The Jeffers of Chappaquiddick

We never left the Jeffers’ house without a gift of food and a sense of having come home.

Gladys and Tillie Jeffers were Wampanoag Indians born on Chappaquiddick. — Photo courtesy of Margaret Knigh

The way people used to talk about Tillie and Gladys Jeffers, it was as if they were one person. They were sisters, Wampanoag Indians born on Chappaquiddick at the end of the 1800s, and they lived most of their long lives together in the family farmhouse just off the main road with their stepmother, Sally Jeffers. Glady’s son, Jerry, lived there, too. My mother knew the Jeffers from the time she was a little girl. Later, my family rented a cottage from them, and then bought a piece of their land for a summer house.

The Jeffers’ farmhouse was always our first stop when my family arrived in the summer. They stopped whatever they were doing — cooking or washing or ironing — and came out to greet us. If it was a sunny day, the yard was white with sheets billowing from the clotheslines beside the house. We entered through the back hallway where two old wringer washers churned away. The hallway walls were lined with shelves on either side, full of canning jars and other bottles, and old pots and pans.

The kitchen was small, seemingly too small to produce all the food that came out of it — they cooked for other people, too. An old black stone sink, with a hand pump still in use when I was little, stood below the room’s only window. Opposite the sink was a newfangled electric stove, which didn’t seem to be used as much as the big kerosene cook stove in the front room. Off the kitchen was a pantry room with a huge freezer chest and shelves of canned vegetables and jellies. The house had an unmistakable aroma of laundry soap, kerosene, and long-simmered food that I would know if I smelled it now, more than 30 years since I was last in the house.

We always went into the front room, where Gladys brought extra wooden chairs, and Tillie carried a tray of tea or beach plum cordial and a plate of cookies or their own rum-soaked fruitcake. Sally sat in the cushioned wooden armchair, beneath the picture of her husband Moses with his team of oxen, where later Tillie would sit. Then we’d catch up on all the news, as if they had nothing more important in the world to do than visit with us.

Sally originally came to the island to cook for a summer family. She stayed and married Tillie and Gladys’s father after their and their brother Jesse’s mother died. Sally was a force of her own: powerful, leather-skinned and fierce — not someone to be trifled with. Once when she thought I was too old to be sucking my thumb, she offered to show me her drawer of thumbs, saying she was going to add mine to it. Everyone called her Mrs. Jeffers; some called her the “Holy Terror.” But we never left the Jeffers’ house without a gift of food and a sense of having come home.

Though Sally worked her stepdaughters hard, she worked just as hard herself until she was ancient. Then she mostly sat in the armchair in the front room. Whenever she’d hear a car pass, she’d lean forward and reach out a clawlike hand to lift the curtain aside. She always knew whoever was driving by and what their business was. And everyone knew Sally; most likely she had cooked or cleaned for them or done their laundry sometime in her life.

The Jeffers grew acres of corn, beans, and potatoes, and ran a popular restaurant called the Chappaquiddick Outlook until the early 1960s. There were three dining rooms, each with a big family-size table, set with blue Willow Ware dishes — some of which Tillie and Gladys later gave me when I built my house down the road. Every Sunday evening we would meet our cousins there. It was the high point of the week. Sally did the cooking, and Tillie and Gladys served and cleaned up with such grace and hospitality. It was as if we were their honored guests.

After the restaurant closed, my family would go by the farmhouse every Sunday afternoon to pick up our “Jeffers’ dinner,” packed up in worn pots and pans. There would be a well-roasted meat, riced potatoes, sweet tomato and bread casserole, a vegetable that had been simmered in butter for hours, and always a pie — apple or blueberry.

When I was a kid, my siblings or cousins and I would pick buckets of lowbush blueberries out at Wasque and take them to Tillie and Gladys, who would make them into huge mouthwatering pies for us. There never seemed to be any money exchanging hands between the Jeffers and my family, but there must have been some accounting at the end of the summer. However, many things were just gifts and favors between us.

One summer, my father and some other men reshingled the Jeffers’ roof, and during other summers, he helped shore up the old barn where our pony stayed when Tillie and Gladys looked after him during the winters.

There was one other room downstairs in the farmhouse, one that we never went into. It was where Tillie and Gladys did the ironing. They had a machine called a mangle that pressed the sheets and all the linen. I used to imagine getting caught in it and coming out flat as a cartoon roadrunner. The only time we were allowed in that room was to see Gladys once when she was recuperating from an illness.

Tillie and Gladys slept up a steep, narrow staircase in two small dark and simple rooms with not much more than a bed and dresser in each. I don’t remember why I went up there when I was grown, but being upstairs felt almost like doing something forbidden. For many years I had vivid dreams that took place in those rooms.

As I got older, in my twenties, I saw less of Tillie and Gladys. But one Halloween when I was living on the island, my sister, a friend, and I dressed up in all the odd bits of clothing we could find around my parents’ house and went over to the Jeffers’. They didn’t seem to know what to make of the strangely dressed characters on their back stoop, and stood there looking at us anxiously. When they finally realized who it was, they laughed hard and invited us in for beach plum cordials. Later, when my husband and I got married on the island, they were part of the ceremony’s big circle of family and friends on the green grass of Wasque Farm.

Gladys died first. I remember visiting Tillie in the farmhouse soon after, and having the thought that it must be hard not to have anyone around to say your name out loud. I couldn’t imagine her feeling sorry for herself, though. She kept cooking and ironing, and kept the farmhouse going.

I was glad that Tillie lived long enough to see my first baby — the fifth generation of my family to know her. I remember Tillie standing there in the warm aromatic kitchen, an apron tied over her flowered dress, as always, hair pulled back in a bun and smiling as she cradled my daughter in her strong warm arms.