Our book today is Walter Magnes Teller’s An Island Summer from 1951, his sentiment-infused reminiscence of a “happy family holiday” on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife and four children. The book, illustrated by Donald McKay, follows the adventures of the Teller family as they take the ferry and make their way to the Paint Box, their quaint little house at Menemsha:
There was the Paint Box like a new love in summer – or so she seemed to me, freshly painted and fascinating. For all of us she became a well-equipped ark in which we rode a great wave of enthusiasm, always perfectly sure of stepping out onto a pinnacle of joy. In point of fact, however, she was well grounded in a little tree-framed hollow that made a delightful yard and was well back from the Bight – the watery part of the world being visible only from second-story windows. A trim and useful barn was behind the house.
It’s natural that Teller, having himself been a small-paper editor (and having loved the job, as most small-paper editors tend to), would waste no time in seeking out the Vineyard’s own legendary specimen of that misfit breed:
… Early in summer I went to Edgartown. Beautiful and quiet, and one gets the impression that it has been that way a long time. I stopped at the office of the Vineyard Gazette to talk with the editor, Henry Beetle Hough, one of that vanishing tribe in the present-day race of Americans, a man who owns and edits and writes his paper. He must be one of the last of the salty editors the men who get out their weeklies without help from Walter Lippmann or the Alsop brothers, Winchell or Pearson, or canned comics, or wire services. He reports the local news, yet interprets it, too, writes his own editorials, has a good deal of correspondence from readers, and though he calls his paper a nonpolitical journal of Island life, his readers do not hesitate to comment on many subjects.
The Tellers go through all the rituals of the Vineyard in summer, the swimming, the divvying up of bedrooms, encountering the colorful locals, and the bicycling all over the island, and Teller himself very winningly depicts it all in the warmest tones. He even invites a few guests for brief stays, and he’s very accurate about the perils of doing that:
A mistake, if you have fallen in love with the Island, to shout your love to the world. Some friend comes along at the height of the season, wants to swallow it in three days. The weather is bad, he wonders what you see in the old girl anyway, and you wish to God you’d kept sill, for you know he will never understand.
An Island Summer slowly meanders through its blessed season, heading toward the end of summer, and regularly throughout the book Teller has the same kind of visceral reaction that countless Vineyard visitors have had as their allotted time there runs out:
Down by the creek that connects Menemsha Pond with Vineyard Sound it was dusk, a light in the western sky, unearthly shapes, and colors I thought I had never seen before, a million reds promising a hot day in the morning. How to hold the colors, how to nail down the sky. A hopeless kind of love in the hand, yet everlasting in the head.
I re-read An Island Summer recently because I was thinking back to the winter my beagles and I spent on the Vineyard many years ago, a harsh and snowy winter at a time long before the year-round super-conveniences of the present day. It was a world away from the summer experience of the Teller family; there were no sunny promenades, no tourist-painters on the Edgartown street corners, and when I decided to walk the beach at Gay Head in a stinging snowfall, only one of my dogs agreed to accompany me (he was 18 years old at the time, a fact I subsequently never let my younger dogs forget). But in addition to being a bit on the spartan side (the little house we were borrowing wasn’t weatherized – we had storm shutters and had one of these fireplaces that burn ethanol, and that was it), those two months were also a reminder to me of something Teller is remembering throughout his book: that the Vineyard is magical all year round, always inviting its real appreciators to try nailing down the sky.
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