Sonya Norton died peacefully in her home in the arms of her loving husband in Vineyard Haven on Jan. 30, 2015. She was 82.
Born Sonya MacDonald Spencer at Boston Women’s Hospital on May 1, 1932, to Dr. Harvey and Elizabeth Baldwin Spencer, she spent her childhood in Wellesley Hills and Stockbridge, attending Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, and the Cambridge School of Weston, from which she graduated in 1950. She then went on to Smith College.
During these school years, her summers were filled with concerts at Tanglewood, performing with her father’s English hand bells, playing viola at the Greenwood Music Camp, horseback riding, and roaming the Adirondacks with her sister Beth, parents, and longtime family friends and relatives at Putnam Camp in Keene Valley, N.Y. And in 1952 she made a memorable tour of Europe with her sister and beloved second cousins Phil and David Dawson, which included a performance by cellist Pablo Casals at the Prades Festival in Southern France.
Graduating from Smith College in 1954, she was an apprentice teacher at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge for a year, and then joined her parents in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she worked at the University of Michigan Library. The unexpected death of her father brought her and her mother back to Cambridge in 1956, and she became the secretary to Margaret Clapp, president of Wellesley College. Then, in 1958, she became secretary to the Right Reverend John Coburn, presiding bishop of Massachusetts, then dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. It was here that she met her husband-to-be and intrepid life partner, Jim Norton, who was applying to become a student at ETS, having recently returned to the states following his graduate studies in India.
She visited the Island that was to become her home with Jim just after becoming engaged in June 1961, ferried over to the Island by Ralph and Dorothy Packer after the boats stopped running. She and Jim were married in Cambridge on Sept. 9, 1961.
Sonya and Jim spent most of the next 10 years in Wooster, Ohio, at the College of Wooster, where he was a professor of religion. They returned every summer to the Vineyard, except in 1968. In that school year they traveled for the second time, with their three young children, to India, to establish the Great Lakes Colleges Association Study Year in India Program at Madurai University in Madurai, South India. The two returned to India in 1988 as part of a round-the-world flight to introduce their fourth child to that part of our world.
In 1973, she joined her husband Jim Norton in re-establishing the family farm on Edgartown Road (fallow for 70 years) and maintaining its nearly 300-year-old farmhouse at the Head of the Lagoon. Here she became widely recognized on the Island at the checkout counter at the Norton Farm stand, and for her prize-worthy peach pies, made from “the spoils of our trade,” affirming her mother’s Scottish heritage of boat builders from Glasgow of letting nothing go to waste. Never a late sleeper, she could be found at sunrise picking watercress, always making note of the birds she saw and heard. Winters were filled with new projects as she learned weaving, chair caning, rug hooking, and became part of various women’s groups and poetry classes.
Sonya also worked with Hospice, as a home health aide in the Vineyard Nursing Association, a reader in the paired reading program at the Tisbury School, and as summer secretary for Lillian Hellman. She loved to read and to visit art galleries, and also composed poems, one published in the Gazette, while walking early mornings along the Vineyard Haven harbor shore. An active member of Grace Church, she served on the Altar Guild, the Friday-night soup suppers, and for 41 years in the Grace Church Choir, up until a month before her death.
Music had always been an important part of Sonya’s life, from her childhood to the Smith College Glee Club, a motet chorus in Cambridge where she became acquainted with her husband-to-be, David Hewlett’s Abendmusik in Edgartown, the Island Community Chorus, the annual Grace Church Christmas renderings of Handel’s Messiah, Part I, and Vintage Voices at the Tisbury Senior Center. She spent her final days bedridden, enjoying and accompanying with her hands and feet the rhythm of recordings aired by the classical music station, FM 107.5, in Chatham.
Always devoted and responsive to her loving family, she is survived by her husband of 53 years, James H.K. Norton; their four children, Sarah Louisa Norton of Holy Isle Peace Centre, Isle of Arran, Scotland, and her partner, Sid Rout, James Bartholomew Norton of Vineyard Haven, and his wife Dianne McVeigh Norton, Heather MacDonald Norton Blades of Brooklyn, N.Y., and her husband Matt Blades, and Laura Presbrey Norton Harris of Indianapolis, Ind., and her husband Charles Harris; and five grandchildren, James Douglas Norton, Jonathan Spencer Norton, Benjamin Crowell Harris, Bayes Knapp Harris, and Noah Baldwin Harris; a sister, Elizabeth Spencer Dawson, of Concord and her husband Dr. David Dawson, and their five children, Jennifer, Molly, Timothy, Matthew, and Andrew, and their families; and on the Norton side, nieces Elizabeth O’Keefe of Tucson, Ariz., and Martha Schoppe of Ames, Iowa, and their families. All joined in daughter Laura’s response to the news of her mother’s death: “Thinking of my creative, smart, beautiful, determined, warm, open-hearted mother who passed away this morning.” And from Heather: “To my beautiful Mom whose joy in living and embracing everyone she met with an openness and generosity of spirit I will never forget.”
A memorial service will be held at Grace Church, Vineyard Haven, at 4 pm, on Saturday, Feb. 14.
In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory may be made to the Senior Day Program of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, PO Box 1729, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or Grace Episcopal Church, PO Box 1197, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or a charitable organization of your choice.