Calendar chronicles

Ronni Simon carries on Peter’s tradition.

Ronni Simon at home in Chilmark. — Jeremy Driesen

It was a sparkling July afternoon, and Ronni Simon and I sat out next to the pool at her home tucked into the woods off Tabor House Road in Chilmark.

We talked about how it hardly seemed possible that her husband Peter Simon had been gone for close to two years now — he died in the fall of 2018. As a photographer, Simon had documented rock stars, the civil rights movement, and the counterculture, but perhaps the subject he became most associated with was Martha’s Vineyard. He had been documenting the Vineyard scene since the 1970s, and had been publishing his essential Vineyard Calendar for 33 years.

After Peter’s death in the fall of 2018, the 2019 calendar had already been completed, but Ronni had to debate whether or not to produce a calendar for 2020. After much deliberation she decided it would be therapeutic to work on the new calendar, and she threw herself into the project. She included some photographs Peter had taken just prior to his death. “It became a major tribute to Peter,” Ronni said, and each month featured a quote taken from Peter’s various books.

But 2021 was a different story. “I looked back at what we did for 2020 and thought, ‘How do I top this?’” But perhaps Ronni had underestimated the devotion of Peter’s fans. “I kept getting emails from people wanting to know if we’d be doing a calendar for 2021. You’d be surprised at how many people treat the calendar as a collector’s item.” So Ronni finally decided to do a new calendar, “And then COVID-19 happened,” she said. “When it first hit, I thought to myself, ‘Who knows if stores will even be open in the summer, or if people will be coming to the Island? The future was so uncertain I just put everything on hold. Like a lot of other people, I went into a brain fog.”

By now it was the end of March, and Ronni was starting to feel the effects of isolation; she was living alone and feeling starved for human connections. Normally she would have begun work on the calendar by now, so she decided to give Charlie Utz, the graphic designer who had worked on many of the calendars and the coffee table book, “Martha’s Vineyard: To Everything There Is a Season.” She loved collaborating with Utz, they worked well together. But since it was nearly April, they knew they had their work cut out for them. Selecting Peter’s photography, finding quotes that would accompany the pictures, and designing the book could usually take well over a month. “But we did it all in two weeks,” Ronni said. “I’ve got to hand it to Charlie, I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Ronni ended up selecting some photographs she hadn’t used for last year’s calendar, as well as many others from Peter’s archives. None of the photos Ronni selected had ever been used in a calendar before.

“I said to Charlie, let’s just do 2,500 copies of the calendar this year,” Ronni said. Last year they produced 4,500 and sold out, but because they were getting such a late start, and given the uncertainty of the times, they settled on the lower number.

The calendars were printed by the beginning of July. Ronni said that she wanted to send a message to the people on Peter’s mailing list, announcing the arrival of the 2021 calendars.

“I didn’t want to be maudlin,” Ronni said, “I didn’t want to say how difficult it is to have another year without Peter. And then the virus hit, and I didn’t really want to go there either. But I did want to address the virus, so I came up with a statement I thought worked. I said, ‘Despite the tenuous, unprecedented state of the world, it seemed healing and quite necessary to continue this legacy that Peter Simon started 33 years ago. What could be more optimistic and life-affirming than to buy a calendar for the coming year?”

Ronni thought the message hit just the right note, “But then things got a little crazy,” she said.

“Normally as soon as you send out the newsletters, you start to get orders,” Ronni said. “I didn’t expect hundreds of orders immediately, but I did expect more than a handful.” Ronni anxiously checked the website for the tally of the orders. There was one.

That’s when Ronni started second-guessing herself. She wondered if the statement she had made wasn’t optimistic enough. Were people really thinking, Why do I need a calendar when life as we know it is over? “Those are the kind of thoughts I was thinking,” she said, “Could things really be that grim?

“The next day, my son Willy was on the computer,” Ronni said, “and saw that someone had emailed him to let him know that he had just tried to order a calendar but it said that the calendar was all sold out. All sold out! After just one order?”

Ronni went back to the website to try to figure out what was going on. “There’s a thing on the order form where you have to fill in the amount of inventory you have. It could be limitless or anything less, but I had inadvertently put in ‘1.’”

Which meant that after just one order, subsequent orders would be marked “Sold Out.”

“I had to laugh at myself,” Ronni said, “here I was trying to encourage people to be optimistic in a difficult time and it appeared that the world spoke back to me essentially saying, ‘Nope, all is lost.’”

Ronni went on the website and explained that the calendars were not sold out after all — and the orders immediately started to come in.

This year’s calendar features the beautiful photography you come to expect from a Peter Simon calendar, but in addition, there’s a little extra twist. “Peter was as passionate about music as he was about photography,” Ronni said, “so all the monthly quotes are taken from songs that are on the five compilation CDs that Peter produced.” There is also a “Peter’s Playlist” that you can download from various streaming services.

The Peter Simon calendar is $22.50, and available at Island bookstores and various other places on the Island. You can also order by going to Ronni is currently operating her gallery from her home, and you can call 508-325-2242 to make an appointment and purchase a book if you’d like. There are also extra copies of Simon’s book, “Martha’s Vineyard,” and if you order a book, you get a calendar free.

“I think Peter would be so proud of this,” Ronni said, “It makes me feel close to him, but it makes me feel sad at the same time … part of him would be proud of carrying on his tradition, but I also think part of him would be a little jealous that I took over and did it all without him.”