Town Column : Aquinnah
This past Thursday, Aquinnah lost one of its most revered and beloved citizens, Luther Tacknash Madison, who died at the age of 84. He had been fighting cancer for many years and since the time he was diagnosed 16 years ago he won many of the battles. His oncologist said that he would like to keep Luther's hat because of all his patients presenting the same symptoms at the time of diagnosis, only Luther had survived so long, and the doctor figured the hat must be lucky (little did he know of Luther). Unable to procure the hat from Luther, the oncologist bought one similar to it.
Luther was the medicine man for the tribe for 36 years, succeeding his father, Napoleon Madison, who held the post before him. He held various town positions, and was a bus driver for many years. And of course, he was the proprietor and pie maker of the Aquinnah restaurant at the cliffs with his wife of 31 years, Anne.
A wake was held this past Sunday, and on Monday he was laid to rest at the cemetery in Aquinnah. It was a powerful ceremony with about 200 attendees holding hands, circled in silence while traditional Wampanoag honoring songs were performed with drum and voice. A fire burned near the gravesite and the Reverend Roger Spinney gave the eulogy. He started by saying, "Luther hated being cold, so I won't keep you out here long." He spoke of Luther's large heart, evident in the amount of people, children, stepchildren, grand and great-grandchildren and numerous people who called him "Uncle Lou" that flocked around him.
At the gathering after the ceremony, I heard the same story over and over, "I came to Martha's Vineyard 30, 20, 15 years ago and Anne and Luther took me in." Luther was a powerful example of what it truly means to be a family man. The Reverend Spinney also spoke of Luther's marvelous sense of humor and his wisdom, saying little, but always speaking the truth. At the close of the ceremony a red-tailed hawk flew overhead.
After the ceremony we all headed to the tribal building for a potluck dinner in Luther's honor. I heard many stories of Luther's sense of humor. A childhood friend of Juli Vanderhoop's said that as a child when she called Juli's house and Luther answered, she asked, "Is Juli there?" "Yes," Luther replied. Then nothing, silence for a minute, two minutes. "Hello?" she asked. "Yes?" said Luther, still there and obviously not Juli. "Is Juli there?" she asked again. "Yes," came the reply. "Could I speak with her?" she asked. "Of course," said Luther, relinquishing the phone to Juli. This woman said it changed forever how she calls people; she now always requests to speak with whomever she calls.
When I was looking at the pictures on display at the wake, Lisa Vanderhoop pointed out that in one group of vacation pictures, Luther was always frowning. "That's because he hated having his picture taken, and in fact in one picture I think he's giving me the finger."
It is difficult to imagine the town without Luther. Berta Welch said that that morning she had said to her husband, "I'm going over Anne and Lou's," the house still partly Luther's even though he is no longer there.
He was a fixture in Aquinnah, answering the phone, sitting and watching the comings and goings. One of his daughter-in-laws said she would like to be more like him, wise, not speaking in haste, and never seeming to regret what he did say.
Luther liked to make pies and his pies were delicious. "He liked to feel good and he wanted everyone around him to feel good," his son Jeffrey told me. And we did. We all felt good, or special, loved in his presence. People like Luther are rare. Wise, with a wicked sense of humor, a man who fully grasped what it meant to be an elder and who never lorded his position over others. Thank goodness he was with us for so long so we have many, many stories to tell of him whenever we need to conjure his spirit.
"I feel as if he is our sky now," said Richard Skidmore. I like that image. Luther, no longer with us physically but forever a part of the air we breathe.