Seasonal

Most of my time on Martha’s Vineyard I’ve lived in year-round neighborhoods. Mind you, with a couple of exceptions these wouldn’t be recognized as “neighborhoods” by most urban and suburban dwellers, not least because the dwellings are too far apart. What I mean is that we live in close enough proximity to recognize each other’s cars, kids, and pets. We know each other’s houses well enough to notice when something’s changed, and we know each other well enough to ask the occasional favor or borrow a couple of eggs.

“Year-round” means that you see the same people on the road summer and winter, spring and fall; nearly all the houses are occupied 12 months of the year. On our walks, Trav and I pass two that are seasonally occupied, but in both cases the owners make occasional short visits during the off-season and there are plenty of year-rounders in the vicinity to keep an eye out.

Nobody's home

Recently circumstances took Trav and me to a subdivision where the opposite is true: almost none of the houses are occupied 12 months of the year. Only two of several dozen are occupied right now, in mid-December. It felt like walking around a small town all of whose inhabitants had vanished into another dimension, leaving only their houses and an infrequent car behind.

In my teenage and young adult years I spent plenty of time on Tisbury Great Pond. Virtually none of those houses — generally known as “camps” — were occupied in the winter, and for good reason: they weren’t insulated, and the only heat sources were sunlight and a fireplace. The houses in this subdivision are houses, real houses, with electricity, phone, cable, and all the appliances you’d expect in an affluent suburb. They’re big enough to comfortably house a family of six whose members can’t stand to be in each other’s presence.

In a neighborhood, neighbors keep an eye out for anything out of sync. An unfamiliar vehicle in someone’s driveway? A window open that shouldn’t be? Someone doesn’t leave at the usual time in the morning or come home at the expected hour at night? In this expansive neighborhood, there are no neighbors. Trav and I strolled at will across lawns and around houses. I peered through windows and looked under decks. I had a plausible reason for what I was doing, but no one asked me to explain myself.

In the absence of neighbors, security is provided electronically. Maybe Travvy and I now appear in the video annals of a local police department or security company. Maybe someone’s decided that no bona fide security threat would be casing the joint with an Alaskan malamute in tow.

In my early years as a year-round Vineyard resident, I was amazed by the sight of snow on beaches. It had never occurred to me to wonder what the summer beaches I knew so well looked like when I wasn’t there. Winter after winter I’d go back to Lambert’s Cove Beach to marvel at the glittering patterns made by wave action under semi-frozen saltwater. The subdivision I visited features several ponds, and at least a dozen ducks weren’t heeding the “no swimming” signs. The temperature had dipped to the very low teens the night before, skimming some ponds with ice and framing the biggest one with frozen undulations. I’m here and you’re not, I thought.

The kayaks in winter

In my prowling, I spotted precious few clues to the personalities of the absent people. The blocky houses are different from one another, but they look to have been made from the same kit. Many have first- or second-story decks accessed by sliding doors, ideal for summer entertaining, and sure enough, I saw several propane-powered grills either on the decks or stowed underneath. Quite a few of the seasonal householders do, it seems, like to take to the water. Sengekontacket Pond is close by and reachable by water by a shallow-draft craft. Kayaks fit the bill, and indeed I saw several, hibernating under decks or shrubbery or elevated on wooden storage frames. Winter colors are subtle. The kayaks glowed with the bright hues of a warmer season.

Water view, with no viewers

When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I knew exactly one year-round resident. Within two years the balance had shifted dramatically: I still knew all the summer visitors I had known when I was one among them, but now they were far outnumbered by the year-rounders. A gentle but strong current slowly pulled me away from most of them. They were only here between June and September, the months when I was working my butt off and living in a friend’s house till I could find my next winter rental. Wandering through this deserted subdivision, I guessed that most of the people who come every summer to live in these houses hang out with each other and go to each other’s parties. What year-rounders they know are probably tradesfolk, caretakers, and housecleaners, and they probably don’t know where or how those tradesfolk, caretakers, and housecleaners live. They don’t know that I was sauntering through their neighborhood, or why.

Looking toward Sengekontacket Pond. On the far side of that is Beach Road, and just beyond that is Nantucket Sound.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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7 Responses to Seasonal

  1. jo says:

    camp. that one word brings back so many memories, images. wood stove in the tiny kitchen for both cooking and heat, pump next to the sink for water; huge stone fireplace in the main room, built with stones my grandfather ferried from Partridge Island in a small fishing boat; the family tree painted on the kitchen door with a handprint “leaf” for each family member; the bright red structure perched on the rocks above Lake Superior; the blueberry bushes right out the back door. my grandparents made occasional expeditions to camp in winter, but it was definitely a summer place. one of my favorite pictures shows the entire front thickly coated in ice. in the summer, my grandmother and the kids (my mom and my uncle) lived at camp, while my grandfather lived in town during the week and at camp on the weekends. everyone fortunate enough to have a camp did that. oh, and “town” was about five miles from camp. how i wish we had been able to keep it in the family.

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    • Reminds me of washing my hair under the hand pump — the water was so cold it made my head hurt. My father loved to visit the camp on very off-season weekends. The water was turned off so we’d use the hand pump. He rigged space blankets from the rafters to keep the fireplace warmth from drifting too far; you could get the indoor temp in the vicinity of the fireplace up to about 50 F that way. The dirt road leading in was two miles long, and of course it didn’t get plowed in winter. Once when I went with him his VW Bug fell through the ice on a very serious puddle and we got stuck, missed our ferry, and spent the night with friends in town. Next day a couple of guys brought their pickup down the road and got us unstuck. Dad offered them money, but they said a six-pack would be fine.

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      • jo says:

        people who build enormous, year-round “cabins” may have wonderful memories, but they will never have the extra-special ones like you and i remember.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the ‘summer’ versus ‘winter’ experience you conveyed about the Vineyard. What you say is true; there is a distinct difference in the perspective of one who lives there year-round as opposed to the occasional seasonal visitor. And although the landscape transforms throughout the seasons, and people might come and go, there will always be that special, kindred spirit among those who make the Island their home. To me, that is what being a neighbor in a close-knit community is really all about.

    So go ahead and keep watching out for one another; take stock of anything that seems to be out of sorts, and take comfort in knowing when everything is as it should be. All will benefit as a result.

    Thanks for sharing…

    Best,
    Kevin

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  3. Pam Coblyn says:

    I loved your essay and photos. I know Hidden Cove intimately even though I don’t live there year round and I know exactly where each of your photos was taken. Even in August, the streets are empty. I am a walker and roam around with my border collie Fenway, rarely seeing people and wondering why so many of the houses remain unoccupied in the summer. Is it the economy? Rentals down? I don’t know but consider myself fortunate to have such a beautiful spot nearly to myself. Deer, geese, hawks, osprey, swans, rabbits, skunks and turtles roam with us. It’s peaceful. And it’s no small wonder that the prodigal dog Waylon chose this place as his sanctuary.

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    • Yah, I thought the same thing. Also that it would be a good place for kids to run around in the summer. I wondered about the rental situation — do these homeowners even try to rent for the winter? Are the rents too high for working families who need that much room? The view out to Sengy is so beautiful. Even my amateur photograph looks like a painting.

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