Windswept into the past

Hunkered down on Chappy.


Monday: Today is day 4 of the wind trying to tear apart our house — so far it’s only rattled and shaken it and its inhabitants. It did succeed in toppling two ancient apple trees in the backyard that looked old when I started building the house 45 years ago. They were like part of the family.

After all this time living on Chappaquiddick, we’ve gotten the storm drill down: Fill the water jugs and get out the candles and oil lamps. Before they put the first half-mile of power lines underground, we used to lose electricity regularly. We always keep lots of food around, and we have a gas cookstove and backup propane heater that doesn’t use electricity, so life is good.

On Friday night, we lost power just as we finished mixing up a pizza crust. It turns out you can cook pizza in a pan on the stovetop. We lit the lamps and the heater, and got ready to hunker down. With the wind and high tides making whitecaps in the ferry parking lot and Dock Street full of water (viewed from the webcam before the power loss), there would be no Eversource coming to rescue us that night.

For me, storms and being stuck on Chappy are like a trip back in time. My husband, son, and I mostly inhabit one room, which the house started as, where the heat and food are. Other than a raucous game of Parcheesi, I spent most of Saturday reading old family letters and memorabilia from as far back as 1821. I’d inherited a little wooden chest of them when my mother died 10 years ago, but this was the first time I’d looked through it. There was a crumbling story of Jesus that my mother drew at age 7, cartoon style, with one frame in which Jesus is lighting firecrackers. I read endearing, wistful letters from a young great-grandfather to his mother and younger sister in the 1850s, when he went to live with an aunt in England after his father died. In a later letter, an ancient uncle tells him not to come to the United States because it would take him a year to get a job as a clerk and he couldn’t afford to support him meanwhile. That great-grandfather ended up being in the coffee business, and traveling every year to Brazil and England from his home in New York.

My grandfather, from a different family branch, wrote letters to his mother when he was sent to live with his uncle, far from home, to finish high school after his father died. There were love letters from my grandfather to my grandmother in 1919 before they were married, and later letters from my grandmother to her mother on a trip to Brazil and Peru in 1947. Reading all these old letters, I felt as if I’d gotten to know my ancestors who wrote them, and a little about the times and places they lived.

In some ways I’m happy to not leave Chappy for days at a time, and to settle in with a storm outside. It makes the rest of the world and all its craziness recede, and I can live in a world of my own making. On Saturday night, though, the tides were down a little and an Eversource truck drove onto the Chappy ferry. I immediately got a text photo of it and also saw it posted on Instagram. Before long, the power came back on, and there were dishes to wash and life to get busy living. My 24-hour trip to the past was over.