Appreciation: Shirley Mayhew

John and Shirley Mayhew in 1996. —Courtesy Shirley Mayhew

West Tisbury resident and writer Shirley W. (Walling) Mayhew died on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at home, according to her family. She was 94. 

Shirley was a teacher, a writer, a world traveler,  a lifelong student, and a wife and mother. Her most recent book, “Paucartambo: A Midlife Adventure from Martha’s Vineyard to Peru” was published this spring. Times features editor Connie Berry wrote about the compilation of Mayhew’s journals from five trips to Peru between 1983 and 1991: 

“[Mayhew] has lived on the Island since 1947, when she settled here with her husband John. They had three children, tried oyster farming, but eventually they both turned to teaching.

‘After more than 20 years of marriage, with three children aged 12 to 18,’ [Mayhew] writes in the book, ‘I got an urge to travel.’ 

“After traveling to 11 countries, Shirley decided she wanted to immerse herself into the culture when she took her next trip, not just arrive there as a tourist. ‘So, at the age of 58,’ [Mayhew] writes, ‘I settled into a remote village high in the Andean mountains of Peru.’

Shirley was a sweet, good-humored lady and a great friend to the West Tisbury library,” Dan Waters, West Tisbury town moderator, wrote in an email to The Times about Mayhew’s active life in town. “She always arrived early to concerts and events, and I loved seeing her in the front row, bright-eyed and ready for action. One year, when we needed a library lover to write our fundraising appeal, she enthusiastically volunteered.

“Our town is quickly losing its old-timers and its past. It’s a real loss, but Shirley leaves behind a great legacy in her books and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

I first knew Shirley in the 1960s when she was my daughter Jill’s teacher at the Edgartown School,” wrote Shirley’s friend, Nancy Wood, of Vineyard Haven. “She was the one who inspired Jill to become an English teacher, along with giving her the gift of reading for pleasure. We moved away, but when I came back to the Island, Shirley became a wonderful friend, and we never stopped talking. People in their 90s have a lot to say!”

And then there was the famous Mayhew Christmas Oyster Stew that the West Tisbury Mayhews served each year. 

When The Times asked about how to make the stew, Shirley told a story. Because as anyone who knows Shirley knows, the real highlight of getting an answer to any question was getting a story from a master storyteller, a story woven with the details that conveyed just how much family, and Martha’s Vineyard, meant to her. 

The oyster stew, she wrote, “has got to be the easiest dish in the world to prepare,” then she went on:

“I was introduced to oysters for the first time in the late forties, when I married Johnny Mayhew, a former Navy fighter pilot who wanted nothing more than to settle on the Vineyard and do whatever he had to do to stay here for the rest of his life. The timing was right — two of his cousins, John and Everett Whiting, and a friend, Willy Huntington, had just decided to attempt growing oysters in Tisbury Great Pond. They called their newly formed company Quansoo Shellfish Farm. John Whiting was a college professor, Everett was a farmer, and Willy was an artist. They needed someone to do the actual work of dredging the oysters, finding a market for them, and generally overseeing the whole operation. Johnny, my newly acquired husband, was only too glad to spend his days on the peaceful pond, after growing up all over the world and then fighting in a war for three and a half years.

“That first fall was like an extended honeymoon,” she wrote. “We lived in John Whiting’s camp on the pond until November, when we moved into a former chicken coop on Everett Whiting’s farm. In 1948 we moved into a real house, the former West Tisbury Church parsonage, across the road from the Whiting farm. There we started producing children while we learned to produce tasty oysters that the Boston market would buy. At that time there were fewer than 5,000 year-round residents on the Island, and even if they all ate oysters, it wasn’t enough to sustain an oyster business.

In 1958 we gave up and Johnny went back to school to earn his teaching certificate. In 1959 he began teaching math in the newly opened Regional High School. I followed him into teaching seven years later, joining the staff at the Edgartown School.

“In the late sixties, as our children grew older, we started having friends in on Christmas afternoon. In 1972 I made a batch of oyster stew to feed the growing number of friends who dropped in. 

“In 1974 I began to keep track of how many people came and how many quarts of stew I would need to feed them. Bannie Sexton, Martha Sanford, and the Rosenthals were our elders, and Prudy Athearn was the first baby to enjoy our open house, though not the oyster stew …

“By the early 1980s we had 51 drop-ins, including children, and we have averaged between 40 and 50 ever since.”

Longtime Times contributor Pat Waring has written articles for many years about Shirley, and wrote to comment on her death:

“When we first came to the Vineyard in the early 1970s I was entranced by her lovely little book, ‘Seasons of a Vineyard Pond,’ chronicling with fine detail the months in the pond outside her back door … She had that invaluable writer’s gift of determination: attending weekly writing groups with Cynthia Riggs or reworking an old manuscript for publication, she kept at it tirelessly. 

“When age began to limit her formidable independence she was a trooper, continuing to appreciate life from her recliner, enjoying family, friends, savoring bright moments with no complaints.

“I know Shirley was a much-admired school teacher, her volume of writings and her stories of exotic solo travels are impressive. But best of all in my mind was her love and caring for others, especially her family. 

“And when it came to friends, she made us all feel special, that she was interested in our lives, that we were important to her too. 

“Her attributes are so many and varied: her abiding good humor, plucky courage in moving to an unfamiliar island as a young bride then traveling the world, her determination, enjoyment of life’s simple, happy times, her unswerving dedication to family and loved ones.”

Shirley Walling moved to Martha’s Vineyard to take a summer job at the Harbor View hotel in 1946, the summer that she met Johnny Mayhew, who predeceased her in 2012. She was a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, writing just recently about living in a household with four generations of women (the youngest being a 13th generation Mayhew), and one man. She was always busy, and known as profoundly curious and fearless. 

“I thought about dying in a plane crash every time I flew, but I didn’t dwell on it,” Shirley wrote about her travels. “Since that early flight in 1965, my children had grown up, and I had lived 58 good years, and ‘que sera, sera.’ There is great freedom in being unafraid.”