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The Way We Were

A fond backwards glance at the days when there was 1/2 an inch of dust on the family Mercedes and three out of four legs had to fall off the front parlor sofa before Grandmere replaced it

Yes, it's true: the so-called 1% has colonized Martha’s Vineyard, but once there existed an older, testier, less show-off-ier and, frankly, cheaper breed of elite that set the tone for the Island.

And, by the way, this reporter cannot in truthiness (oh, we love that Steven Colbert, do we not?!) include herself in the “we” of the above title: She’s an outlier of a Valley Girl whose only pretensions to eastern gentility derived from the fact that she once received cast-off garments from an older cousin attending Radcliff.

However, in the washashore category, I – can we switch to the first person singular now? – began visiting this rock in the late 70s, so I bore witness to an older lineage of Vineyard patrician, most of whom have sadly passed to that great shabby mansion in the sky.

Take the Athearn* (name changed to eliminate lawsuits) family with one of those “sad ruined choirs” of a house up on the East Chop Bluffs. The old Victorian manor offered sweeping views of The Sound, but the family spent most of its time crowded into the ghastly rear kitchen that had last been remodeled in the 1930s (come to think of it, their ancient pale-green-enameled stove would be worth a fortune today.)

Mrs. Athearn kept bunnies indoors and, since rabbits are notoriously resistant to good bathroom habits, the ancient hardwood floors were littered with black spoor. In fairness, these kibbles of bunny poop hardly mattered against the rickety old furniture, tattered curtains, and water stains along the ceiling. In interior decorator terms, it all harmonized.

And yet most of the old-guard houses were lovely. They just weren’t fancy. The furniture was elderly, and even with heaps of family cash-ola, the Colonial Puritan adage was assiduously adhered to: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Lofty rooms sagged with worn heirloom antiques that had never known the blazing touch of an electric sander. Colors were soft and faded and earth-toned. Portraits displayed genuine ancestors, most with dark hair parted in the middle (can you believe that style lasted so long?!), buttoned up tight in black clothes with white collars.

My friend, Nan (Caroline) Rheault, who died in her seventies in September of 2007, was an exemplary preceptress of this old school. Nan, divorced, with three grown kids, lived in a modest ranch-style house, pre-fabbed and shipped over by barge, on a sandy beach of the Lagoon. Nan had long ago decked out the house with rugged Danish modern furniture, modern art, and drab ceramics, then forgot about it. So how did she fill her days? She swam, hiked, sailed, painted, gardened, cooked like Julia Childs without all the butter, raised money for good causes, and led bicycle tours in the Loire Valley and the Dordogne.

Nan was charming, a voracious reader, and she loved to laugh. Sometimes she snapped at you, but that was just her way. One of the things she snapped at me, when we met occasionally at Cronig’s was, “You never look at prices! How can anyone live that way?!”

She was right, of course. The key trait that defined those old-money types was that they preserved their funds by parting with it only when strictly necessary. I once accompanied a friend to her grandpa’s house in West Chop after the old fellow had popped off to his blue chip broker in the hereafter. My friend pulled open the top right-hand drawer of the aged relative’s desk to reveal an eight-decades’ collection of rubber bands.

The idea that rich people hoard rubber bands became a key concept in my mind. Personally, I retain only a few purple and blue bands in a kitchen drawer, these culled from bunches of asparagus and scallions. Somehow I haven’t figured out how to translate this small stash into stocks and bonds.

Oh well.

Taking a page from Nan’s book, however, I’m going to guess that what kept this austere generation from their heirs’ – and other newer generations’ -- bad habits of spending bigger, faster, newer, better, and constantly MORE!, was that they had an absolute libido for strenuous activity. Shopping wouldn’t have stretched their hamstrings or released endorphins enough to suit them.

One summer day, Nan visited me at our house in East Chop, and suggested we go for a “dip.” We climbed down the ladder of Brad and Betty Smith’s dock, paddled around, then Nan proposed we light out for Mr. Bell’s dock, way way – I’m telling you WAY – in the distance – maybe a hundred yards, but it looked like a mile to me. Too far, I groaned, but she assured me that, once there, we could scamper up Mr. Bell’s ladder, walk home and “Bob’s your uncle!” (That was another trait of those old gentry folks – they spoke like characters out of P.G. Wodehouse novels).

I think tricky Nan knew Mr. Bell’s ladder had washed away in the Big Blow of ’38. The seabed was too rocky to wade to shore, so we swam the distance of the English Channel back to the Smith’s pier. Okay, Nan swam. I gasped and thrashed and sobbed on that final death haul home.

And I’m telling you, if a limo had pulled up, with a suitcase of cash in the backseat for me to shop with, I would have waved it away before lurching home to collapse on a porch sofa.

I would guess that the last of these old patricians’ homes have all been sold off or remodeled by the nouveau riche new generation (nouveau even for those with families of the ancienne regime), devoured, razed, and rebuilt to twice or thrice the old footprint, with Sub-Zero this and cornelian-tile that and . . .

I miss Nan and our dips in the sea.

 

Pam Coblyn April 10, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Best column ever!!!
Michael West April 10, 2012 at 12:10 PM
Yes, drawers full of rubber bands. I'm starting my own collection, mostly from kale bunches I buy at Elio's Farm Market. But what about wire coat hangers? At various times I've had hundreds, if not thousands, in my closets, crowding out my shirts. I have wondered if there weren't some way to cash in on them, invent the essential use for old coat hangers - actually mine were shirt hangers but that doesn't sound quite right. But, Holly, what a touching sketch of Ms Rheault! I'd love to read more of your adventures and Msadventures with your dear friend Nan. And Bob's not really your uncle is he...? Or you'd be hoist with your own petard and up a gum tree, to boot!
Holly Nadler April 10, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Pam, bless your heart!!!
Holly Nadler April 10, 2012 at 12:58 PM
Michael, thank you for the image of wire hangers -- so practical, so cheap, so ugly! And I can't help thinking of Joan Crawford roaring at her daughter, "WIRE HANGERS?! I BUY YOU $300 DRESSES AND YOU PUT THEM ON WIRE HANGERS?!" But who knew that Yankee generation had the right idea about living simply and well?
Ellen OBrien April 10, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Nan was a great gal. She sponsored me to become a memeber of the MV Garden Club in the early nineties and was always encouraging my aspirations to be a flower arranger.
Holly Nadler April 10, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Ellen, that was so like Nan to inspire a woman to develop a love of flowers and now, ta dah, own a new flower shop in Edgartown (with a mural of Emily Post's home & garden on the wall!) ! I promise to visit soon!!
Mo Man April 10, 2012 at 08:26 PM
great piece Holly- a bit of island living and people to which and whom I was never privy and will never know.. god bless 'em!
Holly Nadler April 11, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Paul, you're certainly continuing the tradition of Xtreme exercise!
Philomena Weatherby September 12, 2012 at 12:28 AM
I first met Nan Rheault in the early 1960's. I was a young CPT's wife and she was a Lt. Col's wife. Both of our husbands had gone to West Point. I personally felt she was just terrific, and liked her very much......we were in a flower arranging class together. I had learned in Japan....Nan just knew how...from where ever. Other officers wives didn't like her so much...I thought that she was smart, interesting and inspiring...others saw her as knowing "too" much....as though that were a fault. I still think of her fondly, and I loved this story....it is so Nan. I'm sorry she's gone.

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