A phoenix rises from the ashes

9

To the Editor:

On Feb. 7, a swift-moving fire consumed my family’s home on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. For hours, firefighters from all over the Island valiantly battled the blaze. If you were on-Island that day, you may have seen or smelled it. I’m told the smoke was visible from miles away.

I was out of the country that day, on a vacation with some girlfriends, my first since the beginning of COVID. It took me 48 hours to get back to the Island. As the ferry sailed into the Vineyard Haven Harbor, out of habit I looked for the peaked roof jutting above the yacht club. But there was nothing to see. My house, and everything I owned, was gone. My family’s beloved dogs, GinGin and Dewey, were dead.

The Vineyard is my favorite place on earth. For most of my life, it has been a wellspring of joy and healing. For 12 years it has been my home year-round. But I thought all that might be finished. That the Island couldn’t heal me this time. For a time, I thought life would never be good again.

My parents, Lucy and Sheldon Hackney, first came to the Vineyard in the mid-’60s, invited for a week by my mother’s college roommate to stay at her family’s house on Owen Little Way. They were immediately hooked. For several summers after that, they rented an apartment at an old inn up on Main Street. In 1976, they bought the house next door, on the corner of Main and Owen Little Way. It was an old house built in 1807 by William Luce, and originally stood facing the water at Owen Park. Known as the Hicks House after William Hicks who resided there in the late 1800s and was a pastor at Grace Church, it had been moved from Owen Park to Owen Little Way in 1907 by William Owen. It was one of the original houses on Owen Little Way. Through the years, there were minor improvements made, and an addition to the back side of the house was built probably in the mid-1900s. My parents bought the house in 1975 from that same college roommate’s aunt, Helen Andreson, for $85,000. Those were the days when a young college professor could afford a house near the water.

During my childhood, our summers were filled with clambakes, tennis games, and beach days up-Island. My brother Fain and I took sailing lessons at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, followed by endless games of ragtag on the dock. We were cultivating memories, and friendships, that would last a lifetime. Over the following decades, each person in my family figured out a way to move here year-round.

My sister Virginia, who lived with a mental disability, made the leap first. One year in the mid-’90s, she simply refused to leave at summer’s end. For a year she lived in my parents’ house. Soon, they found her a condo conveniently located up the street. She could bike to town and to Camp Jabberwocky, visit home, and go for her daily swim at the yacht club in the summer. Virginia became a true Islander, taking part in skating competitions, performing in plays at the Vineyard Playhouse, working at Chilmark Chocolates, and singing in the Grace Church choir. She was embraced by everyone, and allowed to live her life to the fullest.

My brother and his wife Melissa came next, with toddler Annabelle. Her little sister Lucy, born at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, was the family’s first true Islander. They, too, spent their first year on the Island in the house on Owen Little Way.

As my parents got older, they spent more and more time here. My father got his teaching schedule at the University of Pennsylvania down to one class, eventually retiring to full-time Island life, writing books and serving on the board of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

I was so jealous I could barely stand it.

In the fall of 2007, Virginia died of pancreatic cancer. After a decade overseas, I was overwhelmed by grief and homesickness. Setting out ahead of my husband, I moved to the Island with the youngest of our two children, Jackson and Madison. The two oldest, Larkin and Declan, had already come to the States for college. Another reason to move back across the pond. We arrived on a cool June evening, bringing with us two family dogs and a cat. My husband Brian, skeptical that I would survive the winter, left his job and came the following year. We had found a piece of land off Indian Hill Road, and built a house with enough rooms for the whole brood. I had proved Brian wrong. I was finally home. And I wasn’t ever leaving.

Those years were wonderful. We all made great friends and felt thoroughly welcomed. Eventually there was heartache, too. On the same day in 2010, my father was diagnosed with ALS and my mother with Alzheimer’s. My father died in 2013. My mother stayed on in the house on Owen Little Way, living with as much dignity as her disease allowed. Neighbors looked in on her and helped my brother and me with her care. We got her a dog for company, a hound mix with a big personality who liked to let her presence be known. My mother named her GinGin, in honor of my sister, and lavished her with love and treats. She was wonderful company for my mother. When my mother died a few years ago, Fain and Melissa generously allowed my family to move in, with the expectation that I would take on the care of GInGin.

