• by Robert P. Barsanti •
Years ago, when I was younger and traveled around with my parents, brother, and sister in a Jeep Wagoneer with five bikes on it, we would spend a week or two on the Vineyard. We spent two weeks in a ten-man Coleman tent; we played bumper pool in the camp rec hall, went biking in the rain, and lost my brother each and every time in new and baffling ways. But it was a wonderful time, all in all.
My mother made sure that we nailed certain expectations to the tree so that they couldn’t “accidentally” fall off and be forgotten. She wanted one breakfast at the Black Dog, a trip to Chappaquiddick, and a sunset in Menemsha. My father, for his part, also had his list of expectations, but they all involved food: donuts, a blueberry pie, and ice cream, primarily.
Each year, “the sunset in Menemsha event” landed like an over-laden duck. We wouldn’t get moving soon enough and would arrive as the sun had just sunk below the horizon. Conversely, we would arrive in time for a heavy bank of clouds and fog to rise up and obscure everything but one ribbon of gold and purple. Then my sister fell off the lifeguard stand and sprained her ankle.
One cool July evening, we arrived just as the clouds were blowing out. The sand remained wet and splattered, but the air warmed. The three kids were in sweatshirts and windbreakers still, though my younger brother bravely wore his swim trunks. We set off to explore the breakwater and the thousand ways to die presented by all of those rocks and all of those waves. Meanwhile, my father set up the hibachi in the lee of the wind, poured coals in, sprayed them with a heroic spurt of lighter fluid, and started a conflagration. No need to take out sandwiches, when you could have the real thing, seasoned with the salt air. My mother hitched her dreams to a setting star. She set out condiments, slices of cheese, potato salad, and pickles on the lid of the cooler. It was as good as it gets.
Then the world returned to its balance. My father knocked the plate of cooked burgers into the sand, then inadvertently kicked some onto the rest. A seagull made a foray for the pickles on the cooler, and then voided himself when my mother went flying back. We were summoned from impending doom to wash the burgers in the ocean, and then eat them on cold rolls. My mother fed us, put everything away, cracked a beer, and told my father to shut up. The sun eased itself into the sea, spreading orange and red blankets across the horizon. Night spilled in from the east in clouds of gold and purple. We stayed until the channel markers lit up the west, the constellations punctuated the night, and my mother finished her second beer.
According to my mother, joy is what comes just before the next tragedy. Or seagull. In her informed and wise Irish world view, the world brings us a constant, unending, and cruel series of heartaches and disappointments. Burgers will always be dropped into the sand, in one way or another. Once they are washed off and chaos is momentarily averted, joy can seep back into your life, like rain through a leaky tent roof. But you have to look for it and take it for what it is.
My long departed mother dropped by during the evening of the Fifth of July, along with an intestinal bug and all of its explosive fireworks. Everything inside of me had built to a crescendo and a Grand Finale, but nobody can be certain when the Grand Finale has hit its last explosive charge. Every twinge could slip out the wrong way. Nonetheless, the youngest son had been invited to view the fireworks at the Field Station, along with his fellow Junior Rangers and selected parents. We arrived primed for a memorable evening; no bug spray, no sweatshirts, and cooling fried seafood.
Having learned one lesson from my father, I did not spill our dinner onto the beach. On the other hand, I tried to tuck the fried clams into the darkened closets of my stomach where the bug wouldn’t find and expel them easily. He went searching and banging, but did not find the cold, oily, and rubbery clams. Then as the west wind kicked up and the temperature dipped, I wrapped myself in a testosterone blanket. Finally, up on the bluff as the fireworks began, so did the mosquitoes. Shivering, slapping, and stepping on ducks is no way to go through a fireworks display.
And yet it was. The sun settled onto an empty horizon, squished itself, then slipped away in ever deepening shades of crimson. As the sky slowly purpled, the fireworks went off in Edgartown. We saw them and assumed a plutocrat had decided to avoid the crowds and just stage his own. But, as they continued, we knew that they were too far away for Nantucket and too ornate for all but the most committed Hedge funder. Then the fireworks went off in Oak Bluffs, then in Falmouth, and finally on Nantucket. Out at the Field Station, the sparkles and explosions did not extend that far into the air, but they were impressive nonetheless. After each explosion, a ghost of smoke walked like a pilgrim to the east. By the Grand Finale, a long parade of puffs stretched from Jetties to Great Point.
As good as it gets. I left the bluff in a crabbed half jog and made it to the ancient ports-potty by the garage before the clams escaped. We turned the heat up, sprayed something cool on our bug bites, and made it home safely.
We may never witness an evening like this one, with a sunset and fireworks on one of the most beautiful and natural spots on island. To expect better is to expect too much. Joy comes when we least expect it and when we least deserve it. But it always comes.