Shirley Mayhew could have rested on her laurels after publishing Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard in 2014. It’s a lovely collection of personal essays covering, well, Shirley’s long life on Martha’s Vineyard, from 1947, when she arrived as the young bride of Vineyard native Johnny Mayhew, through 2014, when the book came out. For anyone interested in how Vineyard life has evolved over the decades, Looking Back offers the experiences and insights of an extraordinary “ordinary” woman whose observational skills are equaled only by her ability to express them in writing.
Lucky for us, Shirley did not rest on her laurels. (If you know Shirley, you know this was never an option.) She has continued to publish Vineyard-related op-eds and other essays in island publications, notably the Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. All the while she was also honing her travel essays in Cynthia Riggs’s Sunday writers group, which is how I got to know her and her work. In the last year she has self-published three collections of those essays: Around the World in Thirty Years (one of my favorite titles of all time), Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly: Vineyard Essays, and, most recently, Paucartambo: A Midlife Adventure from Martha’s Vineyard to Peru.
All are available in paperback from Amazon. So are her children’s book, Islander:
The Circus Comes to Martha’s Vineyard, with illustrations by Vineyard artist Linda Carnegie, and Seasons of a Vineyard Pond, which grew out of a college research project when Shirley went back to school in the 1960s. (Choose Books from the dropdown on the Amazon site, then search on “Shirley Mayhew” and you’ll find them all.)
In the introduction to Around the World in Thirty Years Shirley writes: “In 1972 I was 46 years old and had never been out of the country.” In the next decades she made up for lost time. Her husband, having done much of his growing up abroad and then serving as a navy pilot in World War II, had no desire to leave the island, so Shirley traveled solo, or with a friend, or with one of her daughters or, later, her granddaughters. She managed to visit not only a roster of countries that would do credit to a diplomat or a foreign correspondent but also quite a few of these United States.
Around the World opens, however, with “The Summer Mouse,” a charming story about a summer spent in Chilmark, the next town over from West Tisbury, where Shirley lives. Longtime Vineyarders will immediately get how appropriate this is: West Tisburyites tend to speak of Edgartown as if it’s somewhere near Nebraska, Edgartonians reciprocate, and most of us down-island of the Chilmark line think Aquinnah is on another planet. From Chilmark, the book jets to Russia and Ukraine, then back to the U.S. for a horseback trek in Colorado, and on to England, Kenya for “Tea with a Baboon,” a climb up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a wedding in New Delhi . . .
Several Around the World essays document Shirley’s experiences in Paucartambo, a village high in the Peruvian Andes. Lucky for us, Shirley collected these and more into a book of their own: Paucartambo: A Midlife Adventure from Martha’s Vineyard to Peru, which has just been released. In the preface she writes: “After being a tourist in eleven countries, I grew tired of being a tourist and visiting monuments and museums and famous sites surrounded by other tourists — I wanted to stay put long enough in a country to see how the rest of the world lived.”
In five sojourns over several summers, between 1983 and 1991, Shirley became part of village life, even becoming godmother to two children and patroness of one of the dance groups in the village’s annual fiesta, which attracts visitors from all around Peru.
Shirley is matter-of-fact about her own courage and resourcefulness, but seriously: this woman who’d never lived alone before, who had spent most of the previous 35 years surrounded by family and community on self-contained Martha’s Vineyard, set out to live in a remote village where almost no one spoke any English, when she had only rudimentary Spanish and nonexistent Quechua?
Once or twice she might have wondered if she was going to make it out in one piece, as in the hair-raising “Trucking into Cusco” in Around the World in 30 Years (a version of which is part of chapter 7 in Paucartambo), about riding what serves as public transportation in the high Andes, but she’s resilient: she listens, she adapts, she goes on — and she takes excellent photos.
More, she brought Paucartambo home to her middle-school students, who became engaged in raising funds to buy desks and other supplies for the Paucartambo school. Perhaps the most poignant story in Paucartambo takes place at the Edgartown School, where one of Shirley’s most reticent students becomes the project’s star fundraiser.
With one exception, and as its subtitle suggests, Living Life with the Grace of a Butterfly: Vineyard Essays sticks close to home. Family and community loom large in these pieces, many of which were first published as op-eds in the Vineyard Gazette. Family is integral even to the one travel piece: in “Nanny Diaries Meets Kris Kringle,” Shirley accompanies daughter Deborah to Finland as nanny to her infant granddaughter, Katie Ann (who is now Siren Mayhew, a stunning vocalist with a daughter of her own).
Taken individually, these essays are, as expected, variously charming, insightful, and poignant. I do wish that they’d been arranged somewhat chronologically, according to Shirley’s age at the time of the incidents they describe. Instead they jump back and forth from her years as a young bride to her old age after the death of her husband, frequently alighting on points in between. Because Shirley does often mention her age or that of her kids, it’s possible to improvise some sort of time sequence, but only infrequently does one glimpse just how much Martha’s Vineyard has changed over the decades since Shirley came here in 1947.
At the same time — well, to me, who tends to focus on the changes and what drives them, it’s reassuring to be reminded of the things that don’t change. Four generations of Mayhews are currently living not only on the same island, but in the same town. This is rare, and becoming rarer. In 2014, Shirley decided to throw an 88th birthday party for herself. Since so many of her old friends had passed, she invited “16 of the children of my deceased friends. All had grown up on the Vineyard and still lived here, and most had been born on the Island.”
Here’s how it went:
The first year I made lobster salad and bought tiramisu for dessert; the guests brought appetizers and salads. It was a real West Tisbury potluck party. While we sat around drinking wine and munching bluefish pate, I told them each an anecdote about their parents as I knew them long ago. I have found throughout my long life that most children pay little attention to their parents’ activities or early life. It seems to not occur to them that their mothers and fathers had a life before they were born.
And the next year she did it again.
It doesn’t occur to most summer people that the Vineyard has a life when they’re not here, or to most who move here that it had a life before they arrived. That’s only one of the reasons that you owe it to yourself to spend time with these books, but it’s a big one. Shirley is passing on stories of what happened before we got here, or just out of our line of sight if we’ve been here all along. Listen, and pass them on.