We had enjoyed our time up-Island, but being back in our family home was heaven. I felt more myself than I had in years. I worked on my mother’s flower garden, enjoyed daily visitors going down to the beach, and watched the sunrise every morning over the Vineyard Haven Harbor. GinGin and my dog Dewey became the bane of the mail people, garbage men, and every passerby, making a racket and creating a lot of chaos. But it was happy chaos. When COVID struck, we were perfectly situated to welcome visitors outside on our broad porch. Not even a pandemic could dampen my satisfaction at life on Owen Little Way.

Then came Feb. 7. I stood on a gravel road in Central America, listening in disbelief as Brian and Declan related the horrific news. They told me that two neighbors had risked their lives trying to get to the dogs. I’m sure the devastation and helplessness that they and Fain and Melissa felt watching as the house burned surpassed my own despair at that moment. I still can’t look at the photographs that ran in the Island papers. Watching it in real time would have done me in.

The conflagration was fierce. Tisbury firefighters had to call in backup from Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Edgartown. Together they fearlessly battled for hours, trying to contain and douse the fire before a wrecking crew had to come in to finish the job. Firefighters dodged into the flames to rescue a large cache of family photos before the whole house came down, chimney and all. Having these heirlooms feels like a miracle. They were the first things I thought about after I’d digested the worst news. And they are literally the only thing that survived. There aren’t words enough to express my gratitude to everyone who fought that fire on our behalf.

As I walked off the ferry on Feb. 9, into the arms of my son, and stood in the Steamship Authority parking lot crying uncontrollably, I feared I would be broken forever. But something else happened instead. The Island opened its arms to us, rallying around my family in full force. Before the fire’s last embers were even out, we had a roof over our heads, closets full of clothes, groceries and meals delivered to our temporary doorstep, toothbrushes, winter coats, and gift cards for future use. Friends, family, and strangers alike reached out to check on us and offer a shoulder to cry on. The response was overwhelming.

These past weeks have also reminded me powerfully of past kindnesses shown by the Vineyard community. My family has faced some significant challenges over the years, stories that are more private than an outward-facing flame. More than once, the Island’s emergency responders, law enforcement, and medical personnel have stood by our side, treating us with patience and dignity. I have never been good at asking for help. But I’ve rarely needed to be, here on the Vineyard. Help has always come, and it has saved us.

The fire took a great deal from my family. But although we have lost a lot of “stuff,” what we have gained is much bigger, if less concrete: the knowledge that we are part of a unique and loving community. We may not have a house, for now, but as long as we are on this Island, we are home. I cannot imagine another place where I would feel as loved, cared for, and looked after. The healing has indeed begun. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all!

Elizabeth McBride
Vineyard Haven

 

9 COMMENTS

  1. While we typically don’t allow comments on Letters to the Editor, we’ve decided to open this one up for comments thinking the community would like to react to Elizabeth’s thoughtful correspondence.

  2. Elizabeth really said it all
    What an amazing life and story
    i’m sure there’s a lot more
    Their gratitude expressed for the vineyard is inspiring and gives us all a sense of purpose
    I hope somehow they might put this episode behind them in the years to come
    Yet every person understands and feels their loss
    knowing it could happen to them
    Here’s to a great rebirth and a great recovery
    cheers

  3. A perfectly beautiful letter from Elizabeth Hackney McBride on the loss of their historic house full of memories and nostalgia. She is now following her father’s motto: ‘Onward’
    With strength and love for the Vineyard as it embraces her.

  4. My words can’t touch how I’ve admired your resilience, gratitude and strength by which you rise. The loss overwhelming yet your persistence to overcome is steadfast and sensitive at the same time. You are remarkable in your own right and while your house is gone, your home is still right under your feet.
    Onwards indeed!

  5. Elizabeth, I’m so deeply sorry about GinGin & Dewey. Your neighbors and everyone who tackled the fire showed such bravery. Thank you for sharing this touching look at your family’s history with us. ❤️

  6. What a beautiful letter and history lesson of your house and family Elizabeth. We are so very sorry for all the losses you, Fain and your families have endured, but as you so beautifully pointed out here, the Vineyard Community is unparalleled in giving support to those in need. We are so very grateful that you feel the healing and well deserved Support and generosity of Martha’s Vineyard. ❤️ ❤️

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