Everybody elsewhere knows all about Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve read about it on the newspapers. They’ve seen it on TV. The president vacations there, right?
Plenty of books mention the Vineyard, or use it as a backdrop. Few are those that see Martha’s Vineyard from the inside.
These books are precious. Such a one is Kevin Parham’s The Vineyard We Knew: A Recollection of Summers on Martha’s Vineyard (Plymouth, MA: Pria Publishing, 2014). Shelve it next to Through a Ruby Window, storyteller Susan Klein’s tales of growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s and ’60s. On the other side put Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.
Halfway through the book the chapter “Turbulent Times” reminds us what was going on in the wider world, but the heart of The Vineyard We Knew is a kid’s-eye view of the island in the late 1950s and especially the ’60s. Every summer Kevin, his older siblings Joanne and Chuck and younger sister Dierdre, and their cousins Charlene, Vince, and Carmella, come from the Boston area to stay with their grandmother, Caroline “Carrie” White. The first chapter, “Beginnings,” recounts the journey they made every year, from Boston to Woods Hole, across Vineyard Sound on the ferry, and finally to Carrie’s little house on Pacific Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
As vividly evoked in the book, both the house and Nana, as Carrie was known to her grandkids, are more than a little scary. The house is forever leaking, sagging, or threatening to collapse. Nana is a strict disciplinarian with a leather strap hanging ready on the wall for anyone who challenges her authority, especially at the supper table. One evening Nana comes home from having a few cocktails with a neighbor. She’s “beyond the point of being tipsy — she was stone drunk,” Kevin remembers. She’s too inebriated to notice that a dirty rag has made its way into the chicken she has prepared for supper, and too stubborn to see it when Charlene points it out. Charlene’s ingenuity saves them all from “rag-encrusted chicken.”
Nevertheless, the adult reader can’t help marveling that every summer, for the whole summer, Nana takes as many as seven grandchildren into her tiny home so that the kids will be supervised while their parents work. And while Nana herself works, as cook to a wealthy white family on East Chop.
Not closely supervised, mind you. During these decades, summer vacation was a long stretch of days for kids to explore and have adventures — not only on Martha’s Vineyard but where I grew up west of Boston. Kevin Parham’s memoir includes a couple of incidents that could have had dire results. Cousin Carmella, clearly a rebel, sneaks a boyfriend into the house. Six kids go bike riding on pitch-dark East Chop and almost get hit by a car.
In general, though, the worst threat is that of Nana’s leather strap. At first, Kevin — the next-to-youngest of this band of cousins — tags along behind the older kids. They go swimming and clamming; they spook each other in nearby Oak Grove Cemetery. Then he’s biking around the island on his trusty three-speed, alone or with his siblings and cousins. On an expedition with cousin Vince to watch the ferry come into Vineyard Haven, Kevin hits the front brakes too hard and flies over the handlebars. Bruised and scraped and berating himself for his foolishness, he bikes home with Vince. Nana swabs his wounds with hydrogen peroxide. The next morning he’s out biking again.
The Vineyard We Knew winds down as Kevin reaches adolescence: first car, first romance . . . One January in the early 1970s, Kevin, now a budding teenage musician, returns with his R&B band to play a dance at the island’s youth center, on State Road at the head of Main, where Edu Comp is now. Despite a blown fuse that temporarily silences the electric instruments, the gig is a success. Significantly, it’s a visit to off-season Martha’s Vineyard that makes Kevin think that “there might be something to this music thing.”
He went on to become a professional musician as well as an executive and, now, an author. And his relationship with Martha’s Vineyard has continued to this day.
Because of the memoir’s tight focus on the child’s Vineyard summers, we don’t learn much about Beatrice, Kevin’s remarkable mother, until the very end of the book. In October 2008, the cousins, other family members, and friends gather for Bea’s memorial service, in an Oak Bluffs Victorian with a view of the ocean. Part of Kevin’s eulogy for her is reprinted here. It makes clear that though we didn’t see much of Bea in the book’s earlier chapters, she was never far away.
The Vineyard We Knew can be ordered through Pria Publishing, its publisher.
Kevin Parham will speak about his book on July 24, 6:30 p.m., at the Oak Bluffs library. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate: the library was built on the site of Nana’s house, which was destroyed by arson in 1994. On the library grounds, there’s now a bench dedicated to the memory of Carrie White and her daughter Bea.