In my D.C. days, most of us came from somewhere else. Many of us had left — maybe “fled” would be a better word — small cities, smaller towns, and rural areas that were incongenial at best to lesbians, feminists, artists, and/or those with an intellectual bent; where the options for women in the 1970s were few.
We didn’t bring families with us, and if parents came to visit, we didn’t go out of our way to introduce them to our friends. (Brothers and sisters fared somewhat better.) Most of us fell within a narrow age range, say 25 to 40. Not coincidentally, women’s history and lesbian history were among our preoccupations, discovering, uncovering, recovering the stories of those who had come before.
Yes, on Martha’s Vineyard there were plenty of incomers — “wash-ashores” is the common term, often used defensively or derogatorily — and people passing through, but underneath all the coming and going was something steady that changed very slowly, like the seabed.
Families who’ve lived on the Vineyard for generations, even centuries, are mostly interrelated. The same names recur over and over again. The Mayhews all trace their lineage back to the first Anglo settlers in the mid seventeenth century, but the family tree has so many branches that some Mayhews are only distantly related to others.
I quickly learned to be careful what I said about whom to whom. Surnames tell only part of the story. Small wonder that in many Vineyard conversations some time is spent establishing who is connected to whom, by blood, marriage, divorce, work history, neighborhood, or anything else likely to create a bond worth knowing about if you don’t want to step on a landmine.
Family is all over The Mud of the Place. Nearly all the main characters are single, but family is rarely far from the foreground. All the short-sighted and downright stupid things Jay Segredo does are because he’s afraid to come out to his family. The prospect is terrifying because over the generations survival on Martha’s Vineyard and in plenty of other places has depended on family, unless one is wealthy enough to go it alone, which the Segredo family isn’t.
Ever since Mud came out, people have been asking me “That couldn’t happen now, could it?” They assume it’s all about some abstraction like homophobia, but it’s not: it’s about the fear of being ostracized from the hearth, warmth, the source of life and strength. With so much at stake, one does not take big risks. Once something is said, it can’t be unsaid.
For me, and many of my D.C. friends (quite a few of my Vineyard friends too, come to think of it), survival meant jumping clear of the family and running like hell for safer ground. So it took a long time and a lot of listening to understand what was going on here. Shannon Merrick’s background is more like mine, only much worse: as a teenager she ran away from her violent, alcoholic family and never went back.
In Wolfie, the novel in progress, Shannon’s reunion with her long-estranged sister Jackie is a major subplot. See “A is for Aquinnah” and “B is for Beach” for more about that.
Here, in Mud, Jay, the youth services director at a Vineyard social service agency, reflects on the different situations of his sister Janice (“Janny”) and Alice Chase, both of whom are part of Mud‘s supporting cast. Lenny, Alice’s ex, has been blocking her every attempt to change the custody agreement to allow her and her son to rejoin her family off-island.
But not even the most persuasive orator would ever convince, say, Alice Chase that this was a good place to raise kids. Jay reflected, not for the first time, on the similarity between Alice’s situation and that of his sister Janny. Both had grown up in tight-knit families. Neither one had been to college. Both got trapped in miserable marriages to abusive, alcoholic men. Janny had three kids; Alice had one, about the same age as Janny’s youngest. But Janny had a home and Alice didn’t; Janny was doing fine and Alice wasn’t. As far as Jay could tell, the biggest difference between the two was that Janny’s family was here and Alice’s was across the water.
Come to think of it, Lenny Chase’s family was here, and even he was doing pretty well, considering he was a ne’er-do-well drunk who couldn’t hold a job for three consecutive weeks.
I always think it is a shame when I see so many families so spread apart. Then I remember MY family and thank God the U.S. is so nice and big. Then I see my husband’s Latino family and wish my own had that missing something which allows his to forgive each other their trespasses… and then I have to wonder if we have failed in this country somehow…