A year in the life of a copyeditor

It turns out that snowstorms do affect birth rates. At least here on Martha's Vineyard.

Barbara Davis. Illustration by Kris Rabasca

In January 2015, I started working for The Martha’s Vineyard Times as a copy editor. I knew that although I had washed ashore a few years previously, I was about to learn things about my new home that it’s hard to learn any other way. Here are a few of them.

I learned that any spelling or capitalization of an Islander’s name has a 50-50 chance of being correct. (This is the glass-half-full description.) Hello, SQuire; hello, DeBettencourts, deBettencourts, Debettencourts …

I learned that stories about the Airport Commission arrive at the last possible minute.

I learned it’s possible for people to be mean to alpacas (but that they recovered). I learned that the woman who was accused of moving into someone else’s house in Edgartown and selling the owner’s paintings, possibly in a yard sale, brought her cat with her. And I learned that the cat was safely handed off from Animal Control to the woman’s mother.

When the big snowstorm of January 26-27 hit, our house, despite being on a truck route, was snowed in for two days. When I finally got to work, we all made the “nine months from now” comments, but I was a little discomfited. I remembered that about a decade after the first big blackout of the East Coast (you remember, the one where Con Ed introduced us to the phrase “act of God”), some killjoys got funding for a study in which they proved that there was no statistically significant increase in babies nine months later. But Martha’s Vineyard! My heart swelled with newly native pride when the October birth announcements nine months later went from being titled “Birth” to having nine babies appear in one week. Well done, people! And to whoever gave the money for that depressing study: Get a refund.

I knew that the Derby was a big deal. I did not realize that scalloping season was going to be on an operatic scale, and if I had, I would have not expected the opera to be “Peter Grimes.”

The obituaries taught me a lot. In my experience off-Island, there is usually a peak in deaths beginning in about the second week of December, then few deaths from the 23rd to Jan. 1, then another increase after the New Year’s Day. I have always thought of it as people wanting to get to one more Christmas or one more New Year’s, who either just can’t quite make it or just barely do. But here the months with the greatest number of deaths were April and September: People are absolutely determined to get in one more summer, one more Ag Fair, one more beach walk. And they do.

We had four centenarians leave us this year: Peggy Freydberg at 107, Margaret Yates at 103, Sophie Silverman at 102 (she became an Orthodox nun in her 90s), and Gertrude Knowlton at 103.

Among the Island veterans who died this year, Shirley Eberlin Ward of Vineyard Haven was a Navy radar technician during World War II, Vineyard Haven Surfcaster Henry Unczur was in the Polish 2nd Corps of the British 8th Army and served in the Italian campaign, and Edmund J. Bernard of Oak Bluffs was a Marine during the Korean War who took part in the battle of Chosin Reservoir.

I learned that there were visitors, some of whom had not been back to the Vineyard in decades, who were intent on making sure that we read their obituaries, because Martha’s Vineyard meant so much to them. The family of Fr. Herman Page, who died at 88 in Topeka, Kansas, had this to say: “Herman’s life was framed by four major loves: God and his service to the church, trains, the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, and most of all, his family.”

Here is my favorite sentence from a 2015 obituary: Of John M. Wuerth, formerly of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, who died at “precisely 95 and a half,” it was noted, “In the process of applying for a pier in front of his Oak Bluffs home, he represented himself as applicant and qualified as an expert witness at the longest adjudicatory hearing in the history of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.”