by Robert P. Barsanti
Not all that long ago, when I believed that my parents would be hosting the holidays for the next few years at least, a question was pressed into my chest. “So,” my uncle asked. “What is it like on Nantucket in the winter.”
Like anyone who has one foot on island and one foot on shore, I had developed a series of responses to this question. Always aware of an opportunity to be an embarrassment and an outrage to my father, I had several samples of island life ready to present.
But my uncle was a priest who had worked in Central and South America. He had seen the world at its poorest and most hungry, so he hoped for an answer that was, at best, earnest and, at worst, honest. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and I had convinced him to present a slide show on Bolivia in my suburban classroom, which was a wonder to my classmates. So, I felt a debt to him that the glib and quick wouldn’t really serve.
Once you peeled back the winking answers, I found it was hard to tell him what winter on Nantucket was like. Because to tell him about the island in the “r” months was really to explain why I had not moved back to my home town, visited my Mom and Dad on Sundays, and shoveled the driveway after winter storms. His question was underlined with the unsaid, what was it that was so valuable that you would leave those who need you.
So I answered him.
In my first year on Nantucket, I did not have a car. Full of sap, vigor, and arrogance, I knew that I only lived a mile from the school where I was teaching. I could bike to work every day, bike back home, and save money on a gym membership by tasking my brown Univega. For most of the fall, the weather proved my ego correct, and the bet that I placed each night paid off each morning, when the rain was light, the wind was following, or the sun was warm. I would push my bike through some grass and hedges (collecting ticks in my pant cuffs), pedal up to Vesper Lane, and then to my first period Journalism class in the old Cyrus Peirce. I thought nothing of it. Several teachers walked to school and my favorite media specialist, Suzette Gardner, also biked in. We had a janitor, Danny, who biked to school every day.
I was, of course, a young man on a bike. On the weekend, I would zip into town going the wrong way on one-way streets, island bartenders (of the most disreputable kind) would over-serve bicycling teachers most treacherously, and I would brave the traffic to ride home from the Atlantic Cafe or the Brotherhood. I biked out to see the Old Squaw migrate over the horizon. I even biked to and from my second job at the Muse.
The island was not more affordable then than it is now. My rent and my electric bill took most of my take-home money. Once a month, I decided who wasn’t going to get paid this month. My Muse money went to lunch, buffalo wings, and beer, not necessarily in that order.
Then November came. On-island, November comes right after three months of summer. Then, right after Main Street fills with small ghosts and heroes and pirates, the great gray lid of November drops over the island, the wind picks up from the northeast, and the days shrink.
When the winds shifted, the wind would come straight down Vesper Lane. After one or two mornings when I couldn’t get the bike going in the wind, I decided that the shortest and easiest route to work would go down Somerset, through Equator, and then turn up Bartlett Road. As a first-year teacher, I needed to get to school early so that I could photocopy and run the ditto machine, and I needed to stay late. So that meant leaving my drafty rental house in the dark and then returning in the same familiar dark that evening.
The route through Equator is a challenge because a pond forms after the lightest rain. For most of the time I commuted by bike, I could skirt Equator Lake and get to school dry. Not all the time, unfortunately.
And all went swimmingly. When I flunked several seniors, they threw my bike in a dumpster, but otherwise my life on Nantucket worked. I was a first-year teacher and those years are hard on everyone who chooses the profession.
Until it snowed.
Nantucket doesn’t see much snow, and when it comes it doesn’t last long. But when it comes, it tends to come with a windy and wet vengeance. Storms come up the east coast and take one of two paths. They either head between the Vineyard and Nantucket, where they foul the commute to Boston and spray rain on-island. Or, they head out to sea, sparing the Boston commuters the snow, dropping it on Nantucket instead. As this storm did.
At six, when I poked my head out the door, four inches of snow had fallen and another six were coming sideways. The schools were going to be in session for this day, in spite of the weather. I put on my ski pants, found my winter coat, loaded the papers into a bike messenger bag, and opened the door to find two of my colleagues in a pickup truck. They drove me to school.
The snow lasted three days. On each of the days, unasked and unplanned, another staff member picked me up. On the last day, when snow was melting into mud and sand puddles, the superintendent of schools showed up in his station wagon, with the Virgin Mary on the dashboard, and gave me a ride to work.
I don’t know if the answer settled anything for my uncle. I suspect it did, because he made several remarks about it. Especially since my mother gave me her car for my second year.
They are all gone now. My uncle, my parents, the superintendent, Danny, and most of my colleagues from those early years. I see them now, as they were, and as I am.
In the winter, Nantucket is aware; Nantucket reaches out; and Nantucket remembers.