I’m forever quoting Grace Paley — “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you better watch where your mouth is.”
Shirley Mayhew is in the mud of Martha’s Vineyard at least up to her waist, and has been since she moved to the Vineyard in 1947 as the bride of Vineyard native John Mayhew. Now she’s collected into a book her personal essays about her extra/ordinary life in this extra/ordinary place. Three of them have already appeared in this blog — “Miracle,” “Community,” and “The Musicales — Then and Now” — so I don’t need to tell you what a good writer she is. She’s also a fine photographer, as is her daughter Sarah: their photos provide a visual dimension to Looking Back.
Shirley’s journey begins at a mixer she didn’t want to attend at Pembroke College, where she was a less-than-engaged student. Johnny Mayhew, a navy fighter pilot just back from the war, didn’t want to be there either; he was almost engaged, so it seemed, to a girl at Mount Holyoke. After an awkward attempt at dancing and chitchat, they walk into Providence, share three beers, and talk about the real-life stuff that doesn’t come up at mixers.
Within the next few months, they date a few times, Shirley gets a summer job on the Vineyard, and Johnny breaks up with his Mount Holyoke girlfriend. Shirley joins the Mayhews for Thanksgiving — and Johnny proposes.
Shirley writes: “We were in a duck blind on Tisbury Great Pond. It was cold but clear and ducks were scarce that early morning, and during a lull in the conversation he turned to me and said, ‘You wouldn’t marry me, would you?’ Without a pause to think it over, I said, ‘Sure.'”
Shirley was in the mud, and the water, of this place right from the beginning.
In the essays that follow, readers are treated to a rich glimpse of the catch-as-catch-can life of most Vineyarders in the late 1940s and ’50s. Johnny, his cousins John and Everett Whiting, and their friend Willy Huntington start the Vineyard Shellfish Company, growing oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. As the Mayhews’ children arrive, it becomes clear that oystering won’t support a growing family. Johnny goes back to school and becomes a math teacher at the (brand-new) regional high school. In “Food in the Fifties” and “Check Stubs Tell All,” Shirley recounts the challenges and rewards of year-round island living, back when the summer people left around Labor Day and didn’t return till Memorial Day at the earliest.
“Thoughts on Turning Forty in 1966” appears around the middle of Looking Back. When she wrote it, Shirley had gone back to school. After 18 years living intensively in one place, her world opens up: “I felt I had rejoined the human race, and my mind, which was not ready for higher education in my twenties, was now like a sponge, soaking up ideas and knowledge.”
At 40, now equipped with a BA and a teaching certificate, Shirley regards the future with some apprehension. The reader, noticing that half the book’s pages remain to be turned, is curious but not too worried.
With good reason. Shirley becomes not only a junior high language arts teacher at the Edgartown School, but a world traveler. By the end of World War II, Johnny Mayhew had seen enough of the world. Shirley, who had gone straight from Westchester County, New York, to Martha’s Vineyard, wants to see more. And she does, often accompanied by one of her two daughters, and later by one of her three granddaughters. The essays here recount a few of her travels, to Tisbury, England; Finland; the USSR; and Kenya, where baboons really did come to tea — there’s a photo to prove it.
“Saving Edilberto” and “Trucking into Cusco” are both devoted to Paucartambo, a remote village in the Peruvian Andes. Shirley developed a several-year relationship with Paucartambo, becoming godmother to two village children and raising money on Martha’s Vineyard to buy basic supplies for the village school. (Having heard more of Shirley’s Paucartambo stories and seen more of her photographs, I strongly suspect there’s a whole other book in there.)
In 248 pages, Looking Back conveys the passing of the decades, not only for the author but for Martha’s Vineyard and the world at large. In the early pages Johnny Mayhew courts and marries Shirley; in the later ones, Shirley visits Johnny in Windemere, the local nursing home, then attends his memorial service at the Ag Hall. (See “A Miracle” for an account of that day, and a bit about Johnny’s life.)
In the early years Johnny and his cousins raise oysters on Tisbury Great Pond. In 1972, Shirley starts making oyster stew for the friends, neighbors, and relatives who drop in on Christmas Day. The eldest attendees at those early parties have passed on, but their kids and grandkids are still coming; the babies and toddlers of the 1970s now have kids and grandkids of their own. The party now takes place at daughter Deb’s house — and yes, the recipe is included.
In the 1950s, the musically inclined of West Tisbury gather in each other’s living rooms to jam and play and sing. Now the children and grandchildren of the original “musicales” are singing and playing, in pickup bands, at the annual Ag Fair, and — in the case of granddaughter Katie — with the Boston Pops and in London. Worth noting is that at the first musicales, the men play and the women listen (and the kids often listen from the top of the stairs when they are supposed to be in bed). Now the musicians include daughter Deb, son Jack, and all three of Shirley’s granddaughters.
In addition to introducing, or re-introducing, the reader to its remarkable author, Looking Back offers an evolving picture of what Martha’s Vineyard has been about for the last several decades, and why so many of us want to keep it alive as something other than a tourist destination.
On the island, Looking Back is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. (I think Bunch of Grapes does mail order, but its website doesn’t inspire confidence; better call first: 508-693-2291.) You can also order from the author for $30 (including shipping): Music Street Press, P.O. Box 51, West Tisbury, MA 02575.
P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m in the Sunday night writers’ group with Shirley, and I copyedited Looking Back. Janet Holladay of the Tisbury Printer did a super job with the design and also helped organize the essays into a sequence that works wonderfully. This book is as island-grown as it gets!