by Catherine Macallister
The idea of “reminiscence” is something that is perpetuated throughout the Nantucket community, built on memories, recollection, and history that goes back for generations. Lifelong residents and visitors have seen the landscape of Nantucket change: store and restaurant closures, rebuilds of old houses, not to mention the way the seaside cliffs and dunes have eroded over time. But in all of this change, there can be celebration of what there once was and the positive changes that have taken hold on the island. There is always the ebb and flow of residents and visitors, but once you has found your place, it is hard to leave. I had the chance to sit down recently with island resident Elizabeth “Libby” Tracey and to learn about her history on- and off-island, and it only strengthened my belief that each island resident and visitor finds their home and place in this tiny island community.
As Libby and I sat in one of lounges at Sherburne Commons to share her story of Nantucket past and the life that brought her here, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this woman in her 70s, still dressed from a day of work, who stared with intensity and kindness, quick to ask about my day and life before we began to unpack her own. She sprightly claims a seat on the edge of a coffee table as we delve into her past: “I first came to Nantucket as a young girl,” she says, telling me of her childhood in St. Louis and summers that were originally spent in New Hampshire with family friends. One summer, the group decided to go “all in on a house on Nantucket,“ where they would return summer after summer, settling into a house on Union Street. Libby traveled to Nantucket with her mother and sister. Libby’s mother was an active worker in the American Red Cross initiatives, and when they weren’t on-island they “were spending Christmas in Egypt or a week in Honduras.“ Her mother had the attitude to “get out there and help the people—a good role model,” remarks Libby, who has spent a lifetime working with others, too.
Her summers as a child were filled with memories of Main Street and Nantucket, “Nantucket was pretty simple then,“ she comments as memories come back. She recalls “sitting outside the Opera House on the sidewalk with her sister, Randy,” listening to the music that would float out of the establishment on any given night. She and her sister also auditioned for the ‘Sconset Follies in 1957, one of the Casino’s greatest claims to fame that helped to support the year-round activities of the Casino.
The set up of town was different too, “I remember when Main Street was a two way street,” and Buttner’s and Robinson’s 5 and 10 were frequented on Lower Main. Buttner’s Department Store she says “was kind of like having a small JC Penney. The people who worked there were so wonderful” remembering her mother’s voice, “we’ve gotta get to Buttner’s ” at the start of every trip. Main Street was also home to Five and Dime, “I could hardly wait to get there. They had the most peculiar smell and 80 boxes of Candy Land and great candies.” The quirky store delighted her mother:” Where else in a store, in Nantucket, could you buy an ashtray that said ‘Welcome to Toronto’ on it.”
Once she entered her teen years she worked as a camp counselor on Children’s Beach and then spent the next summer a waitress out on a ranch offisland with a friend, “we thought we were just the best things,” she said with a chuckle. Her return to the island let her see some of her summer friends, one who “drove a Good Humor icecream truck” comically admitting, “mostly, we just ate the ice-cream.” She continued to recall idyllic summers, when life was a just a little bit simpler. “Nantucket when we were younger was about being with friends you didn’t know from your hometown and as you get older a lot of your friends still come here. Now it’s all about reminiscence.” And as Libby shared her story of summers spent on-island, it is easy to see how she, like so may long-time Nantucketers find reasons to reminisce about the summers and Nantucket past. Throughout her reminiscing, she brings up an important part about the sense of community that comes from living on Nantucket: “there is something about the essence of community that is felt here…belonging to each other.”
