Not everyone’s pronounced love for Martha’s Vineyard has developed due to a solitary discovery. Some of us were blessed with a friend or partner who acted as a warm and intimate guide, helping us see that the Island is more than just a popular and inviting stretch of land. We came to know it as a place rich with history, a place that wore the imprint of its residents.
My best friend was my introduction to the Vineyard. Her summer home had been purchased four generations ago, and she had spent 40 years of her life vacationing here. As I heard her stories and followed her footsteps, I saw the Island through her eyes. Her deep affection for the Vineyard became mine. It was she who encouraged me to initiate my own explorations. And many times I did.
One such exploration led me to the Oak Bluffs cemetery this past September 15. I sat down on one of the benches to read a paperback book that I had just purchased from the library. Within minutes a white vehicle pulled up on the narrow road in front of me, and the driver, Jim Sedgwick, leaned out the window to extend a greeting. Surprised, I assumed that he had mistaken me for someone else. He turned off the engine and stepped out of his car; his wife, Karin, did the same. He asked me if I knew someone by the name of Bobby, formally called Robert. I admitted that I hadn’t, and suddenly realized I was sitting right beside the grave site that Jim had come to visit. I apologetically explained that I was there for a different reason, hoping that my trespass was not interpreted as insensitive. It wasn’t. Instead, Jim began to share with me a very poignant story.Jim had met Robert Williston as a young man in his twenties, and they had become close friends. Bobby, who lived on the Island, worked at the shipyard before he worked as an assistant shellfish warden in Oak Bluffs for 12 years. Bobby’s natural affinity with Martha’s Vineyard intensified in Jim a similar attachment. Bobby warmly welcomed Jim, through 40 years of friendship, each time Jim’s family arrived on the Island for a visit. Bobby showed Jim where he could catch the most fish and where he could find the most clams. He taught him the ways of the water and those who fished them.
Seeing Bobby in the running during the annual fishing derby increased Jim’s enjoyment of the event. Many rich memories were made as Bobby’s family shared their island life with Jim and his family. I understood, completely, the overlapping that Jim felt for his friend and for the Island.
Bobby died in 2008. The purpose of Jim’s September trip from his Connecticut home was to secure a car hood ornament to a pole that would be placed beside Bobby’s grave. Bobby had purchased the matching pair of ornaments while he was in the Navy. He affixed one of them to the hood of his car; the other he gave to Jim, who added it to his car.
When Jim sold the car, he saved the ornament, intending to put it in on his new vehicle. But then he realized that this would, instead, be the perfect way to mark his friend’s grave. And that is what Jim was there to do that September afternoon.
While Jim fondly recounted the depth of this friendship, his voice caught in his throat. I was profoundly moved by the bond that had existed between the two men. I felt the acute sense of loss that Jim’s words revealed; I felt the connection between the persons and the places. As Jim tried to sink the long pole into the ground, several times hitting a few impenetrable roots or rocks, he jovially spoke to his departed friend buried beneath the soil. Finally, the pole could be hammered into the ground, and the ornament was secured on top.
As I stood to leave, I was touched by my encounter with Jim and his wife. I looked around and I understood, in a way that words could not capture, the vein of warmth that unites people on that beautiful Island stretch.
I thought of those of us who have found our way there through dear friends; I thought of how their histories have been the threads that have woven lives and land together. And I was grateful for such friends and their generous sharing of their beloved island. I knew that they would continue to impress and impact those that they loved, making who they were, and where they came from, a part of who we are and who we have become. I was grateful that my best friend had shared her life with me; I was grateful that it had led me to the shared life and stories of people like Bobby Williston and Jim Sedgwick.