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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
July 14 - July 20, 2005 Edition
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Off North Road
The Bishop's wife
July 14, 2005

By Russell Hoxsie, M.D.

The kernel of this story is true to life, an actual happening during my first years of practice on the Vineyard. Conversation contained here must be assumed to be my own invention since memory does not carry so far back in that detail.

The first jarring bit of information my wife Mary Ann and I received soon after we moved to Vineyard Haven from Boston in 1955 involved the immediate aftermath of the Tisbury town meeting which vetoed a school bond issue that had been approved by the other five Vineyard towns. The hopes for a new and regional high school were once more to be postponed by what many thought was the unreasonable intransigence of Tisbury voters. And, talk in Vineyard Haven was rife with the rumor that “the Bishop’s house had been stoned!” The Bishop, a kindly but determined retired Bishop from the Midwest had been outspoken in his opposition in town to the expenditure of so much money for the establishment of a regionalized high school. Conservatives were not only against the indebtedness that would be incurred and its effect on the tax rate but they feared the loss of their town’s identity; they had treasured their independence for generations. Tempers were high everywhere: husbands and wives had stopped talking to each other if they found themselves in opposite camps; discussion of Tisbury’s political climate was heard everywhere; and the most dramatic effect on us as newly arrived off-Islanders was the worry that someone unknown had thrown stones at the Bishop’s house directly across the street from our new home. What were we to expect?

We were swept up in the controversy and not surprisingly, with youngsters on the way toward school, we joined the movement for the new school. Tempers cooled. No further assaults were noted and within a year the bond issue passed at a tense Tisbury meeting. Looking back on that struggle is surreal, but many similar cases were recounted in New England newspapers for many years afterward. Regionalization is always a big issue. Ask any member of the various police and fire organizations what they think, even today. For over 50 years the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has functioned in peace, although not without controversy — but that’s school business of a normal variety. It has served our family well.

Now to the Bishop’s wife: We were good neighbors who met occasionally at social functions, never discussed school issues but maintained a good across-the-street amity. The “stoning” episode was never solved. I wondered if anyone could hold a grudge over the issue. The only sour note I noted was that the bishop’s wife told me how she hated the wind in the off-season. I never appreciated her concern, wondering if age hadn’t taken hold of her sensitivity. I finally understood her complaint after we had spent several years, 12 months at a time, in Menemsha on the shore of the pond. Nothing buffered the wind from the Atlantic to the southwest except the low hills of Gay Head. The wind moaned and groaned for days at a time.

Months later, my phone rang about the time I thought I was drifting off to sleep for the night. “Hello, Russell,” the Bishop’s voice came through. “I hope you’re not in bed. I realize it’s late but I’m worried about my wife Margaret. I’m in Nashua at a regional conference and I can’t raise her on the phone. She’s always at home and in bed this time, usually reading. Could you possibly dash over to the house and check to see she’s all right? The front door is unlocked and her bedroom is at the top of the stairs to the right. I’d be much obliged.”

It seemed a simple request as I grumbled a little walking across the street and through the hedge to the front stoop. Not until there was no answer to my three hard knocks on the door did the first small anxiety rise in my chest. I pushed the door open with some squeaking noises. Indeed, it was unlocked. “Hello, Margaret, hello!” I called up the stairs, in very dim light from an old fashioned lamp on the hall ceiling. “Hello, hello!” No answer. I climbed the curved staircase and reached the landing where several doors opened off a long hall. Only one was closed, on the right. I knocked again and no response. By then I wondered whether I ought to call the police or go back to my own bed and let the Bishop know that all was quiet at his house. No, of course not, I thought. That would be quite absurd considering I am a physician and on a genuine call of mercy, more mercy perhaps than I had counted on. I opened the door to the bedroom and heard the softly curved body in bed breathing. At least I might not have to administer emergency treatment. “Hello, Margaret,” I whispered without response, not even a slight shift in the body’s position in bed. “Margaret, hello; it’s Dr. Hoxsie from across the street. I’m here to see if you are all right.” No response.

As I touched the shoulder, the form rose abruptly to the sitting position. It was the Bishop’s wife all right and she was awake now from a very heavy sleep complicated for me this evening by her moderately severe nerve deafness. Occasionally in the past I had heard her husband calling to her in a rather loud voice. “I’m so sorry to startle you,” I said, now composed enough to speak. “The Bishop called me upset that you hadn’t answered his call on the phone. He asked me to come across the street to see if you were OK. Are you OK?”

“Oh, it’s the doctor, Russell. Oh my, I must have been asleep. I didn’t expect you. Thank you for coming over. My husband always worries when he goes away like this. Now, if you would be so kind, please go home so we both can get a good night’s sleep.” I called the Bishop to tell him that all was quiet at home and I had had a pleasant chat with his wife.
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