At home with the Aronies of Chilmark

Big lives in a small cottage.

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Joel and Nancy in their kitchen, showing the antique window and artwork from friends and family. –Photos by Lynn Christoffers

Alice in her Wonderland has nothing on a visit to Nancy Slonim Aronie and Joel Aronie in their small and wildly quaint cottage just up and over from Chilmark Chocolates off South Road. You traipse lightly and admiringly past a lawn of random stuff such as a wooden red Regency chair awaiting — what? — the arrival of a cleavage-heavy moll in a hoop skirt? You pass a patio of umbrellas which in warm weather is the setting for Nancy’s Chilmark Writing Workshop, a new one each week, Monday through Thursday, 9 to noon, followed by tea and home-baked bread.

And then, before you have a chance to greet the incandescent Nancy and the mesmerizing Joel, you rudely avert your attention to a creature 1/1000th their size, a tiny calico kitty named Boson, a recent addition to the household. Photographer for the MV Times Lynn Christoffers, who’s already made her bones with her “Cats of Martha’s Vineyard” (Vineyard Stories), is down on her belly, camera lens aimed at the little blue-eyed living doll.

Nancy tells us that their older cat, Higgs (get it? Higgs and Boson? From the Large Hadron Collider? Hint: Joel is the scientist of the family) has been slumped over depressed since the wee one was recently added to the clan. Finally the human mama had a chat with the feline big baby: “You know you’re the master of this house! You’re my favorite! And Boson is your baby too!”

Did this help? “She perked up right away!” says Nancy.

The Aronies, then a brilliant young couple living in West Hartford, Conn., bought their cottage some 45 years ago. Joel had degrees in subjects like nuclear engineering, and he worked on fuel cells for the Apollo moon missions, but was suddenly busy inventing fun stuff, coming up with blockbusters such as the Zero Blaster, which, when the trigger is pressed, puffs smoke rings like Bogie’s to impress Bacall. “It borrows from a technology called toroidal vortex,” he explains, as if Lynn and I have Ph.D.s after our names. He offers the example of dolphins: “They make it out of air in the water, and it becomes a ball they can play with.”

But back to the house. When they bought it, the high-ceilinged living room, two small bedrooms, single bathroom, and New York-size kitchen, had walls of deep brown. They painted the gorgeous living room, with the skylights and antique windows they’ve added, a bright white. The guest bedroom, too, has been treated to a lighter tint called Tuscan Dawn, with an antique brass bed and French windows from a company that recycles beautiful elements from demobilized churches. The bathroom retains the deep dark wooden walls as a reminder of how the whole cottage was once as dreary as a Himalayan cave.

The master bedroom is dark as well, but only because heavy Navajo blankets cover the windows day and night. When I was treated to a quick look inside this tomb-like sanctuary, I asked, “What are you, vampires?”

Turns out they only sleep there, heating the subzero sheets with an electric blanket. “Our house is not winterized,” Joel tells us with evident pride. The fireplace and a wood-burning stove, which Joel built himself, keep the front room comfortable in winter.

While Nancy is ostensibly the more famous one — NPR correspondent, author of the best-selling “Writing From The Heart” (Hyperion), teacher of her popular writing workshop, which she takes on the road to such venues as the Omega Workshop, Kripalu and, ahem, Harvard — and while Joel has been called in print “the quiet Aronie” (MV Arts & Ideas, 2014; bit.ly/QuietAronie), he can rivet you to the sofa and have you plead, “Tell me more!”

Joel’s subject when Lynn and I recently called was about an element — much like uranium is an element — called thorium. It took a while for Joel to expand on the subject over an imaginary lectern, but the gist was, “It’s a molten salt, slightly radioactive, but not dangerously so; there is four times the amount of it found in the earth than uranium, it’s totally safe, it requires no cooling water, you can’t make bombs from it, all our energy needs could be met by it, and, indeed, as much as we count on wind and solar to save us in these catastrophic times, they will never produce the power we need. Thorium will.”

Nancy says with a sigh, “He does bring you down at dinner parties.”

So why have we never heard of thorium? We knew the answer to that question before Joel even needed to tell us: Big Oil.

But back to family history: Joel and Nancy bought the cottage when their boys, Josh and Dan, were 7 and 5. They had splendid summers there, and Mom and Dad were smart to keep the time family-oriented. “We had few friends in those early Island days,” says Nancy. It was intentional at the time, to focus on the family. (Now they know everyone in the phone book.) Eventually Nancy, Joel, Josh — a talented chef, now married to Angela, with a boy, Eli, 7 — and Dan moved to the Vineyard full-time.

Dan, described by a friend in an article as “funny, laid-back, handsome, a ladies’ man, a good motorcycle mechanic,” was diagnosed at the age of 22 with MS. Surrounded by loving family and a heap of friends, plus starring in a documentary about his struggle called “A Certain Kind of Beauty,” in which family friend Ram Dass makes a cameo appearance, Dan Aronie died in late January of 2010. He was 38.

Everywhere you look around the cottage, you spot endless supplies of books. Also, while the Aronies have always had artists for friends, they have, in recent times, begun to collect a mad amount of art itself. Nancy points in all directions, “There’s Wendy Weldon, those red and blue thin metal sculptures are by Diane Feldman, Ron Curtis made all our doors of vintage wood and stained glass, those are Susan Stovall’s angels in the window, Kate Taylor and Margo Datz are over there, and these sumptuous flowers are made by Kelly Mann who snips plastic bottles. Oh, and let’s not forget Cindy Kane, Margaret Storrow, Lorie Hamermesh, and Fae Konjie!”

And what’s a Vineyard art collection without a few objets by Alan Whiting? This leads to one last clever and Very Vineyard story: A few years ago, late at night, Nancy’s studio caught fire. The Chilmark firefighters came right away, but the blaze was drastic. One of the firemen hobbled over to the cottage bearing a smoking black canvas in his arms.

“I’m so sorry we couldn’t save this,” he apologized. It was a crispy black painting, just salvageable enough to recognize the strokes of Alan Whiting.

And a final Very VERY Vineyard footnote: When Alan Whiting himself heard the story, he sat down and painted a new canvas for the Aronies. And he wouldn’t let them pay for it.