A Miracle

Shirley W. Mayhew

This guest blog is by Shirley W. Mayhew of West Tisbury. Shirley is, among other things, a wonderful writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and other publications. She brought “A Miracle” to Cynthia Riggs’s Sunday night writers’ group, which we’re both in. I loved it. I asked her if I could publish it here. She said yes — and found the photographs that appear with it. Thanks, Shirley! SJS

It seemed like a miracle. Well, maybe it was a miracle, but miracles are tricky and can be defined in many ways. Sometimes a miracle is described as astonishment at a thing we see as an effect without knowing the cause. Long ago people considered it a miracle when the sun disappeared during an eclipse. Now that we know the cause of an eclipse, we understand that it is not a miracle.

My miracle was a very small one, as miracles go. But it gained stature because a crowd of about 75 people witnessed it. It took place at the end of July in, of all places, a cemetery. A miracle in a cemetery? A dark and stormy night when bodies rise out of their graves? This wasn’t that kind of miracle.

Shirley and Johnny at their 60th anniversary celebration at the Ag Hall, September 2007

But my small miracle did take place in a cemetery, in broad daylight, at around four in the afternoon. My husband, Johnny, died in early January of this year. We decided to wait until summer to bury his ashes so that his granddaughters could all be here, as well as some summer friends who might not have been able to make it in winter. It wasn’t meant to be a funeral, a sad affair, but a celebration of his life — all 91 years of it.

Johnny on the wing of his Corsair, 1942 or 1943

Johnny had led a rich and full life. After he spent his childhood and youth halfway around the world in Asia, and then spent three and a half years as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the South Pacific during World War II, he wanted nothing more than to live quietly on Martha’s Vineyard, the land of his forebears, for the rest of his life. I married him in 1947 and we celebrated 64 years together. We had a son and two daughters, and three granddaughters, and lived in a small town, in the same house for 55 of those years. He was 60 before I was able to get him off Martha’s Vineyard — to another small island in the Caribbean for a winter week.

Shirley and Johnny on their wedding day, September 6, 1947

In the 1950s he worked for almost 10 years trying to grow oysters commercially in Tisbury Great Pond. Then, unable to see ahead to oysters paying for years of college expenses, he taught math in our regional high school for 27 years. During that time he served as a selectman in West Tisbury as well as on a number of town committees. Then he enjoyed more than 20 years of retirement.

During all these years he found relaxation and joy in being outdoors, fishing, hunting, scalloping, lobstering, oystering, clamming — and even chopping wood for our fireplace.

Look’s Pond, from the cover of Shirley Mayhew’s 1973 book about it

Our home bordered a small pond, and each spring and fall it was our great pleasure to hear the Canada geese approaching the water, cupping their wings and landing, with loud honking, on the smooth surface of the limpid pond. Although he enjoyed hunting ducks and geese with one of our resident golden retrievers, and we enjoyed many duck and goose dinners, the whole family revered the birds that chose our pond to feed or rest upon. There was no hunting around Look’s Pond. Several wintered over one year as they recovered from wounds suffered during the hunting season.

Back to my miracle. The Navy provided full military honors at Johnny’s graveside service. An honor guard stood at attention holding their flags high, there was a three-gun salute, and a bugler stood on a rise and played Taps. We had requested a flyover as Johnny had been a Navy fighter pilot, but found out that one got a flyover only if one was killed in action. The Navy also supplied a chaplain, and a large crowd of family and friends surrounded the gravesite.

As the chaplain prepared to say the first word, I heard honking coming from the direction of our pond and home. I looked up, and then everyone looked up as a perfect “V” formation of loudly honking Canada geese flew directly over us. A lone duck, flying with them, peeled off directly above us, and went off in another direction, as one of the flyover planes would have done, to represent the fallen serviceman. Everyone was silent, watching the geese above us, and then spontaneous applause erupted. When the clapping was over, the chaplain began the service.

Was it a miraculous event? I don’t know, but my belief system was seriously stirred up on that Saturday afternoon.

The Mayhews have been playing music together and with friends for many decades, so Johnny’s memorial service was followed by an old-style West Tisbury “musicale.” From left: Tom Hodgson, granddaughter Lucy Mayhew, son Jack Mayhew (Lucy’s dad), granddaughter Katie Mayhew, and Mark Mazer. Behind Mark is daughter Deb Mayhew (Katie’s mom).

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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9 Responses to A Miracle

  1. Robyn Smith (Florence Brewer's daughter) says:

    What a wonderful story! I DO believe in miracles and the involvement of God in our lives.
    I have had the great pleasure of meeting Shirley through my mom and feel blessed to have learned about this great family as a result of their friendship.
    Thank you…


  2. Beautiful and magical from start to finish as well as lovingly documented by you.


  3. Juleann says:

    Simply proof that “miracles” DO happen . . . that our connections are not broken and exist beyond the limitations of our sight. Thank you for sharing this — a lovely way to wrap up the weekend.


  4. Valerie says:

    Thanks so much for letting Shirley share this story with us. Okay, I’m sniffling. So glad for your miracle Shirley!


  5. tompostpile says:

    I think Shirley still has a few copies of her book.


    • I think you’re right — and Bunch of Grapes may have copies on its Vineyard table. It’s a closely observed account of the seasonal cycle at Look’s Pond, illustrated by charming sketches of the flora and fauna.


  6. Makes you wonder if Johnny had a hand in it…


  7. Sara Crafts says:

    Wow – beautiful. Thanks for telling this story to us, Shirley, and thanks for sharing it, Susanna.


  8. Joanie Ruppel says:

    Dear Shirley, a miracle indeed! I lost my husband of almost 30 years a short time ago and these “miracles” of nature have sustained us knowing that his presence is still all around us. Thank you for sharing.


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