The Mazer House

Right after it was built, Easter 1958

I would have won the Vineyard Shuffle Lottery, if there were such a thing, in the fall of 2004. Having literally circled the globe twice on assignment for National Geographic magazine, for a magazine story and then a book to write about my journey tracking the rising popularity of Buddhism, I was now homeless. I desperately needed a place to hang my hat, boot up my laptop, call upon my muse, and strap myself in for eighteen months of what would become the hardest writing stint of my thirty-year career.

As my luck would have it, on a Vineyard stopover, I mentioned this need for a roof over my head to Mark Mazer, longtime West Tisburyite and relatively new friend. It would have to be “writer-friendly,” I recall saying. He suggested I rent his deceased parents’ home off Music Street from September to June for the next two years.

I said yes as soon as he showed it to me. It was sprawling: there were five bedrooms, two and a half baths, two fireplaces, and a dramatic circular dining room lined with waist-to-ceiling windows. I pictured myself sitting around the fire reading and writing, throwing lively down-home dinner parties for a parade of colorful, creative, and totally wacked Islanders of all sorts, literary and non. I could walk through a fence behind the house, cut across the old Ag Hall parking lot, stroll past Dave McCullough’s house, and be at Alley’s in five minutes for 7 am coffee with the up-Island builders and painters.

This was the home Mark grew up in from the age of ten, the home his parents, Milton and Virginia Mazer, moved to from Larchmont, New York, in 1961 with their two kids; the home that had burned in 1994 in a fire when a cat somehow short circuited an electric blanket; the home that Mark, consummate home builder, had rebuilt with some new bells and whistles; and the home next to the one he had built for himself and his own family.

Laurie, Virginia, Milton, and Rafe in the front yard, 1986

Laurie, Virginia, Milton, and Rafe in the front yard, 1986

But the greatest appeal was that this was a house where writers wrote. As many may know, Milton was the Island’s first resident psychiatrist. He organized a mental health clinic that evolved into Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which he headed for many years. I had read Dr. Mazer’s book, People and Predicaments: Of Life and Distress on Martha’s Vineyard, in the summer of 1976, the year it was published, and my first full summer renting in Chilmark. The book was widely praised for uncovering and closely examining the dark side of Island life: the side that breeds depression, alcoholism, infidelity, spousal abuse, vandalism, and other unsavory social behaviors no Chamber of Commerce, especially in a resort destination for the well heeled, prefers to let see the light of day.

It was an important book to psychologists who saw the Island community as a perfect test tube in which to examine human nature, isolated and insulated from the rest of the population by a few miles of water. It was a formative read for a neophyte writer and a neophyte Islander; plying words for a living on this Island, a nascent dream of mine, was not going to be all beaches and gin-and-tonic-infused garden parties. On the flip side of paradise there lurked purgatory. Golly, I thought, I would fit right in if I ever became a “Martha’s Vineyard writer.”

Dr. Mazer wrote that book in that house. He’d also written pieces that got published in The New Yorker and Esquire. He wrote angry anti–Vietnam War essays in that house. I found one such unpublished manuscript many months after I had moved in, as I rummaged through a desk where Mark said his dad had written. Holding the yellowed manuscript in my hand, I felt as though the man was sitting in the room with me.

Virginia (née O’Leary) was an equally accomplished writer when they lived in New York. She wrote shows for NBC through the golden era of radio in the 1930s. Later, as TV emerged in the early 1950s, she wrote episodes for weekly series such as The U.S. Steel Hour and Armstrong Circle Theater, highly regarded dramas. And like her husband, she had a high concern for man — and woman — kind. Her name, along with those of four other West Tisbury civil rights activists, all women, grace a bronze plaque in the front of the town’s original library, commemorating their 1964 trip to Williamston, North Carolina, where they brought donations of food and clothes and then got themselves arrested for joining in a civil rights protest outside a Sears, Roebuck department store.

The house felt touched by more than literature; it held secrets about Island life, for better and worse. And there I lived and wrote, half inspired, half haunted by the Mazer legacy.

As the fall darkened to winter, as the writing got harder, not easier, I slipped into a writer’s malaise. In the most painful manner, I realized writing on this Island was tantamount to living on a tiny island (one’s mind) surrounded by a lake (the community) set in the middle of a small island (the Vineyard) surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Insularity indeed. “Duh,” I could almost hear Doc Mazer saying. “You were expecting maybe the primrose path? This is Tessa’s Way.”

The irony that I was writing a book about Buddhism — in which the core wisdom builds around the “First Noble Truth” that there will be suffering in all our lives — did not escape me.

It did not help matters that I also sunk into imbibing too much of too much.

I felt the aura of Virginia particularly strongly as I walked from the kitchen to the living room — which was often — through a narrow hallway where hung a nearly life-size Stan Murphy oil portrait of Ginny, as family and friends called her. Her drooping, melancholy eyes gazed down on me, and followed me like da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” telling me so much more about herself than her writing or her civil rights actions, more than she would say about the sad loss of one of her children, more even than Mark’s memories of this Mississippi-born woman who enjoyed a few drinks at cocktail hour of an eve. Ginny knew a dark side.

In the bone-chilling depth of February, when Island life flatlines, Ginny began to talk to me: “I know what you’re going through. It’s part of the process. Push on. Break through. Or try. If you don’t, you will succumb to the bitterness of defeat. And that, my young grasshopper of a writer, is an Island affliction we’ve seen and hope you never experience.”

I did not succumb. The National Geographic story was published in December 2005; the book came out in June 2006. Though the Mazers’ name appears in neither, their influence was profound and permeates both. So did Mark leave his imprint on those works; it turns out he may be the smartest carpenter on Martha’s Vineyard, a veritable encyclopedia on all things big and small, and I sought his counsel on everything from religious esoterica to why gas was so expensive on this Island (he had many answers to the former, none to the latter.)

For several days after the Buddha attained enlightenment, it is said, he sat near an ancient pipal tree where he found his “truth,” and, awed by his own accomplishment, held the setting with an “unblinking gaze.” That spot where he sat is called “the shrine of the steadfast.”

Similarly, I steadfastly stayed on at the Mazer house, wandering around the house for four more winters after the first two, in a kind of creative coma, unable to let go of the angst and reward of my writing ordeal, unable to come up with a next big book, unable to again “hear” Ginny Mazer’s encouraging incantations.

Wherever I went those summers I had to evacuate the Mazer house — a cottage off Lambert’s Cove Road, book tours throughout the United States, assignments in India and Europe, or extended visits to Mom in New Jersey — have long since faded into foggy memory, a seamless series of momentary and pointless holding patterns until I could unpack my stuff at the Mazer house in September again.

Over those years, Mark and I became the best of friends. I hosted “Sopranos nights,” watching the HBO series with him and other Island friends over potluck Italian meals. I underwent heartbreak, career ups and downs, a falling out (and back in) with my mother, the realization that my father, who had died two years before I moved in, was not coming back. And I grew closer to a handful of Island friends, who will remain that way whether I live on the Island or not. Whether I live in the Mazer house or not.

mazzer 2

Three generations of the Mazer Family in front of the house.


tagged in Perry Garfinkel

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