Memories of a Vineyard summer girl

Seasons full of summer shacks, summer jobs, dogs and hedgehogs (and Bill Clinton, looking good).

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Valentina (center, back) and Mia (left) with the hedgehog, Spike, their dog Bugsy and Oliver, right, with some other friends. — Courtesy Valentina Valentini

Inside corner to inside corner. I have adult friends to this day who still don’t know how to fold sheets. Turn them inside-out and pinch each corner, bringing them together to meet, dart to dart.

I learned this in the summer of 1996, when I was 12, although it’s not initially one of the skills you think you’ll pick up on a summer trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Boogie boarding with the big guys, maybe. Sneaking out past curfew, definitely. Perfecting s’more making, for sure. But understanding how a crisp, white, hotel sheet set is folded — not likely.

My mother started bringing us to Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1990s. Having grown up in Framingham in the ’60s and ’70s, she’d had friends who frequented an Island better known for its free love and music concerts than was its conservative counterpart Nantucket. My childlike assumption was always that the Vineyard had a soft spot for the vagabonds, hippies, and working-class folk of New England.

And that’s where we’d fit in.

My mom would pack us up in the Volvo station wagon — including our family dog Bugsy and our Pygmy hedgehog Spike — and we’d speed our way from Northampton to Woods Hole. She’d never make a reservation for the ferry, instead leaving in the middle of the night, securing a makeshift bedroom for my sister and me in the way, way back while she and my brother handled the driving so we could make the first ferry of the day at 6 am. Because of my mother’s propensity for tardiness — extreme in some cases, which my older siblings can attest to — we’d generally screech into Woods Hole with not a minute to spare, clunking on to the ferry and crossing Nantucket Sound as the sun rose like a portal into another world.

For the first few years we went, we’d camp. Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground was our go-to, and there were the regulars we’d meet there each summer, only to fall completely out of touch the other nine months of the year — perhaps on purpose, or perhaps because our time on the Vineyard was an oasis within the rest of our hectic lives, and “losing touch” was just another way of preserving that mirage.

By the time I was 12, I had already been babysitting my nieces and nephews and some neighborhood kids back in western Massachusetts, so putting an ad in the MVTimes and hanging up flyers around Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs made perfect sense. That summer, 1996, my mother had rented a tiny two-bedroom ranch on the border of West Tisbury and Edgartown, just across from the bike path. It had an outdoor shower like most Vineyard houses, and a little deck with a clothesline. The woods surrounding it were shrubby and full of those skinny trees that never grow very lush around New England salty seas, and the ground was laden with soft pine needles where Bugsy and Spike would play, unaware of the fact that they were completely different species.

My 19-year-old brother, David, got a job driving with Atlantic Cab, and I got a job babysitting for a wealthy family who had a big white house in Edgartown with black shutters and a picket fence.

My mother found a job at Airport Laundromat, and my little sister Mia, only 10 at the time, had to hang out there until my mom’s shift ended and we could all head to the beach. Mia soon tired of the sheet folding, though, and because of her love for animals, casually wandered over to a veterinary clinic that sat just opposite the laundromat. She landed herself a volunteer position, where she began as an assistant groomer. By the end of the summer, she was washing the Vineyard elite’s pets on her own, and had assisted in neutering one cat and removing a tooth from a greyhound. I was always so proud of us — her taking care of animals and me taking care of children.

My 2-year-old ward had soft blond curls, blue eyes, and rarely made a peep of protest. His parents were lawyers or doctors or bankers from New York City or Boston or Greenwich. I used to smell their towels — fluffy and white. I’d open every cabinet in the kitchen and stare, and the pantry too. I wasn’t jealous; I knew I’d have those Crate & Barrel sea-blue plates one day.

Four days a week I would ride my bike along the bike path to babysit for a few hours, and then ride to the airport where the laundromat for all the hotels was located, and where my mother taught me to fold sheets. I relished the precision of it.

On our days off, we’d go to South Beach or Gay Head, and sometimes, even Lucy Vincent Beach, even though we weren’t Chilmark residents. We hitchhiked a lot, which was the norm on the Island (with Bugsy in tow), which was how we’d get access to Lucy Vincent, where my sister and I had some of our first memorable encounters with the human nude — including an incident my sister remembers involving volleyballs.

From what my memory allows, the fact that we all had jobs didn’t seem to hinder the fact that we were part of the summer crew on the Vineyard. It didn’t feel like we were in another class or relegated to the other side of the tracks, even though there were echelons of rich families who took the same ferry across the same Sound to play on the same beaches. I’m not sure whether my lack of a sense of class was a beneficiary of my mother’s not-so-quiet defiance against the 1 percent or the naiveté of a 12-year-old. Most likely it was a combination.

Our residences over the years were just as varied as our jobs. One year we rented a shack that was next to another shack where the landowner lived. It had a walkie-talkie on the roof that didn’t seem to have much purpose and would make unruly sounds every once in a while, terrifying my little sister and me. In Chilmark one year, we pitched a tent on a raised platform in the backyard of a couple my mother had befriended. They were sculptors or artists of some sort, and had two children — the oldest was Oliver, whom I fell madly in love with and who wouldn’t pay me any attention, choosing his skateboard over looking in my direction. We had to shower outside there, but it didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone that naked bodies were present.

That was the summer all of us volunteered for the Gay Head concert where Carly Simon performed and where Oliver worked as well (and he still wouldn’t talk to me). It was also the summer that Spike won a blue ribbon at the Agricultural Society Fair for most unique animal, and my mother hit on then President Bill Clinton, pre-Monica and clad in tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a jean shirt. My mom sat directly next to First Lady Hillary Clinton during a fiddle contest, leaned over and as if she were chatting with an old girlfriend told her, “Bill’s looking really good.”

The Island could cast that spell on us; it was somehow an equalizing ground for my family. Back home, it was very apparent that our house was smaller than many of my classmates’, that my brother had to start working much earlier than his high school friends, that the electricity would sometimes get shut off. And it’s not that similar realities didn’t exist for us on Martha’s Vineyard, but there was something about the sun and the sea, the tans and the attitudes that let me pretend for a collection of moments that would last between June and August that those pieces of reality didn’t actually matter.

The memories of these summers seem to run like converging streams, crossing and joining, rapid and crazy at some points and smoothly serene at others. The many friends we made and experiences we had often feel like an old TV show I used to watch — not quite real, but all relatable.

I live in Los Angeles now, and I work as a freelance entertainment journalist, so I don’t get many opportunities to go back to the Vineyard. Instead, I think about all the new 12-year-olds making memories, and how I’ll bring my own kids there someday. Hopefully the laundromat is still taking applications.

Valentina I. Valentini, a writer living in Los Angeles, spent several summers on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1990s.