operating room.

Then the future falls forward and past us; a father has the present and the past, but the future waits for his son. It may be a future of summer breezes and frisbee golf, or it may winter days “dancing to the frenzied drum out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” My poor poet will need to rebuild the middle class, cool global warming, and find another left-handed starter for the Red Sox. The keys he will take from my hand will open the door to a house that needs repairs and refits.

Yet, there he stood, the best his parents have, a collision of genes, good wishes, and bad habits, caught in a moment of recognition when the ordinary and commonplace fall to the ground and reveal the exceptional. He was our privilege, made flesh, standing in the sun, and reading his own book of poetry.

Articles by Date from 2012