It started with a hug a few weeks ago, to wit my first nonfamily, post-vac, full-on nuzzle of this bright new season of hope we’re now entering, and this double hug was exchanged with Susan and David Wilson on the porch of Waterside Cafe in Vineyard Haven.
Being old friends, we greeted each other with elation, as we established that we’d had our two jabs, waited the additional two weeks, and were thus more than qualified to embrace.
The encounter was fresh on my mind when my editor at the paper asked for an interview with an outstanding Vineyard couple. I’ve known Susan, a celebrated novelist, and David, recently retired and beloved English teacher from MVRHS, for a significantly long time, so long that I’m super-comfortable writing as their informal biographer. See, some decades ago in the fall of 1991, myself, my then-husband Marty, and son Charlie, ready for the second grade, moved here year-round, where we met, among other stellar people, the Wilsons. Does that sound as long ago to you as it does to me? Especially now, after this brain-fogging year when time has grown extra-malleable?
I can’t remember who introduced me to Susan, but I started a writing group in our living room in East Chop, and the minute she read some pages from a spec romance novel that involved a pirate ship and a hapless young maiden, I knew she had the chops. The professional chops. I hooked her up with a crack agent in New York whom I’d been stupid enough to forsake for another agent. This latter agent had bombed for me, whereas Susan went on to publish her first book, “Beauty,” and then another 11 books, a couple of them landing on the New York Times bestseller list, with the 12th, “What a Dog Knows” (St. Martin’s Press) to arrive next month.
On a recent Thursday night, David and Susan admitted me to their charming house on Inca Road in Oak Bluffs. We exchanged a new round of loving hugs — ah! will we ever cease to find these hugs so rejuvenating? — and I had an insight into Susan’s and my different modalities of living as writers and, oddly, as wives.
I said, “Susan, just as you and David have stayed together [it’s been 47 years], you’ve also been steadfast with the same agent. If only I’d remained married, just as an exercise in loyalty, and stuck it out with the Rotrosen Agency, as you did, I might have a national bestseller or two under my own belt!”
But on to more pressing matters: Their fabulous dog of nearly three years, Cora, the gorgeous Cavalier spaniel, required a whole bunch of loving. As I perched on the living room couch, she lavished me with the best embrace of this post-pandemic period, her doggy arms wrapped so tight around my neck, her tongue in my ear, I felt the love of the universe swoosh through me.
Susan scolded her pet, but I enjoyed the furry greeting no end. I told the Wilsons about my own effort to acquire a Cav, recommended to me by our mutual friend, the acclaimed dog trainer Tom Shelby (you’ll find his column, “Dogcharmer,” in these pages soon). When my adored Boston terrier Huxley died in the summer of 2019, Tom said, “You loved him, but he was a thug. Your next puppy should be sweet. You deserve a sweet dog.”
David, looking relaxed and handsome as ever in his armchair, told me they’d received the same sage advice and, voilà! Cora. I told them about a breeder on the Island who has promised me a pick of his next Cavalier litter, but he’s been impeded by the inability to find an intact male for his girl. He even prodded, “If you can get me an intact male, I’ll give you a free puppy.”
I said to the Wilsons, “Can you imagine me announcing that I’m in search of an intact male!”
David chuckled. “It sounds like a Janis Joplin song,” and he hammed up a snatch of melody along the lines of, “‘I need an intact man whoa-whoa-whoah!’”
We got to talking about the past grueling year, but like most happy couples, the Wilsons managed it with less stress than some of the stranded singles among us. Their two daughters, Elizabeth, a counselor at Emmanuel College in Boston, and Alison, a horse trainer and riding teacher in Amherst, both with husbands and kids — Liz with Claire, 12, and Will, 10, and Allie with Rocco, 7 — all visited under the family roof as a pod. This meant that my own touchdown at the Wilson manor heralded a first nonfamily cameo.
Before we headed to the dining room for supper — and there’s a fun story to go with supper — we went on comfortably reclining, and, as writers and English teachers do, exchanged news about what we’re reading right now. Susan said she’d used this time as an opportunity to ransack her shelves for old favorites and to see what held up, what didn’t.
She has re-enjoyed the Hillary Mantel series about Thomas Cromwell during the Tudor period, also Ernest Hebert’s “A Little More than Kin” and Penelope Lively’s “City of the Mind.”
I had to interject with my own Hillary Mantel dish: I’d adore to read the Wolf Hall trilogy, being an avid fan, if that’s the proper word, of the Tudor period (Henry 0, Elizabeth 10, would be my ranking), but every time I’ve eyed the first of the trio, all 560 pages, on the O.B. library shelf, I pick it up gingerly, heft it in my palms, and try to imagine a comfortable position for stretching out with it in bed. It can’t be done.
I concede with my hands up, “I know, I know, I need to learn how to use a digital reader, but somehow, it ain’t gonna happen.”
Meanwhile, David has churned through Javier Cercas’ “Lord of All the Dead” and Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” which I can’t help mentioning is about the worst title I’ve ever heard.
And before I tell you about the noteworthy supper, let me just add that David Wilson is the most high-up literary person I know. Some 19 years ago, when I opened a bookstore on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs, David visited and checked out my shelf of classics. He beheld with a sense of wonder my copy of “The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Without a shred of irony, he turned to me and said, “This is going to sell like hotcakes!”
I never did unload that single copy, but I always loved this man for his high hopes by the shores of Gitche Gumee.
Now about the supper: In the “Close Encounters” column, of which this is the fourth installment, the first three penned before lockdown, I always brought to my fascinating subjects a pot of homemade, slow-cooker soup. This time I had a recipe picked out for a wholesome, healthy tomato-basil bisque. All the ingredients were ready to go on the kitchen table — I’ve been staying at the quaint 1720 House in Vineyard Haven — but on that particular morning, I had a number of errands to run, and no time to slave over the soup like an elderly Cinderella. Instead I toddled down to the cafe Waterside on Main Street, and bought a container of their tomato-basil soup, an item I suspected would taste better than anything I could whip up.
At the Wilson house, I relaxed into Jewish princess mode — something for which I’ve acquired a lifetime of training. Susan set the table and heated the soup. We’d already pigged out on olives, cheese, and crackers laid out by the Wilsons. We dined, and laughed, and caught up some more. Finally Susan pried open a container of Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche ice cream. The lady of the house conveyed the dishes into the kitchen, and the gentleman kindly offered to drive me home.
On the way out the lower-level door, we passed one of David’s three motorcycles. He explained that his favorite means of transportation is his bicycle. Still, this, I must say, is a decidedly bookish biker dude.
At the patio leading to the car, Susan grabbed me for another heartfelt clinch. David said in a tone of awe, “She never liked hugs before!”
We all three agreed our time together had proved not only fun but healing. And here’s wishing you, all my friends on the Island, healing times in your upcoming reunions with friends.
We’ve earned it, and now we know how to get it done. And may your own soups be lovingly homemade. If not, you’ll adore the tomato-basil bisque from Waterside. And I receive no commissions for saying so.