At Large: Left to our own devices amidst the fog and squalls

For a quarter century, excepting only one or two years, we have taken a few days off over the Fourth. The runup to summer on Martha’s Vineyard is, for us as it is for so many, fraught and frantic. Everything we planned to get done well in advance, during the winter and fall, didn’t get done, and we find it staring us in the face. We’re shocked, shocked.

So, years ago, we’d gather up the children, maybe some of their little friends, maybe a niece to babysit, and we’d hop from one Island to another, not far away but remote in every perceptible way.

No mod cons, as the British call them. The clothes washer is a tub with a hand wringer. Electricity to jiggle the tub came from a gasoline generator, until a few years ago when the leaky, smelly wretch was replaced with a new diesel beauty. Still, you can’t wash clothes or do anything else you might want to do that requires juice, unless the generator has been fired up, and when it’s running it’s sucking diesel fuel. That means that if you insist on electricity — for those oh so 21st century work savers, you’ll need to take a small herd of five-gallon jugs to the mainland in the skiff, get them filled and bring them back, to feed the beast. That’s no small sortie, I tell you, what with the traffic — there are no cars, no stores, and no fuel here, only horses — and the lugging up to the barn behind the house where the generator lives.

No dishwasher either, a tiny refrigerator, built in Scandinavia by frugal blonds with angular features who are well taken care of by their government. It burns propane to cool off the food. So, we needed a big, insulated portable ice chest — the kind tailgaters take to Gillette with them for the pre-game debauch — and that chest needs ice, which also requires trips in the skiff and to be toted up the hill from the beach to the house.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned food. If you want to lose a few pounds, live for a couple of weeks someplace where the food must be harvested at a supermarket a skiff’s journey away, loaded and unloaded, loaded and unloaded again, and finally hauled up to the house. The whole rigamarole quashes your appetite in a hurry.

I mentioned kids. You know, they are a help and a delight, of course, or at least they are during that brief moment in time, between when they’re too small and distracted to do much good with the heavy stuff and when they’re too preoccupied with school, friends, jobs, and faraway places to heave ho when there is lots of heave ho-ing to be done. In between, they are solid, dependable tools, but that shining interlude goes by so quickly.

Moll reminded me just an hour ago of the occasion in the early nineties when I had to return to the Vineyard to do some work, leaving her with the two very little children, say, one, two and one, one. Two of the older ones were coming from the mainland to vacation with us, and Moll, thinking ahead, wondered how she was going to take the skiff across the tumbling water to collect the incoming, with the two little ones along because they couldn’t be left alone. I had nothing to contribute. Her mood dark, her regard for her absent helpmate momentarily extinguished, she put the littlest one in a backpack and the other one on a leash and cast off for the mainland. We agreed we’d arrange things differently in the future.

The vacation days flew by, feeding the kids, bathing them, inspecting them for ticks, watching as they swam, settling the arguments, reminding them of what to do on the days when it rained, lugging them on our shoulders or in backpacks on long walks whose purpose was to tire them out, though the beneficial result could not always be timed finely enough so that they collapsed on the doorstep on our return to the house.

Those vacations were tumultuous, cacophonous, sometimes calamitous, and exhausting. They were occasionally vacations to vacation from.

This year, from where I sit typing, I can see Moll walking along the grass trail that curves through the vast field, which extends, dipping gently westward away from this ancient house. She and I are here alone. Some of the kids will come soon, and a grandchild, but until they do, it’s just we two, and the rain, thunder, lightning, enervating humidity, and intermittent quiet. The wind whines and hoots through this venerable house, the rain clatters on the roof — there is no attic. There are no human voices except ours. We are left to our own devices, to amuse ourselves, no one to attend to, no one to attend to us.

Moll will be back from her walk in an hour or so. We’ll swim. We swam yesterday in the rain, with the air so thick with fog and mist, the visibility so limited that the world ended at the end of the dock we leapt from, no one within miles to hear our shrieks. The air today is two or three percent drier, the morning squall’s thunder made the old house tremble, the lightning lit the spare, square rooms with their tiny, square windows under the eaves.

This house has been occupied more or less continuously since before the Revolutionary War. We wonder how the days went for its original occupants, who kept sheep and never vacationed. They had no electricity, no gadgets, no excess of anything. The kids, if they lived, didn’t visit, they stayed to do shepherd’s work. Some of them joined the revolutionaries who manned the small sloops that harassed the British men-of-war and the British pirates who preyed upon the remote communities and farms along the shore, confiscating their sheep and other meat animals to feed the sailors.

For us, naturally, the chances of enemy sailors stealing ashore to commandeer our sandwich meats seemed slim. In our splendid, austere refuge, we watched the radar to see when it might be safe to walk or swim between squalls, and knew that, after all these years, we were perfectly secure, and the kids would arrive soon.