Nantucket Island in winter
Nantucket Essays

Nantucket in Winter

• by Robert Barsanti •

On winter Sundays, I like to sit on a bench on Main Street. The weather rarely drives me inside or keeps my front door locked. The ocean has her gifts; one of her minor ones blows over the island and sends you to the sweaters and the polar-fleece. It’s cold enough for coffee but not for mittens, and we all hold our cups from the drug store or from The Bean and watch the traffic.

In the shallows of winter, the traffic has names and histories. One small Ford station wagon arrives early for Mass, another Mini Cooper zips out before the benediction. We are our cars, for better and worse. A crushed front bumper says one thing, a Romney sticker on the back says another. One year, you drive a new Highlander, the next year you are back in your old Four Runner. Save us from the years when we are back on a bike, balancing grocery bags on the handlebars. We drive what we have, no matter what the vehicle seems to say. The news sits out there as plain as can be; the paper prints ten percent of what we know. We have no secrets. The only ones that hide are the ones that have been forgotten. They nod at you from the driver’s seat. We nod back.

Winter kills your ego first. It flays you in tongues, cuts you in paper, and leaves you freezing in the sand. Nobody diets without everyone looking at your shopping cart; nobody works out without everyone watching you run; nobody dates without everyone checking the two of you out. We have no fresh starts out here. But we have humor, and we have forgiveness, and we have mercy. All of us have been there, and those who haven’t, will be there soon.

More than anything else in the winter, we watch. We watch the parishioners come and go. We watch the weekenders stroll up the bricks in search of winter sales, newspapers, and Mimosas. In the still of January, Sunday afternoons bring hockey players and swim teams to the bricks. They left the boat wrapped up in blankets, sweatpants, and sleeping bags, lugging oversized bags. Then they walk up Main Street, past the closed jewelry stores and the open book stores, make the turn at Orange Street, and then walk up to the rink, sticks and skates in hand. They had come to a strange place. They see the cobblestones, the bricks, and the gray houses. It was so different, so still and silent and colorless. We watch them go and then come back later. They wander through town, poke through the Sunken Ship, and then wait for the boat back to the malls, stop lights, and turning lanes. In the last moments down by the Toy Boat, they look back at us.

On winter Sundays, we like to drive on the beach. Free of people, towels, and surfboards, the beach lies cold and open. We follow the tracks of those who came before us and drive above the tide line. We listen to the Patriots game as the waves roll in. Then we come to a gradual stop, and back into an unmarked parking slot out near Fat Ladies Beach at the base of a dune.

Somewhere, far out to sea, the Old Squaw are gathering in great flocks and the fair weather clouds are wandering in from the west. In the water, twenty-two little black seal heads are bobbing in the water. Somewhere beneath them the great ferris wheel of life claims fish after fish in the darkening tide. Above them, the seals float and watch us on the beach.

The sun sets as it always does. It settles into the crimson and gold of the west, streaked in the wandering clouds and set off in a purpled east. Then, in the methodical infinite, the sun disappears into the sea. The last of the light swirls after it, draining the dunes, the beach grass, the clouds and, last, the sky. In that eternal moment, we rest in the ancient glow of the Milky Way and witness the silent spin of the stars. Then we turn the engine back on, sweep the headlights over the still rolling ocean and the still bobbing seals, before heading back to Stop and Shop, Faregrounds, and Sunday Night Football.

On winter Sundays, we gather at Tuppancy Links. Gus, Lacey, Rosie, Flo, Stanley, and The Governor. The Governor is a massive cross between a mastiff and a boxer; he comes racing over the schools of beach grass and skids to a halt amid the other dogs. The sniffing leads to some poking and then the racing begins. No man and no treat can stop a running rodeo of pugs, basset hounds, boxers, labs, and one half whippet mutt who races just out of reach of all of them. They hear no command, will respond to no whistle, and won’t avoid any obstacle. In an hour, they will sit before the pellet stove, underneath a roof, hidden in a lee from the wind and the gale, but for now, they only know the pack, the grass, and the scent of the deer.

We stand watching. More specifically, we stand a little close together with our eyes open and our knees flexed. Stories are told of someone who wasn’t paying attention, someone who wasn’t ready and who got knocked off their pins and into the emergency room. We stand like parents at hockey practice; we fear for their freedom. In a moment, we expect, it will end in tragedy and high pitched yelps. We know they find joy in the pack, racing beyond us. They are our loves and intendeds. We feed them, pet them, walk them, train them and, in the end, mourn for them. But they are not ours. Out in the pack, they leave us behind. We hope they will return in the end, if only for the cut up Fenway Frank we have in a pocket. There is nothing we can do but hope. And thank.

As they run over the waves of grass and wind, we know how lucky we are. Time has cast us up on the beach right now, with these people, under this sky, beside this sea. Others cannot see this. Others cannot receive this Providence. Others cannot know.

In winter, we live small and cold. We live under a racing sky, by the side of a roaring ocean, swept in the tides of time. Then we go to the Brotherhood, sit by a fire, settle into a room full of familiar faces. We count ourselves lucky amid the beer, the curly fries, and the darkness.


Articles by Date from 2012