Our first Vineyard Christmas in 1991

(The year when absolutely nothing had been invented yet.)

0
The artist Liza Coogan's rendering of the previous Nadler residence.

We bought our house on the far northwest corner of East Chop Drive in 1981. We called it “the house that ‘Laverne & Shirley’ built,” because during the time when my beloved ex-husband Marty Nadler worked as a writer and producer on the show, and when Penny and Cindy expressed their disdain for the week’s script by dumping it in the trash, Marty would go sit in his office, sigh, and gaze up at a picture of the cottage facing Vineyard Sound, and he’d feel all right about everything.

We visited our seaside cottage in the off-season and in the summer, but we never spent Christmas there. The quieter the Island got, the more the place gave us the willies. Once, on a dismal night in November, I told Marty, “If I hear that foghorn toll one more time, I’m going to kill myself.” Ask not for whom the foghorn tolls …

We — or more accurately I — gave birth to Charlie in 1984 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, delivered by our friend and Vineyard baby doc, Jason Lew. After midnight, Dr. Lew phoned his future bride, Injy, in Paris to tell her a new Nadler was coming into the world. And just to show you how far back in antiquity this story took place, Jason placed the call from the hospital’s landline over on the desk near the table where I lay screaming.

So Charlie was that much-coveted Vineyard personage, a native! But for his first seven years, we lived in New York and Los Angeles, and only bounced onto the Island when bouncing time was available. So when in the spring of ’91, Marty and I sat on the couch of his office upstairs in East Chop, we had to face the harsh reality that we could no longer afford to be bicoastal. We could barely afford to be unicoastal. We even started to pay our property taxes in small dribs and drabs (bless the heart of then town treasurer Marguerite Cook for working with us).

Charlie, who was always a smart aleck, and is now a writer and standup comic, says in his act, “My parents were magicians, did you know that? They made my inheritance disappear. They’d say ‘Pick a card, any card,’ and then max it out.”

OK, so we went eeny-meenie, and picked the Vineyard to be our home. Tradition over Hollywood lunches. The four seasons over smog. Real work (for me writing and real estate, for Marty writing and working for Primo at the Chilmark Store) over vanishing television dollars. It seemed like a good tradeoff, but when we told Charlie we were moving full-frontal to East Chop, he burst into tears. Being the kind of parents who brooked no nonsense, we quickly offered him a television set in his own bedroom, and a puppy.

On his first day of class in the second grade with the resplendent Mrs. Jones, I spent the whole day at home, hunched over in abject fear that it would take a few months for our son to find his way in the byzantine social world of grammar school. (This was in the old Oak Bluffs School; do you remember that? No? That’s how far back this story goes! It’s where the library now stands.) When I picked him up outside the front glass doors, I asked with a tremor in my voice, “How did it go?” “Fine!” he said, without missing a beat. And he meant it! It was fine.

Oh, we all suffered a few disasters, such as what we called at the time “the No-Name Storm” before Halloween, which Sebastian Junger later rebranded “the Perfect Storm.” Uncommonly big breakers thumped over our beach. Water built up across the road, spilling into Crystal Lake, then flooding back over the wetlands to surround our house.

When the water rose to our outdoor steps, I packed a bag, threw my lightweight son over my hip (Marty was in L.A., or he would have been hoisted onto my other hip), and we sloshed through the tsunami to the Munsons’ house: Heather and Bill and Megan and Billy. We had a great dinner of scallops St.-Jacques, and as the tide washed out, I pulled up stakes and returned home. The electricity was dead-dead-dead, the gale-force winds had pulled loose shutters that broke windows and flapped against the walls while Charlie and I and our two cats, in pitch darkness, hunkered down in Charlie’s prize bed, shaped like a race car. As the wind howled and the shutters went on banging, my future comedian son asked, “Can you run it by me again? Why we came back here?”

As winter settled down over us and our electrically restored house, we discovered the furnace dated to the time of the first settlers — the ones who took land away from the Wampanoags. Our furnace fixer, Paul Danielle of Danielle & Rogers, explained the basic system that had been installed before recorded history: The furnace, pounding out hot air in the garage, bellowed into heated pipes buried under the lawn. “You’re keeping your grass nice and warm!” he said cheerfully.

We packed up the furnace in a closet tucked into the side of the house. For Thanksgiving, we entertained my mom and dad, who’d been traveling in faraway places, and surfaced long enough to learn they had a grandson (another story for another time; this was before texting when people could get news in real time), and Grandma Betty from the Bronx. Yeah, the Bronx! You got a problem with that?

For Christmas, the three Nadlers put up their first Island Christmas tree, with lights reflecting out the northeastern windows as people circled round the elbow of road. Postmaster Mark Luce told a mutual friend, “The only Christmas lights on East Chop belong to that Jewish family!” Well, yeah, that’s another story too. Charlie enjoyed both Christmas and Hanukkah — a good deal for all concerned.

In addition to the TV set and the doggie — a sweet, dippy, dumb cocker spaniel whom we named Chopper, who never did properly learn whether it was optimal to go No. 2 on the lawn or the living room carpet — we had also, before the move, promised Charlie snow. Lots of snow. Kids love it for some reason. In that particular winter of ’91 and into ’92, there was very little snow, only a few dustings. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Charlie felt gypped.

But we got through it, back in those rustic times before cell phones and Netflix and solar-fueled satellites that can sweep you to Finland and back. It was cozy and warm when the furnace wasn’t busy heating the lawn, and we had one another and Chopper, and the two cats who’d weathered the Perfect Storm with us. And you know what? Those days of shuddering at the sound of the foghorn were over. What worked for us, living on the Island, was family. This realization was our one grand Christmas present. And Hanukkah treat.

After the holiday was over, Charlie drew of a picture of his family for Mrs. Jones. Underneath the pictures of us, the dog, and the two cats, he wrote, “And they all lived happily ever after.”

I showed that picture to Marty a few years ago, and told him how sad it made me. “No!” he cried joyfully. “They DID live happily ever after. Just not with each other!”