All in the family
Sitting on a pile of stones on a construction site in Vineyard Haven, John Maloney calls his son Kieran away from mixing a fresh batch of mortar to talk about working together. "I always liked being around the job site," Kieran says. "Even now certain smells will bring back memories, smells of mortar or stones getting cut."
From time to time, working with anyone can prove challenging. There are differences of opinion, differences of style or work ethic, and these can ruin even the best relationships.
Working side by side with a family member adds an extra element to the dynamic. Talking with the Maloneys, who do masonry work together, with William and Carol Ingraham, who own and operate Island Color Center in Vineyard Haven with their daughter Jen Ingraham, and with Eleanor Neubert and her brother Arnie Fischer, who run Flat Point Farm on Tisbury Great Pond, one gets the sense that laboring alongside a member of one's family is a blessing and a privilege.
Photo by Mary Baker
The younger Maloney started working as a mason with his father during high school. Having graduated from college, he currently lives in Boston, but still returns to earn some cash and to help out when needed. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
"He came back for a stone wall last winter," his father says smiling. "It was cold so we just worked. Kieran was running the Bobcat. We did 280 feet of wall. Any stone he'd bring, we'd find a place for it."
"There might be a lot more criticism, a lot more baggage," adds Kieran, "but there is a lot more understanding. That might be one of the real upsides to working with family -having that deep understanding."
It served husband and wife team Bill and Carol Ingraham well for 35 years, and now includes their daughter, Jen Ingraham. The owners of the Vineyard Haven paint store work closely together five and a half days a week, year-round. "We've had three vacations - three - in all those years," says Carol Ingraham.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Sitting at a small round table in the rear of their store, it feels like a behind the scenes peek into the no-holds-barred workings of family business.
"We just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary in June. That's 24 hours a day together," Carol Ingraham says. "So I call it our 70th," Bill and his daughter add in unison, laughing.
Clearly this punch line has floated around the store to contractors all summer. "We are friends. That's the most important thing," Mr. Ingraham says.
Friendship, respect, admiration are common refrains. But what really stands out is how appreciative and grateful everyone feels towards their relatives whose efforts contribute to the success of their respective businesses. It is touching and heartfelt.
Each of the Ingrahams has a story of sacrifice, of holding down the fort during difficult times. When one goes down, others step up. It is not the sort of thing you get out of regular employees, those without a stake in the well-being of not just the business but the family, its history, reputation, and bearing in the community.
Photo by Mary Baker
Eleanor Neubert and Arnie Fischer inherited Flat Point Farm from their father, who started it in 1939. "It is the longest continuous bovine operation on Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Fischer announces with pride. "Let's hope we can keep the family farm going 100 years."
There is not a lot of money in agriculture, but neither sibling questioned taking over operation of the business when the time came, though both also work other jobs. "We just stepped in," Ms. Neubert says, about taking over the difficult enterprise. "It is what we did. I learned to drive a tractor at seven or eight. We wanted to see the family farm keep going."
Ms. Neubert keeps the books, and Mr. Fischer says, "She's not going be out there under a bailer trying to get it to work. But I appreciate all she does as far as keeping the checkbook balanced. It's great working with Eleanor."
Not all the labor is so well divided. But Ms. Neubert explains, "We don't know any different. It just has evolved. I guess we know each other's strengths."
Jen Ingraham has a similar response when asked if she always imagined she'd be working with her parents. Without hesitating, she answers, "Yeah, definitely, I always knew I would work here. It is very exciting to work with them. They know a lot of stuff."
"As a little girl, she used to sweep the floors, and play 10-cent blackjack with the guys that came in," Mr. Ingraham says, beaming. "She knows almost as much as I do now." He produces a picture they keep behind the counter of Jen as a girl pushing a broom. Above it is a second photograph of his granddaughter sweeping the same floor.
"People pay good money for this," Carol Ingraham says smiling, about the layers of worn paint on the floors, worn away from all the traffic.
The image is duplicated in the worn and weathered farm structures at Flat Point Farm, and in Kieran Maloney's memories of the job sites he visited as a child. It is this visual history, this sense of breathing where the past breathed, that gives Martha's Vineyard such a rich and knitted community.
Complaints never materialized. Instead, over and over, each family member repeats the message Mr. Ingraham expresses: "There is no downside to working with family. We can yell and scream at each other, and it doesn't mean anything. It's not like working for someone else. This is family, you know, it all goes away."
The sense of preservation, of solidarity, is palpable among all these families. Kieran Maloney sums it up as he resumes mixing the mortar that will hold the foundation stones his father is setting in place, "There are some days when you feel lucky. You think everybody should have this sort of time with their family."
Justen Ahren is a poet, writer, and landscaper living in West Tisbury.