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Living in the present and the past on Nantucket

Mary Bergman

My mother has spent the spring and the better part of the summer fixing up my grandparent’s house. I still call it that, even though my grandparents have both been dead for years. All their stuff is there, their wool sweaters and sunhats (both necessary accessories for the beach, often worn at the same time), their books, and even many of the spices my grandmother bought at the A&P. There are tins of oysters that would probably survive a nuclear blast.

The wiring at their house was never updated, and when I turned on a light in the hall last spring, we could hear the electricity arcing. We finally found a contractor who was willing to perform delicate surgery on the electrical, pulling out the old wiring through a few holes in the plaster walls. It’s a similar procedure to removing varicose veins. Most people just want to rip out the walls and start new.

But these were the walls my grandfather wallpapered, the floors my grandmother cleaned after countless dogs with muddy paws wandered across. Nothing is particularly beautiful about this place, but it stands like a shrine. We are pruning their hydrangeas; we are living with their ghosts.

My grandparents lived lives that seem unimaginable to me today. (To start with, they had seven children.) The Nantucket they experienced is a distant memory. Almost all their old neighbors are gone. The bishop’s modest cottage across the street has been replaced by a luxury rental with an infinity pool. We can’t believe people pay $30,000 a week, in season, for the privilege of looking at our beach towels drying on the porch railing.

There was an article in the Globe two weeks ago about the changing character of Nantucket. The island is bleeding bank tellers, school teachers, and chamber maids. Everyone says this will be a summer like no other — as businesses struggle to staff up and some restaurants close. Yet we are already halfway through this summer. What’s changed as a result? Life keeps going on, albeit with a longer line.

A friend on the Cape describes living in this part of the world as like showing up to a party where everybody there is talking about how great the party was before you got there.

Sure — things are good now, but gosh, you should have been here an hour ago.

Or twenty years ago.

Or fifty.

Unfortunately, my grandmother’s spice cabinet is the closet thing I have to a time machine. I’ll keep looking.

The truth is, I know I’m not fully living in the present. I think I’m living in many different Nantuckets at once, some real, some remembered. I think if I had to take in everything around me — on the island, on the Cape, in the world — as it was happening, it would be too much. You’ve heard of historic preservation; maybe this is self-preservation.

Believe it or not, I love Nantucket in the summer. I love the way the sunrise catches the tips of the beach grass. I love when the roses in Sconset engulf cottages whole. I love knowing a place so deeply, being close enough to examine its beauty and its flaws.

All places change.

And when you dive underwater on a hot July day, the waves breaking overhead, it looks and feels the same as it did fifty years ago. Or, at least, thirty-five that I can personally attest to.