One July day in the summer of 1979, 41 years ago, I made a trip from Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard. I was in search of a place where my creativity could flourish, my love of nature could be requited, and my city-worn spirit could be renewed.
Initially, the Vineyard attracted me for two reasons — it was an island, and I had lived on islands in Spain and Mexico. And its name — Martha’s Vineyard. The name for me evoked charm, serenity, and a hint of mystery. Who was Martha, and how the hell did she get a whole island named after her?
To find out more about this intriguing place, I decided spur-of-the-moment to take a trip. My husband at the time was away on business, and I, having worked day and night in my downtown loft fulfilling orders for my clothing line, was exhausted and needed a break. So I hopped on a train, then a bus, to an island I knew nothing about (pre-Google days) except it had a fabulous name and for some reason it was calling me.
This trip being literally last-minute and me being prone to winging it, I had no place to stay once I landed in Oak Bluffs. When traveling, I usually gravitated to the furthermost place from town, where it is less populated. I looked at the map, and that place was Gay Head. At the time there was one home people knew of where the owner rented rooms to strangers, and the owner of that home was to be in Oak Bluffs that evening. I met up with him and got a ride back up-Island to his house. And that was where I stayed on my first trip to the amazing Island of Martha’s Vineyard — a little room in a house near the beach owned by a (let’s call him flamboyant) heavy drinker who wrote news copy for CBS in New York City. It was perfect!
It was three days later on that beach where I had my first true, bona fide epiphany. As I stood there late in the afternoon facing the ocean, a sense of knowing came over me. I knew this Island was where I was soon going to live, and nothing in my life up to that moment had been more clear or had made more sense. That was 41 years ago, nearly to the day.
And from that day to this day, there have been many struggles, many successes, and much joy. But now it is time for me to begin a new chapter and a new adventure. Before I get to that, I want to tie up the loose ends of my move from New York, and tell you one of my favorite Vineyard work-related stories.
I went back to New York a week later and began the dissolution of my marriage, which I did not take lightly, and put my loft on the market. My clothing design business was taking off; I knew I could keep my NYC accounts but base the business operations elsewhere, so the country girl in me could also thrive. I had realized on that initial trip that Martha’s Vineyard had a unique combination — mainstream city sophistication coupled with loads of country serenity. And I chose Chilmark to be the Island town where I was to plop myself down and open my first store.
A few people at the time thought I was nuts for opening a retail store the likes of mine in Chilmark. I’ll never forget the question posed by another shopkeeper down-Island I had befriended. He said, “Lorraine, so what do you get up there, bicyclers and mopeders?” I retorted, “No, Larry, I get the Mercedes and BMWs.” Touché!
I had quickly observed that Chilmark was where my customers lived; they would be on vacation, and my store would be right in their paths to the Post Office and the Chilmark grocery store. And I, who had been a tiny fish in a giant pond in NYC, would now be a giant fish in a tiny pond on the Vineyard. I also thought: My clothing, which would have a label not only with my name on it but the name Martha’s Vineyard woven on it, would be a mighty fine souvenir for city ladies to take back home. It seemed an obvious thing to do, so I did it.
I have many wonderful memories relating to my business, but my favorite took place in a period of my life I call “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
It was my second winter on the Island, and I had pretty much depleted my money from selling my NYC loft. But as luck would have it, a few months before — the first summer I opened my store — a chance encounter altered my business for years to come. Two ladies in the New York clothing biz had opened their first showroom, and were here visiting family members in Chilmark. They “discovered” my store, and plenty of excitement ensued, both on their part and mine. I still had my own accounts, but this was a very big deal.
I sent a sample line to their New York showroom, and the orders started rolling in. I had by that time begun a small cottage industry with a handful of local seamstresses. I cannot tell you how much fun those days were. We were young, living our fantasy lives on this beautiful Island and sewing together in a room with a view of the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean. What more could we have wanted? I’m about to tell you.
Though the orders were abundant, I had little money to pay the ladies. A friend had loaned me the money to buy the fabric needed, but that was it. There were three of us at the time, sewing in my freezing cold house right near the beach on Moshup Trail. Back in those days, a lot of us heated our homes with these disgusting, fume-producing things called Kero-Sun heaters. We would take turns writing bad checks to the places selling the kerosene and argue over who had written the last bad check when we needed more, but we knew any day we had gobs of money coming our way.
That day came. My mailbox was up the driveway on Moshup Trail Road and we would look through binoculars to see if the flag was up, which meant there was a possible check in the box. Well, the first check came, and my sewing buddy Wendy and I decided we would drive to the bank in Edgartown while Jane held down the fort and kept sewing. I opened the car door; put the check on the dashboard and got in — Wendy simultaneously opened her door and got in. I looked at the dashboard and the check was gone! I then noticed about 30 feet away, flopping in the wind, the check! It was wet and stuck on a branch of a bush. But to make matters worse, there were three-foot snowdrifts between me and that bush. Well, I got the check, and the rest is history!
Throughout my time here, there have been many incarnations of my business. From 1986 until 1989, I had a fabulous catalog business. We shot them all on the Vineyard, and the little beauties won awards and received tons of press. I was young and their success was overwhelming, but I dealt with it, and I also dealt with their failure, which was partly due to the crash of ’87. During this catalog period and for a while longer, I had stores in Aspen, Boston, Nantucket, and here. And for many years there were literally hundreds of traveling trunk shows up and down the East Coast from Washington, D.C., to Boston and in between. Then in 2001, I began my apparel and home fabric design business, and opened my home shop in the cottage behind my clothing store. My fabrics received lots of publicity, and I did quite a few show houses until the crash of ’08 put a damper on all that. How did I do all of this? I have always said running your own business takes imagination, devotion, perseverance, and mountains of courage. And that’s how I did it.
Now I am beginning a new chapter in my life in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. A few months ago, I bought my dream home there, where I will devote my days writing screenplays and stories. I finished my first screenplay, “Clara’s Secrets,” two years ago, about a fashion designer in New York. And boy, does she have secrets! I also just finished writing the pilot to another story of mine called “Old Jake.” I have several more screenplays in different stages, and a “small” book I’ll begin writing once I settle in. Writing is now my passion, an ability I never knew I had until five years ago, when I began writing essays for this paper.
Will I miss this Island that has given me so much joy, happiness, and to be honest, quite a bit of pain? Of course! I’ll miss seeing the winter harbor sunrises from the cemetery across the street where I secretly feed the wild turkeys; I’ll miss driving my antique Volvo with my two poodles around in the summer; I’ll miss feeding the deer in the woods in the winter; I’ll miss the ocean, the beaches, the birds, the Land Bank trails, and the Vineyard’s sheer beauty. And of course I’ll miss all of you who have supported my work over the years and have taken the time to come into my shop when vacationing, if only to say hello. And most of all, I’ll miss you dear ladies who have become much, much more than customers; you have become treasured friends I love, and you know who you are.
Farewell to you all, until we meet again.
Visit her website to learn more about Lorraine Parish’s work: lorraineparishwriter.com. Lorraine’s Vineyard Haven store is open until August 15.
By Lorraine Parish
once i dreamed of dancing,
so a dancer i became.
and when my dreams turned to fashion,
i created elegant, lovely clothes to acclaim.
now i dream of stories,
intimate tales i tell to you.
tales of a lady, her secrets, and her creature,
of two hermits, their bear, their crow, and a doe.
i write of ghosts sharing mysterious stories
of their forgotten lives and long ago woes.
i write of the adventures of a woman,
the quick-change-artist angel
who helps those who are living,
by helping those who are gone.
and tomorrow? i dream,
tomorrow, i dream on.