Staying happy on Chappy

Folks gather, celebrate, and debate at the Chappy Community Center.


The Chappaquiddick Community Center gives those of us who live on this small island a place to gather, to celebrate and debate, to run into old friends and make new ones, to eat together, to be entertained, and to savor the sense of community that arises from living on an island off an island.

We’re removed enough from the rest of Edgartown that we wouldn’t plan to get together specifically as Chappaquiddickers in a building in town. Before the Chappy Community Center (CCC) was built, people met up with other people at Jerry Jeffers’ store and gas station, at the ferry, the dump, the beach, and at other people’s houses. That worked fine for the number of people living here 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago. A few generations back, people used to spend Christmas Day visiting other people at their houses. Now 80 or so people gather together for dinner at the CCC on Christmas Eve, continuing the tradition of Joe and Mary Cressy’s dinner parties for all islanders held at their house. When the CCC opened its doors nearly 30 years ago, the dinner moved there. Joe was one of the main proponents of a community center — maybe he was tired of parties at his house! He had a big hand in fundraising, and was president of the board for many years. The land for the building was donated by Bill and Ann Brine, and many people on and off Chappy donated funds and helped build the CCC.

Most towns that have community centers support them with at least some tax dollars. Chappy’s was built and is maintained completely through donations. The bylaws state that anyone living or visiting Chappaquiddick is automatically a member. The intention is to encourage “a social atmosphere and friendliness among the membership; a greater appreciation and awareness of Chappaquiddick and its environment; to engage in charitable and educational activities, and to encourage the protection of the charm and beauty of Chappaquiddick.” The CCC is overseen by a board of nine; five are required to be year-round residents.

The CCC has always played an important role in bringing together people who might not otherwise meet up, such as people who only come for a week or two in the summer. Community gets made over time as friends see each other again year after year. Kids and adults sign up for tennis and sailing, come to yoga and tai chi classes, book group, and art classes. Lobster roll nights, ice cream socials, and music concerts bring people together.

The CCC is quieter in the winter, but it plays at least as important a role as in the summer. People who live on little islands are not necessarily all that social, and cabin fever definitely comes into play in the dark, cold months. People might catch a glimpse of each other at the ferry in January, but mostly wherever you are, you’re bundled and just trying to keep warm. It can make a big difference to get together occasionally with some other people, without the pressure of having to arrange for them to come to your home. And if you’re someone who isn’t all that social, you can slip out when you’ve had enough socializing.

For the past two winters, artist Elizabeth Whalen, who moved here recently from the much more remote island of Nashawena, offered Art Nights every other week from December to April. She set up two still lifes (an easier and a harder one), built a fire, supplied tea, coffee, and home-baked goodies, and invited anyone to come and draw or paint, or bring their own art project to work on in the company of others. Each week there were usually six or eight of us — people who probably wouldn’t be hanging out together otherwise, certainly not in such great numbers at that time of year. It’s not that easy to head out of a warm house on a dark, cold evening, but I found myself ready to brave it each time because of how much fun it was once I got there.

Twice a month from September to June, the CCC holds a potluck dinner, open to everyone. Depending on the month, there may be 6 to 36 people, or more — or less. The smallest this past winter was four people huddled around the fire eating mostly appetizers. The largest was the December potluck to thank the ferry captains and crew, with about 100 people and barely enough room to move. Every year after the meal and the thanking, ferry captain Liz Villard screens an amusing video she puts together about life on the ferry. One year it was shots of the captain and crew putting down the chain after the ferry landed, accompanied by the song, “Working on the Chain Gang.” Other videos included tributes to Capt. Bob Gilkes, who died this past year, and Jerry Jeffers, who often helped out with ramps in his spare time.

Until recently, people always took turns hosting the potluck. The host’s job was to bring the appetizers, build a fire, light the candles, and make sure the place was cleaned up after. In recent years, it’s gotten to be a struggle to sign up hosts. The new CCC coordinator, Sidney Morris, is taking a different tack — having no hosts. Without a host, the potluck becomes a shared responsibility, and the people who come have to figure things out together.

Getting together at the CCC is different than getting together with friends. Hopefully, you feel friendly toward your community members, but most likely there are some you don’t have much in common with — and maybe don’t even want to spend much time with. But added together, you start making community. Community isn’t so much about getting along well together all the time. There has to be a certain amount of that, or it won’t be a very harmonious place to live. But if you look at community more as a verb, you see how making community happens on many levels, and over time. Like a family, it’s a matter of figuring out ways to work through difficulties and disagreements, rather than always getting along.

I thought about this last fall when four of us were trying to set up the CCC room for the yearly open house and artisans’ sale. We each had a different idea of how to set up the eight tables, and it took awhile to get it all worked out. You could have looked at us as a bunch of people disagreeing and needing someone to just take charge, or you could see it as four people problem-solving, compromising, and cooperating to figure something out. The community came to the open house, but community got made every step of the way from creating the building to setting up the refreshments.

Over the years, the changes at the community center reflect some of the changes of the people who live and visit the island, and the times we live in. For example, the doors used to be locked, but it was general knowledge that the key was in the lantern next to the front door. There were fewer people living here then, fewer problems came up, and there was a sense that it was up to us to take care of our shared resources. When free Wi-Fi became available there — and was not at most houses — more people came to use the center. Along with more people came more ideas of what a community center was meant to be. At the same time, Chappy was becoming more of a resort in which people expect services, and to be provided with what they want and need. Some people felt they should be able to use the building whenever they wanted, since they’d donated money. One month the heating bill went up by $800 because someone had decided let themselves in to use the Wi-Fi, turned up the heat, and forgotten to turn it down. The key would go missing regularly, and finally a key lockbox was installed.

When people have to figure something out together, there’s more of a chance to get to know one another and see beyond one’s own point of view. About 15 years ago, there was a lot of talk about increasing the Chappy ferry hours in the evening. Many people were for it, but many were opposed. Eventually, we met at the community center and, after debating awhile, someone came up with the idea to have each person say how they felt about it. I still remember some of the things people said, because I really got to listen.

On Sidney’s agenda for this round of being coordinator (he was the first one, and started the sailing program — he also has the job of being my husband) is outreach to the Chappy population to hear what the CCC should be and what it should provide for at this point in its life. He also wants to bring in some of the services available on the main island — the Food Pantry and the library, for example.

Coming up next at the CCC is the Spring Egg Hunt. Liz Villard has been running this event for Chappy kids for about 10 years. She says, “I thought of the idea just after the whole issue of a district of critical planning concern left Chappy divided into small angry groups. I figured everyone liked chocolate.” She buys the prizes, prepares the refreshments, and stuffs the eggs, sometimes with help, and hides them around the CCC. In the spirit of community making, everyone gets a prize: least eggs, most eggs, traveled the furthest to get there, etc. This year the hunt will take place promptly at 3 pm on Saturday, April 20. The hunt only lasts about five minutes, but the hanging out over tea afterward may well be the main event of the month.