What Mattered in August

Aurora over Music Street, Martha's vineyard, By Michael Zide

Aurora over Music Street, Martha’s vineyard, By Michael Zide

“I’m setting the alarm for midnight,” my husband Whit whispered as I came out of our children’s tiny bedroom and latched the narrow door behind me. “There’s no moon, and the Perseid meteor showers are at their peak.”

“Sounds great,” I lied. Reading Lila picture books by flashlight, I’d fallen asleep a dozen times before her 4-year-old eyes finally closed. I couldn’t imagine rousing her in just three hours. No, it was more than that. Intellectually I liked the mid-August display of shooting stars and the fact that these meteor showers had been awing people for over 2,000 years, but somehow those trails of light streaking across the night sky underscored how tiny, tentative, and precious our time on this watery planet truly was.

While Whit went outside to find a good place for us to lie, I settled onto the bunk in our small living room to watch our son Sam play baseball. The Red Sox game was coming through on a portable radio. Sam had made a Fenway Park with masking tape on our thin green rug. Wearing a pair of too-small striped pajamas, he crouched with his bat on home plate, listening. When a Sox player advanced to first, so did Sam.

Between innings, I stared through the huge screen door into the inky night. Evenings were noticeably earlier. Crickets had begun singing their end-of-summer song, and we were now lighting the kerosene lamps before dinner. The way I’d started hoarding our days was evidence our days here were winding down. I loved this barn on the north shore of Chilmark that Whit had made with his own hands and the help of a few friends. For the past 15 years, as soon as my Watertown school got out I packed up dogs, and eventually the children, and headed for Woods Hole. I always cut it close, staying as long as possible until I needed to be back in my classroom again. While Whit chartered out of Menemsha, I grew vegetables, loafed, foraged, and got ready for another year of teaching.

What adventures we had were usually close to home. This afternoon Whit, Sam, Lila, and I went blueberry picking along our dirt road and down to the Brick Yards, where a few large bushes fringed the steep ladder to the rocky beach below. We picked into coffee cans that hung from our necks on rawhide strings. At first the berries rattled and pinged, but soon our fingers were blue, the sound a muffled plop. I restrained from nibbling so I could make a cobbler and freeze a few cups.

When Whit came back in, I went into the kitchen to blow out the lanterns so I could go up to the loft and sleep a little. The remains of our cobbler were on the wooden counter. I covered it with wax paper and put four spoons next to it. A reward for our midnight rise. On the way to the ladder up to our bed in the loft, I ran my fingers over the fresh lines that marked Sam and Lila’s current height with their initials and the date. 

Whit shook me awake at midnight, and together we roused the children. The four of us stumbled out bleary-eyed to lie in the field on a dry blanket. At first we were testy, saw nothing, and felt cold. Then Lila called out in a small voice, “I see one!” She pointed, and together we watched a languid meteor slip across the northern sky. Soon we were all calling and pointing.

“Make a wish,” I said. Mine was to hold this moment forever, knowing I couldn’t.

For another decade we would make those summer pilgrimages and pay homage to August’s meteors. Then we had to sell the barn and the land it was on. When I took a couple up the ladder to the loft and into the outdoor shower cut out of the roof, I knew they would buy the place. It’s unlikely they ever used the shower, but people who did never forgot it. We’d start the generator, let the pressure build up, then stand there in a stream of water drinking in the vast view across Vineyard Sound to the Elizabeth Islands and beyond to the mainland.

I didn’t expect the new owners to live the way we had, but I was upset when I heard how much they’d changed the land. Boulders and trees we’d known as friends were removed to tame and flatten the field. Last summer the house was featured in a glossy magazine article because President Obama and his family stayed there. There is now an infinity pool, an irrigated lawn, and even a basketball court. The house is so big our barn could have fit into it 25 times. Without the evidence of two familiar oak trees, I wouldn’t have believed it was the same place.

The Perseid meteor showers will peak around August 11th this summer. A new moon on the 14th will make viewing conditions perfect. My husband plans to set our alarm. Sam and Lila won’t be with us, but maybe they’ll be able to watch. Rumor has it the Obama family is returning to the Island and will stay again at what I still think of as our place. If they do, one midnight I hope the four of them spread a blanket on the ground, cluster together, and scan the night sky for shooting stars. It’s memorable.

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