At Large : The mystery of us
Perhaps it's the same in every small town of about 15,000. For the purpose of our pondering today, let's imagine the Vineyard is just that, one town with six villages or voting precincts. In each, residents choose their own representatives and acknowledge, or even celebrate, some modest distinguishing differences in geography, size, wealth, and culture among the several parts.
I grew up in a town that, in those long ago and simpler days, numbered about 10,000 souls. You were not anonymous in your neighborhood. Fire a B-B through Mrs. Pierce's window, or shove the pestiferous Linehan girl into the boxwood hedge that separated her house from the neighbor's, and someone would certainly see you, recognize you, and report it to your parents. My glaring father would be waiting as I walked through the door - "Turn right around, young man, you are going to the Pierces to apologize" or "How could you have done such a thing to that lovely girl?" (if it were my mother). Outside the neighborhood, some comforting invisibility prevailed.
At the junior high school, students from the several neighborhood elementary schools met, usually for the first time. We regarded one another with tribal suspicion. What registered in these melting pot moments were the differences. And, although this utterly insignificant variability would, as the years accumulated, be eventually surmounted, it would not be erased.
So, although the political subdivisions - East Fairhaven, North Fairhaven, the Center - were not nearly as sovereign then as the Vineyard's six political segments are today, the identifying stamp of each was nevertheless indelible.
So, if a bit of villainy or a devastating heartache occurred in one part of town, what was the reaction in the larger community? Well, it was not the sort that was at the heart of a Letter to the Editor written by the Rev. Robert Hensley, rector of Grace Episcopal Church and published on February 18. The rector described what he said was the theft of a watercolor from the church and asked that it be returned. It was the second theft in just four months. Some tables and chairs had gone missing earlier. He wrote that he was "deeply saddened, as well as somewhat frustrated and angry." He admitted that his faith in mankind had been shaken. But, not his "love for the Island and its residents ..."
There is an understandably clerical, guardian of the flock tone to the rector's letter. His faith in the community abides, despite frustration and anger, and he is moved to testify that his love of his Island home does too.
Why had the love of his town, that is the Island, as distinct from "its residents," been called into question, and why did it require his affirmation? A break-in at a drugstore in the north end of my old home town may have provoked a letter to the town newspaper from the guy whose store was the target. The writer may have deplored the event and the thieves. He may have included some surprise that things had come to such a pass. He would not have written that his love of the town endured. He may have loved the town. He may not have. It would not have occurred to him that the question was implicated by the break-in.
A few days before the rector's letter appeared, at the memorial service for Dan Prowten of West Tisbury, who had died earlier in the month in a fire at his house, speakers evoked Dan's essence, in unmistakably authentic terms. It was one of those Vineyard services at which sadness, merriment and music mix naturally, comfortably. Of course, Dan Prowten, builder, firefighter, father, husband, friend was at the epicenter of all the stories. But, although the memories of his generosity and friendship differed from storyteller to storyteller, what did not vary was the missing man's existence as an exponent or embodiment of the community itself, and because firefighters from every town were there, the Island.
As Abigail Higgins, a neighbor, put it in an essay the week before the service, "Our community has suffered a sad loss. Dan Prowten was an integral part of West Tisbury. He was a man you could count on, a go-to guy, a problem solver, dedicated and smart. He chose the role of guardian and protector. His is the kind of tenacity and pragmatism that make towns, neighborhoods, and inanimate objects work."
Perhaps it's not the same in most small communities. Perhaps it's not the case that each shock to the community system demands reflexive testimony to the goodness that abides. Perhaps it's not the habit everywhere to merge the missing member with the community as a whole, to say he was what we are and what endures, despite the losses and the chipping away. But, perhaps here, it's not a fiction that we are eager to preserve. Perhaps it's a fact that is a fact because we believe it and testify to it, whenever its foundation trembles.