Most people in advanced elder age tell you “All my friends are dead!” This was far from the case last Thursday, July 11, at the big bash of 250 friends and close family members for Grace (“Phronsie”) Conlin, held at the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs.
The high-ceilinged room looked airy in the late afternoon light, becoming to all the guests in their casual party attire. Vases of summery pink and lilac flowers sat on the tables, and a center bourse of potluck yummies took up several wide and long tables.
Busy-bee helpers threw the flowers, decorations, and glad tidings together, and as they kept up the whirl of activity, at the stroke of 6 pm, the birthday lady swept in on her own recognizance — no walker, no oxygen tank on wheels. Conlin always said that if she reached the century mark, “I’ll just throw the party myself!”
With white hair fluffed around her radiantly smiling face, she wore a floaty silk jacket with pink roses against a black background. It should be noted that she still lives alone at her house in the fabled Harthaven compound.
Harthaven is that luscious scenery we all pass, to the east and west of the road, as we meander past the restaurant-once-known-as-Lola’s, with the emerald links of Farm Neck Golf Course straight ahead, and quaint old seaside cottages along the sea, some of them inserted into small canals with wharfs for protection against the big blows common to this part of the Island. Along with all other parts, to be sure.
In 1911, William H. Hart, founder of the tool company Stanley Works and, more important to our Island culture, a summer resident of Oak Bluffs for over 40 years, walked the beach to the west of Farm Pond, and he saw, amid the butterflies and the seagulls, the tall beach grasses and the glistening silver waters, acres and acres of summer vacation for his progeny and intimate friends.
And so Harthaven came to pass, with William’s five sons and one daughter from Bridgeport, Conn., building cottages and luring their own nearest and dearest to come join them.
William and Martha Hart built a white manor house — the Downton Abbey of Harthaven — that so many of us have admired as we leave the beach momentarily, tuck into the woods, our eyes scanning down a long drive ending in what Harthaven folk call “the White House.”
Among the settler families, Grace “Phronsie” (a nickname claimed from Sophronia) Vibist was born into the inner mix. And will you allow me to drop a name if it’s a famous one? Phronsie’s mother, Grace Chamberlain Vibberts, 1878-1945, with gorgeous works now hanging in our own M.V. Museum, led the friendly charge of artists into the Harthaven scene, turning it into a fun grouping of bohemian artists thrilled to have Vineyard sights before their easels.
And thus young Phronsie, whose father Frank was an esteemed banker, passed through one idyllic summer after the next, as she and other youths raced offshore, with Mr. Hart’s son Jim Hart yelling at the kid sailors through a megaphone, “Pull your sheet!” “Tack!” “You’re going to jibe!”
Meanwhile, on the sidelines sat the grownups with their gin and tonics and old-fashioneds, and chattered about sailing and summer gossip and abstract expressionist art.
Some salient life events: Phronsie graduated from Smith in 1941, joined the WAVES during the war, married Ed Conlin Jr. (who died in 1981), and raised their three kids in Middle Haddam, Conn.
Everyone at the party last Thursday night paid tribute to Phronsie, her spirit and vitality. Methodist ministers Armen and Vicky Hanjian reported a great affection for her. “Over time we see one another,” said Vicky with a radiant smile, “ — and we —“ she mimed enfolding the lady in a loving embrace.
Patti Linn of West Tisbury, who has long cut and coiffed the hair of many beloved Islanders, still enjoys snipping Phronise’s white locks. “You know, she was driving her car up until a year ago. I told her, Phronsie, you will stop driving when you realize the time has come?’ ‘Oh yes!’” quoth the birthday girl.
Photographer Sam Low, also a descendant of Harthaven’s best and brightest, and a nephew to Phronsie, told me the lady started working with computers at the age of 87. “When I first came to see how she was getting on, I found Post-its all over the computer itemizing whatever was giving her difficulty, but she carried on beautifully!”
Sam also confided that a sobriquet for her was “Kupuna,” which is a Hawaiian word for “venerated wise elder.” And then Sam added his own unique spin to her quality: “She is the beating heart of Harthaven.”
Phronsie’s offspring put decorations, party plates, and all the rest of it together — Frank Conlin of Savannah, Ga., and his partner Bill Brown, Phronsie Petrow of Connecticut, and longtime Vineyarders Jed Conlin and Carol Jann of Greenwood Avenue in Vineyard Haven. And you might well expect that a shockingly active 100-year-old has a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren to represent the younger set; Phronsie has two grandsons and two great-grandsons. And she also has three granddoggies. That’s a full house.
“It was the most wonderful party!” exclaimed the honored lady as she stepped outside the P.A. Club and into her own second century.
If you have a centenarian among your friends or family, we’d love to hear about them. Let us know by emailing Community editor Connie Berry at email@example.com.