by Robert P. Barsanti
The ocean is easy in Maine. Off of Southport Island, it slips all the way out at low tide, leaving mud and seagulls, then it slowly walks itself back in. At low tide, you smell the salt, the rot, and the weeds. Then, the water lifts all the seaweed back up, elevates the floats, shifts the ramps, and ushers in a fickle fog. Only the lonely swim in Maine; no waves break on the sandy beaches and the water only warms to about 60 degrees. Instead, the summer people put Adirondack chairs on top of the granite boulders and watch the tide ruffle and eddy over the underwater rocks.
Unlike Nantucket, the granite coastline remains the same decade after decade, century after century. The houses great grandfathers built over the Sheepscot remain perched on the same rocks for their sons and their grandsons. In May, they open the doors and windows to the same family of spiders and flies that their children will chase forty years from now. Hurricanes whirl up the coast and dash themselves on the ledges and rocks far out in the water. Nor’easters build up ice and knock down occasional pine, but they don’t suck ten yards of sand out into the sound nor do they slowly topple the cottages out into the brown surf.
The ocean is uneasy around Nantucket. The tide walks in and out of the beaches on our island. Even in the harbor, the Jetties only hurry it out and back in again. However, the rolling surf crashes through the night. The beaches change shape day to day. In the space of one storm, three houses can be lost in Madaket and their shingles can wash up on Brant Point. Gales cut the power, flood the town, and consume twenty yards of bluff in an evening. Our coastline changes hour to hour, day to day, monthto month. To swim off of Nobadeer is to balance on the knife edge of time.
Last month, the tide built a great sandbar for body-surfing. This month, it sends deep ocean swells to rise and topple over that same sandbar. I have spent most of my beach time this summer standing on that sandbar. The boys have wanted to ride the waves in, or slip under the great rolling behemoths sent our way from whatever storm is spiraling in the central Atlantic. On most days, a rip tide pulled us out to the east and the sharp toothed Atlantic. So we dug our toes into the sand, walked up the beach, and rested.
Our island isn’t storm-tested granite, it is a water-washed sand bar. You can’t stand here; at every corner, a wind or a waves wants to loosen your grip and fling you back to the mainland. The wind and current lure us away. Schools are better off-island. The cost of groceries and gas drops from credit card to cash. And you can buy a house. Off-island, on solid ground, you can make it on your own.
Everyone has a hard time making it out here. On this island, businesses grow about as well as oak trees. They need money, time, patience, and luck. If anyone of those supports fail, the tree crashes and is chainsawed into the dump, with all of the old signs, stationery, and shelves. Dead dreams drift through the I & M classifieds.
To be poor on Nantucket is to live like a tick. You cling to the jobs you have and the housing you can get and you hang on tight. You can be shaken off or picked in an instant, so you nestle in as tight as you can. For years, I lived without any furniture. Each apartment had its own arrangement culled from either the dump, the Thrift Shop or the Marine Home Center Tent Sale. On that first night in a new rental, I was thankful to have a roof over my head and a creaky mattress under my back. We all have stories of mildew gardens in the basement, sofas in the living room, and the occasional night in the back seat.
Out here, you survive with a little help from your friends. We don’t sit on granite outcroppings twenty feet above the sea, we cling to a sandbar in a riptide. You need your friends to tell you about a great year-round apartment; you need your friends to bring you onto a construction crew; and you need your friends to wire your house. Friendship is a currency. You trade it back and forth in stories and opportunities. I could never have lasted without someone telling me about a basement bedroom available for the summer, finding me a job opening, or pulling my car out of the sand. At our best, islanders pay it forward. The man I help today will help me tomorrow.
They will torture you nonetheless. They will take pictures of you when you’re sick, they will stick beer cans in your golf bag, bumper sticker your car, and taunt you with a cake. They will remember when you put Pine- Sol in the dishwasher, you forgot to tighten the lug nuts on the car, and discovered
that you were allergic to Pine-Sol. At their best, they stick. If you let them out of the dining room and TV room and into the kitchen, where all of the secrets lie out on the counter, they reach out when it comes to skin and bone.
Granite doesn’t change: sand changes every day. One day, your life seems rich, secure, and well-situated in the island’s fur. On the next, you find yourself caught in the riptide, without money, housing, or hope. On that day, you reach for the hands and pull hard. Money, careers, and even
spouses are roses of life; they bloom and fill the air with warm scents in July. But in January, when the roses are all gone, friends remain the holly of our lives. They glow in the snow and cold.
In my father’s final weeks, his friends visited. Three old men who had been with him for at least fifty years drove to Lowell, paid their respects, and then came downstairs to drink cups of coffee and tell mortifying stories about the dying old man. They remained tied to him in rings of holly.