Built of Ghosts
Nantucket Essays

Built of Ghosts

by Robert P. Barsanti

Snow shovels didn’t get much use this year. They sat at the ready in the front of the shed, poised for action in the snowy New England weather. The ghosts of my childhood clustered around them, holding hands and looking to the sky. Back in the golden age of youth, I shoveled driveways for a few of the neighbors in my childhood home north of Boston. Patterns are useful, I would begin up at the door to the garage, and then heave the snow into a pile, square by square until I came to the snow plows berm. Mr. and Mrs. Boysen would watch from a big picture window while my youth burned their driveway clear, and then they gave me a glass of orange juice and a windmill cookie. And cash. Behind the idle shovels, their ghosts stood with my father and looked at the sky. They may still be there now, but the shovels have retreated to the back of the shed, amid the volleyball nets and historical artifacts from the old Henry’s. The golf clubs have replaced them, with a similar pair of eyes focused on the sky.

Built of Ghosts

My mother died when I was in my twenties. In the weeks and months that followed, I conjured her and placed her on the sofa, or in the classroom, or in the passenger seat. At that age, I had no idea of the magnitude of her loss; and the hole that she has left has only increased as the miles have passed. By the act of imagination and grief, she could at least drop some of her sharp words and nasty, humorous jabs. But the years, the children, the parties, the dinners, and the desserts have piled interest over interest on her debt and death.

Such is the curse of survival. The longer you live, the greater the debt. I have spent a long time on this island; the streets fill with the ghosts of the people I knew, whom I taught, whom I worked with, and with whom I heard the bells at midnight.

To me, in my internal defaults, Nantucket will always be what it was in 1987. Because my default settings take over, I am forever headed to stores and restaurants that only exist in my own map. I am a part of everywhere I have eaten, and a part of me still celebrates Wing Night, spoons Brotherhood chowder, and gets an Italian Sub from Henry’s.

The winter was bad for the specters, with the closing of The Brotherhood and other local landmarks. With the loss of the Brotherhood, the haunts of my youth have dwindled to smaller and smaller numbers. My ghosts and I mourn the loss of curly fries, crazy drinks, and wing night.

In the bright mornings, the dawn seeps in over the head of the harbor, the hedges call and warble, and the puddles grow, drain, and sprout yellow leaves. Then the hammers start. When I am haunted by ghosts and bedeviled by their words, the new owners with their bright plans bother me. I remember fields that I walked past… I remember the old couple that lived in that house… I sat on that back deck… and all that was has been ripped up, reused, or rejected. The ghosts cry in my ear.

But you can only bear so many tears.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if the ghosts are just a trick of the eye and the ego. The Boysens only exist in my mind: no one else shoveled their driveway in the damp March mornings. My mother remains a ghost to me, but only to me and vanishingly few others.

The ghosts, God bless them, do not belong to the fields, houses, or restaurants. They belong to me. I am all whom I have met, I have bent to the past as trees bend to the wind. My mother, the Boysens, my sister, and everyone else are planks and beams that I have taken from the bulk trash at the dump and with which I have built my house. They exist so long as I exist. And then, when I go, the bits and pieces of my house—the drawer handles, the paintings, the door knobs, and the extra wide planks—will go on to furnish another house.

We live on an island that is washing away in the basin of time. The ocean, the wind, the storms whisk away the sand under our homes and drop it out into the Atlantic. Change is constant. For years, the Native Americans cut all of the wood down, then the settlers came, and let their animals graze the Nantucket’s vegetation down to fairway grass, and now the landscape architects are planting the trees and sculpting the backyards. Change keeps happening.

In the churn of my digital life, a picture of my son at Cisco beach appeared. The town had just made the new parking lot and he stood a good seventy-five yards beyond the posts, peering over the edge of the bluff. The years, the sand, and the ghosts aren’t coming back.

Or, rather, I am comprised of them. There are days, when the clouds hang low and the wind picks up, that I feel that I have become an estate sale: my ideas, my words, my gestures are borrowed from others gone before. They have been assembled today and will be disbursed to new homes tomorrow. I stood in class yesterday and set my students off on their next essay with a phrase I stole thirty years ago from a woman I kayaked with on Hurricane Island: “Let’s show, let’s go, Let’s rodeo.”

I am not surrounded by ghosts, but have been built by them, fastened together by fortune and accident, then beset by wind and tide.

Articles by Date from 2012