by Robert P. Barsanti
The two girls sat at the bench, waiting for the NRTA. One held her chin on her fist, the other leaned back and took in the passing traffic. They had been tanned, bleached a bit, and had absorbed as much of the island as they could. They wore jeans, strappy little sandals, and carried three suitcases each. Their summer was ending.
The tide turns after the Pops. Suddenly, in the middle of August, the waitresses and painters are called back to the soccer fields of Cornell and St. Laurence. The ice cream line gets longer, the beaches lose another lifeguard, and another set of luggage rolls onto the high-speed boat.
In a week, the families will load up the Yukon and roll it onto the early morning ferry. The schools south of the Mason-Dixon Line have already brought Billy and Betsy back to the classroom. The prep schools and colleges will be next: Jennifer and James will report for pre-season, outfit their rooms, and empty the sand from their shoes. And then, finally, at Labor Day, the schools in the northern corners of the country will return, and the island will be left to the members and their guests. The beaches will clear and the stop signs will be a lot less popular.
For those of us lucky enough to call the Sandbar home, all of this comes with a long exhale. The infrastructure of the island, from the people to the pavement, was not built for the stress the first two weeks of August bring. As the boats round Brant Point, the shadow of February appears in the cool light of August. The show is coming to a close.
The boat takes them away just as Nature is peaking. The bluefish and stripers are deep around the bar, the tuna bar is serving, and the sharks are still posing for their Instagram reels. The tomatoes have grown corpulent, the corn dense and sweet, and the pickers are on their way to Hyannis. Soon, the pick your own tomatoes signs will be out. The whirling ladies (and men) of the Caribbean are shuffling and whispering in the wings, far off over the cerulean horizon. The surfing waves pace into shore. It’s a bad time to need reservations to ride the ferry away.
But those of us who call the Sandbar home have a certain sand-blindness to the island. We see the traffic, and the closures, and the removals only against the backdrop of our own sepia-toned history on-island. This new house replaced the one that Flint and Corky had, and I just don’t like the look of it. We mourn the cutting of trees and the loss of a familiar view. Our visitors don’t see that. The girls who are waiting with their luggage don’t have fond and familiar memories of Thirty Acres (which was behind them). Natives do.
In our history-infused vision, we see everything (and everyone) that was once there, but we miss the present. When we pull onto the beach at Fortieth, we don’t think about how rare that is; we wonder why there are so many Connecticut plates. When we drive five miles along a sand road in the center of the island to find an empty beach at Madaquecham, we aren’t amazed at the miracle (of foresight and conservation). We just see all of the new houses and fresh shingles.
The visitors see the unique and glorious present. The visitors walk down to the shore, dig their toes into the sand, and let the waves wrap around their ankles. They turn and see sand dunes and sky, but no history. But they see the context that islanders miss. You can’t do this on the Vineyard. You can’t do this in New Jersey. You can’t do this in Europe. For most of our visitors, that moment under the surf-wrapped, sand-sbordered, glowing sky only happens here.
So, when they go back to Avon, Akron, or Atlanta, they have in their mind that beach moment lapping at their memory. The sit in traffic, with the windows up and the air-conditioning on, and they wish they were back on the beach at Fisherman’s with a warm beer and a bag of chips.
Whenever I am off-island and I tell people that I came from Nantucket, someone tells me about their honeymoon. They don’t complain about the loss of Wing Night, the Fire Chief, or the traffic on Old South Road. Their eyes drift back to a ride out to a lighthouse, an afternoon at Cisco, and evenings at an inn.
My aunt and uncle, currently happily embedded in the northern Italian soil like olive trees, still remember their Nantucket honeymoon sixty years ago. On any Sunday morning, sit on Main Street and watch the couples walk hand-inhand. Their memories are not our memories. They have taken our ordinary moments, polished them, and placed them on the shelf.
More often than not, when the honeymooners tell their story, they talk fondly about people who helped them. On the beach Sunday, a deeply tanned Bostonian regaled the kindness and tools a Nantucket guidance counselor helped him with forty years ago. Isky, Augie, Flint, and Frenchie live on in their small favors and handshakes.
To know, you have to leave. When you take the boat off with three full suitcases and watch Brant Point pass to the left, your Nantucket life ends. The rest of your life, in Boston or Burlington, will send you skidding through the peaks and valleys, but it won’t be ankle deep in wet sand. Every warm Sunday afternoon will remind you of parking at Fortieth Pole in the heat and sparkle of August, in the company of friends and family. The wonder of living on Nantucket is that the mundane is fantastic. When the passengers come out on the deck, toss a penny, and take a picture of the light, they know what they are leaving. You only know what you had when it’s gone.