Some days, you can catch radio signals from Martha’s Vineyard, and TV from Rhode Island. Look out across Nantucket’s north shore towards Cape Cod at dusk, the horizon is speckled with blinking lights, navigational beacons and channel markers, lighthouses and radio towers. There are beacons everywhere, trying to tell us which way to go, trying to warn us of dangerous shoals.
Then there are the other signals, the ones that carry on the wind, when memory is triggered by a smell (suntan lotion, old books, your grandfather’s garden) or an image--a photo of yourself from another time that, no, couldn’t possibly be you. But of course it is you, in another moment entirely. Are we not all those same moments, nestled together, end to end?
It is difficult, sometimes, more often than not, to accept change. But here on the Cape and Islands, we know change is a constant. The seasonal shifts define us. One day, you’re at an empty beach parking lot with the window cracked in winter, the radio on, the heat blasting, searching for some hint of the summer that’s to come. And in a few months, we will ceede our solitary beaches to a sea of blue and yellow beach umbrellas.
Our shoreline, of course, is shaped by wind and waves. Sometimes when I look at the ocean it is breathtakingly beautiful as if I was coming across it for the very first time. And maybe each time I encounter the sea it is different; every six hours the tide shifts. There are some parts of this island changing more rapidly than others.
It is funny the way small towns like these can remember everything. Of course, we all have our own individual memories, but there are collective memories, too. This time of year they are usually of storms, of power outages, of high tides that breached slender sandbars. Walk around with anybody who has lived in the same town for any length of time and we all have our own personal landmarks to point to.
Every morning on the way to work, I drive past the house my grandfather lived in when he was younger than I am now. Of course, I never knew him as a young man. By the time I came on the scene, he was already old. I don’t know much about what his life was like when he lived in that house, when he was young. There are some details from those days in the island’s newspaper archives. In 1941, he took out a classified ad to sell a Indian sailboat with Ratsey and Lapthorn sails. He was a member of the Yacht Club. He sold the sailboat and married my grandmother, who wore a dress of Chantilly lace over satin and carried white orchids on their wedding day.
His father died in the 1950s, and the house was sold shortly after. It has been out of the family far longer than it was in it, but I still think of that house as his. I imagine him strolling home from the harbor, through the buzz of downtown in the heat of summer.
But right now it is February, just before the island clears out for school vacation week and there are only just a handful of us left behind to keep watch over the island. On a quiet winter day, it can seem like there are more headstones on the island than there are people. We are outnumbered by memories. And, when walking alone on the island’s north shore, by the blinking lights of navigational beacons on the horizon.