Even when she was away from the island she describes her desire to return: “like a magnet: I couldn’t wait to get back.” Before coming to Nantucket on a permanent basis, Libby first settled off-island, raising a family and then returning to school at Yale, where she would ultimately Masters as a Nurse Practitioner. She began to work in oncology programs — a choice that would define her career, even through the present day. She worked at Sloan Kettering where, “every day was wonderful” before moving out to Colorado and working in the largest independent ambulatory unit in the Southwest, helping over 200 people per day. “Denver was broad-minded” she said, “in terms of their more holistic approach.” She loved Colorado, so when the opportunity came up for her husband to go to Boston for a career move as a lawyer, they had always hoped to return. Boston is “a lovely city with great people,” and when they ultimately realized a return to Colorado was not in their immediate future Libby started at Brigham and Women’s, where she was the Manager of the Bone Marrow Center. She then moved to Dana Farber, which was “more of a leadership role, a great challenge,” she says with the chance to work with “cutting edge technology.” A lifetime of experience has culminated in Libby moving to Nantucket, bringing with her extensive experience.
“I made the decision to come here four years ago” after she spent some time with her sister, Randy Wight, who retired to Nantucket with her husband, about 20 years ago. Her first home when she arrived full time, was a cottage on Union Street, “déjà vu” as she had spent so many summers in her childhood residence on Union Street.
She has brought her experience with her to Nantucket Cottage Hospital, where she works in the infusion department, where specially trained and certified nurses administer highly specialized medicines, including chemotherapies.
It was at this point that she shared with me her master’s thesis, which focused on “the nurse who demonstrates compassion toward her patients,” pondering, “does the nursing presence make a difference in the patients survival?” For Libby, she feels like she has seen the effect that a good and compassionate nurse can have on a patient. With so many uncontrollable and unknowable circumstances that can surround disease, it is important to know that there is a care team waiting for you. In the line of work that is oncology there are stories of success and the tragedy of unsuccessful outcomes.
Libby was once asked “You’ve spent your whole life trying to save cancer patients, what do you do when it doesn’t work out?” This question left her with a natural path to become a part of programs like the Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket (PASCON), which provides patients with the support, care, and guidance they need during the trying times of long-term illness. PASCON works with the “holistic model,” that Libby had experienced so many years ago in Denver, focusing on the mind, body, and spirit. “I am grateful that she asked me to be apart of PASCON” says Libby, of Dianne Bein, MSN, FNP-BC, ACHPN, who currently serves as the Program Director. Additionally, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s support of Swim Across America is a “thing of beauty” she says “and just wonderful,” pointing out how the funds support NCH and PASCON. Libby’s work as a care provider earned her the 2018 Seinfeld/Hartmann Prize for Compassionate Medical Care, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital award for “…a hospital staff member who throughout his or her professional career demonstrates an outstanding level of compassion and care in their role at NCH.” Libby’s dedication and energy to her practice at NCH and PASCON is boundless, and her commitment to compassionate care is widely recognized across Nantucket.
While much of Libby’s time is dedicated to working with PASCON and the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, she also finds time to participate in the community. “My interests are invested” she says, pointing out the groups she is a part of: “choir singing important to me…I also serve on the Vestry at St. Paul’s, and I really enjoy that work.” Not only does she bring fresh and new ideas to the vestry but she is also a volunteer at the Hospital Thrift Shop in the Book Room. The Hospital Thrift shop is one of those places you can find anything, as she recalls the time “a gentleman came in looking for a book about Woodrow Wilson, and a book about growing tomatoes…and I found him both…for a dollar!” When she is not volunteering or singing, Libby can also be found spending time with her family, who visit her throughout the summer and year, sharing many cherished memories on the island.
When I ask Libby how she defines a good life and what she’s grateful for, she answers: “I feel like I have a gift to be here. I am grateful for my family… that I’ve found a career that I find so fascinating that has allowed me to expand my mind and heart. That I’m still able to work and enrich the quality of life…” She adds that she is also grateful to be able to share a “happy chapter that we could have this together” with her sister. She hopes to continue to grow and establish the Palliative Care Program in conjunction with Nantucket Cottage Hospital, and her wish for the future is that the next generation “be generous and compassionate.” And so, with Libby’s words in mind we should all strive towards that goal, while also remembering one important final piece of advice she shared, “take some time and smell the roses.”