“Looking Back,” by Shirley Mayhew, Music Street Press, 2014,
In March of 1946, Shirley Mayhew, a West Tisbury resident for the past 65 years, met her husband-to-be, Johnny Mayhew, at a mixer at Pembroke College in Providence. “The campus, after several years of being dominated by women due to World War II, was being flooded by returning veterans,” Ms. Mayhew writes in her self-published memoir, “Looking Back.”
Shirley, a stunningly attractive young sophomore (one sees this from the photos; the author herself is self-effacing to an endearing degree), attends the mixer to please a far more extroverted friend. When Shirley meets Johnny, a Vineyard native of 10 generations, and an Air Force pilot to boot, they hang together the way two wallflowers will connect in the corner of a crowded room. They stroll into town in the dead of night. He has a girlfriend, and yet they go on meeting. Suddenly the girlfriend vanishes from the picture, and Johnny proposes in a comically laconic way: “’You wouldn’t marry me, would you?’ Without a pause to think it over, I said, ‘Sure.’” Out of this understated beginning arose a lasting marriage with three children, three granddaughters, and six-plus decades of life in what the author herself describes as “the slow lane” in West Tisbury unfolds.
Everyone should live in such a slow lane. Ms. Mayhew recounts her early days as a young bride on Martha’s Vineyard where her new husband followed his bliss by fishing for a living, later expanding to an oyster farm. Later both Johnny and Shirley earned teaching degrees and worked in the school system to support their family.
Ms. Mayhew is a good sport from the very start. She writes, “I married my husband more than 60 years ago for better or for worse — but not for fishing…. The tide and the weather determine a fisherman’s life — and the life of his wife, if she ever wants to see him. The first mistake I made was getting married in September, during the Oscar-season of the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.”
The author’s style is engaging as she takes us through Hurricane Carol to her many years on the banks of Look’s Pond, her worldwide travels, and back to her Island again where this wash-ashore is fully blended with her family-in-law’s ancestry. Ms. Mayhew relates how life in the slow lane on this pastoral island includes up-close-and-personal contact with birds of all stripes, a genius raccoon at the bird-feeder, and an overactive mother-and-baby mouse team whose welfare the young Shirley puts before her own.
A fun chapter, Check Stubs Tell All, takes us on a romp through what things used to cost in 1949: 45 cents for shipping a slip-cover from Bloomingdales, a 3-cent postage stamp, $75 to deliver a baby, 35 cents an hour for babysitting, $2 for a bottle of sherry, and $4.14 for a carton — a carton! — of cigarettes, and this in the day when smoking was good for you! The monthly rental for the West Tisbury parsonage across the road from the Whiting Farm was $35.
In an age when so much media attention is focused on what the younger generations are up to, it’s refreshing to hear from articulate members of the Greatest Generation. Their fighting spirit took this country through The Depression and WWII. Its members brought us the odd yet family friendly era of the 1950s — when women were “…eased back into their homes, with propaganda about how satisfying it was to wax your kitchen floors and to get your clothes squeaky clean with the new bleach products.”
From early potluck suppers and guitar musicales with up-Island friends to funny letters from students’ moms — “Please excuse Billy’s tardiness. He was helping his father catch our pig (they didn’t succeed)” — to eventual granddaughters, one of whom, Katie Ann Mayhew, sang her way to the Boston Pops in London, the memoirist provides a sweep of Island life by demonstrating that the slow lane is filled with stunning moments of incalculable riches such as this one describing two wounded geese who’d partnered together, only one of whom regained the use of its wings: “He would flap his wings alongside her until he was airborne, and when he realized she was not with him, he would return and land on the water beside her… finally Gus took off a final time, circled, but did not return to Andrea. Because all Canada geese look alike, we never knew whether we ever saw him again.”
“Looking Back” will be stocked at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven and, when August traffic shows signs of easing up, at Edgartown Books as well. Stay tuned for news of readings and signings: This is a fine gift for family and friends who wonder what we do and how we keep ourselves in the winter unless — shhh! — we’d just as soon they never knew.