Shirley Mayhew writes a portrait of her life


Shirley Mayhew’s newest book, “Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly,” features 25 delightful essays that appeared in the Vineyard Gazette over the past decade. Though most are no longer than a handful of pages, and contain tales of homey, everyday happenings rather than dramatic or complicated events, the collection succeeds marvelously in clearly portraying one woman’s small-town Island life, a style of life that locals will readily recognize.

These tales of meals and gatherings, beach picnics and celebrations, daily chores and shopping trips, and times spent with family, friends, and neighbors paint a sweet and moving picture of the breadth, depth, and colors of Mayhew’s life. She allows us to see and feel what it was like for this young Brown University sophomore from New York State to bravely travel alone in 1946 to a totally unfamiliar Island, and through many years and the proverbial “heap of living,” find it to be more and more her true home, the place she was meant to be.

Having just celebrated her 93rd birthday, with her packed days of travel, photography, teaching students, and caring for husband and children behind her, Mayhew keeps as busy and engaged as ever with her writing. Along with staying in close touch and spending time with friends and family, which now includes three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren living close by, along with her son Jack and daughter Deborah, Mayhew puts in hours on the computer writing, rereading, and editing.

Her daughter Sarah, who lives in California, designed the cover of this slim paperback. A professional nature photographer, she chose a striking, intensely colorful yet delicate image of a monarch butterfly barely settling on a vibrant red flower to adorn her mother’s book, perfectly evoking the title.

A longtime member of the weekly writers’ group lead by West Tisbury author Cynthia Riggs, Mayhew has turned out a considerable body of work in recent years. Most is newly minted, and Mayhew credits the dedicated group for encouraging her to be productive. Other pieces, like the fanciful children’s story written decades ago that became “Islander: The Circus Comes to Martha’s Vineyard” (2016) were done earlier, and reworked for publication.

This is Mayhew’s fourth book, although her essays have been published widely and frequently in Vineyard newspapers, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, and elsewhere. Her wonderful first volume, “Seasons of a Vineyard Pond” published in 1973, is a detailed one-year journal of the wildlife in and around Look’s Pond, steps from the Mayhew family home. “Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard” (2014) comprises some 40 essays with her photos.

Never one to sit back and do nothing (although she admits to enjoying her recliner now, as she is less steady on her feet and mostly confined to home), Mayhew is already at work on her next collection. “Around the World in 30 Years” will follow her travels to some two dozen countries through journal writings that she kept faithfully.

“I never thought of myself as a writer,” said Mayhew, though she maintained journals, and years ago sold travel articles to major newspapers. But once she joined the writers’ group, committing to weekly “homework” and receiving encouragement, she began to take that newest role to heart.

This book is a succulent fruit of that association with fellow writers. The stories span decades, depicting minutes or days or weeks in time, quickly coming and going, one overlapping the next, as those precious moments will.

We meet the author through the tales and years, and she is the same person — strong, independent, fearless, positive, taking each day and challenge as it comes with a can-do attitude and cheerful humor. It could readily be a film, a life’s story told in pictures.

We see the young wife, enamored of her romantic fisherman husband Johnny, surviving Hurricane Carol, happily raising babies and making ends meet, learning to cook and enjoy those unfamiliar oysters that became the centerpiece of a longstanding Christmas celebration. Years later she is earning a belated college degree, glimpsing celebrities, fantasizing that her life parallels Queen Elizabeth’s (it does!). She becomes a well-loved Edgartown School teacher, joins the NAACP, embarks on world travels to see how others live. Then she is a joyfully hands-on grandmother, and even later welcomes two great-grandchildren, 13th generation Island Mayhews. And there is so much more.

Mayhew has sharp recall, and describes sights, sounds, and feelings of 40 or 50 years ago as clearly as those of just last month. The careful attention to detail brings the stories alive, as does Mayhew’s honest and unpretentious recounting of personal events, the happy and stressful, quotidian and life-changing.

Woven through Mayhew’s personal reminiscences are the stories of Island life over decades that for those who “washed ashore” like she did, and made this home, will never get boring. Also compelling is her depiction of the small-town, neighborly ways that thankfully still endure.

Mayhew speaks unabashedly about being “really old” and the limitations that the years have made on her once active lifestyle. She reflects thoughtfully on aging, changing, and the cycles of life in her title essay. But as in all her writing, there is no whining here, no discouragement, just a clear-eyed look at life with great appreciation and a healthy touch of humor, the qualities that make Shirley Mayhew, the woman and the writer, an inspiration to us all.

“Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly” by Shirley W. Mayhew, Music Street Press, 2019, $10. Email the author, for purchase information, or check the book out at the local libraries. Mayhew will talk about her book at 4 pm on Mother’s Day, May 12, at the West Tisbury library.