The Storyteller’s Story


For oral historian Linsey Lee, the tale is with the teller.

Most of us collect stories, whether we realize it or not. We meet remarkable people, hear their tales, and retell the stories around the dinner table — it’s one of the ways we transmit history. Linsey Lee, curator of oral history at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and the author of the “Vineyard Voices” books, shares the story of her own drive to capture the tales that together express the “rich tapestry of life” on Martha’s Vineyard— a lifelong pursuit that has underscored for this professional listener the “elusiveness, and the strength” of memory.

Linsey Lee in 1975.

“I remember that summer air of my childhood here. So soft and fragrant,” Linsey Lee says of the summers she would leave Boston to spend at her grandmother’s house near the Tashmoo opening. “Walking down the meandering paths to the beach, where the scent of sweet pepperbush and the sound of the waves called out; it was pure magic. The Vineyard was a place where anything was possible, where anything could happen.

“The house was called the Pink House,” she continues. “It must have colored my whole memory of the Island, because one summer, I think I was around 4 years old, when we arrived in Woods Hole to board the ferry, I said, ‘It’s not pink!’ In my mind, things large and important on the Vineyard were pink, like my grandmother’s pink stucco house. That’s an example of what I love about memory: It’s so subjective, it combines places, and eras, and truths and myths. Especially the memories of childhood.”

The natural world of the Vineyard spoke to the young girl, who came to spend long summer days swimming and exploring, reveling in the smell of beach roses and gathering multicolored scallop shells, finding seahorses on the beach.

“Our childhood was pretty isolated from the rest of the Island. Surrounded by cousins out at Chappaquonsett, we went on picnics at Quansoo, maybe one yearly visit to the Flying Horses, and always a visit or two to the Ag Fair. It wasn’t until I got my driver’s license that I even visited Edgartown.”

Linsey says early encounters with the Island’s unique characters honed her sense of wonderment and curiosity: “There was this wonderfully eccentric woman who lived in a boat on the beach. She had been a teacher, and her name was Bess Manchester. My dad would take us down to visit with her and her two fox terriers. As I remember it, one was deaf, one was blind. Her boat was full of treasures she found on the beach, and she would always give us something that had washed ashore. It was like a visit to Aladdin’s Cave.

“Katharine Cornell was one of our neighbors. Artists, actors, and writers, all kinds of incredible people, would come to visit with her. As a child, I sensed how lucky I was to be around such interesting people. Once, when I was very young, I was playing in my grandmother’s driveway with our family dog, and Kit Cornell brought Helen Keller up to meet my grandmother. I was introduced to Helen Keller, and I remember her speaking, with complete clarity, ‘Oh it’s so good to meet you, and what a beautiful little dog! What is his name?’”

After graduating from high school, Linsey attended Colorado College for a year. Then, like so many of her peers in the 1960s and ’70s, seeking an alternative lifestyle, she escaped to the Vineyard. “I had always dreamed that I would move here someday, that I would write books and draw pictures. I had this very clear feeling that if you have a dream to realize, you better do it before it gets too big for you.”

For years she did the Vineyard shuffle: winter rentals, summers in a teepee — and one winter too — and for 15 years lived in a small cabin on the North Shore. “It had been a chicken coop; no insulation, no electricity, no water, and my nearest neighbor in the wintertime was about a mile away. I put in a wood stove, so I could heat the cabin and cook. Winter nights were so cold. But when I walked down to the beach, which I did every day, I could see the footprints of every bird that had gone by. Undisturbed. It was so beautiful.”

Feeling her way through the austere winters and Ferris-wheel summers, Linsey began meeting the people who would form the foundation of her love of storytelling and the history of the Vineyard. “I worked at the Mandala Bookshop on Union Street, and for Mrs. White at the Scottish Bakehouse; I cleaned houses, and shucked scallops. You get talking to people — you listen, and they tell you their stories and memories of how things were — and that brought the Vineyard and its past alive to me in a way that was unique and so powerful.”

On days off, Linsey explored the Island on her Lambretta scooter, spending hours identifying wildflowers and edible plants, and learning from people like Anne Hale at Felix Neck. “I’d explore all around, down every back road, she says. “I would knock on people’s doors and ask if I could walk around their land, and of course, I would get to know these great people and hear their stories. I would find hidden treasures, like arrowheads, and old bottles stuck in stone walls, or an apple tree in the middle of the woods, and carpets of violets and mayflowers and wild columbine. My life was totally tied up with what seemed to me to be the untouched beauty of the Island. And there was so much more of it back then.”

When she was 23, Linsey completed the book Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard. It was published by Tashmoo Press in 1976, and republished in 1999. It covers the locations of edible wild plants on the Vineyard, ways to prepare them, their folkloric and medicinal uses, and recipes from local people, and includes Linsey’s color pen and ink drawings.

“Then I had a dream one night,” she says, “that I was given a tall shepherd’s staff. Burned into it were symbols. I understood them to be the hieroglyphics of the stories of my family. I knew it was my responsibility to keep the staff, and to collect these stories. It was a powerful dream.”

From knowing the land to knowing the people — for Linsey, this was a natural transition. The Vineyarders she met in those early years planted the seeds for what became her passion and vocation, the collection of oral histories of people of Martha’s Vineyard. And there was a sense of urgency: These stories, this resource, needed to be protected and passed down.

“My first real foray into collecting recorded oral histories was a paper, ‘Did Craig Kingsbury Bring Skunks to the Island?’ I was writing for a course at the UMass Folklore Program. I interviewed people on the question, and their answers would vary according to their own leanings. And then they would launch into other Craig stories.

“I felt I should get the ‘true’ version of these stories from the source. So I interviewed Craig, who at the time I did not know well, over a pigpen on his farm while he was supervising one of his pigs delivering her piglets. I asked him about each of the many stories I had been told. His version of these stories was far more outrageous than any I had heard. I was hooked: The tale is with the teller. There is no such thing as concrete ‘truth’ in this context. But in some ways, these subjective tales help paint a much more authentic picture of the rich tapestry of life on the Vineyard.

“People heard of my plans to collect oral histories, and offered funding. Mary Wakeman from Edgartown gave what to me was an enormous grant of $5,000 to begin the project of collecting oral histories. And Bill Honey at the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank believed in me. He provided support to fund the purchase of recording equipment. Later, I found out in an interview with Shirley Smith that he did much the same with her launching Shirley’s Hardware. And so I was off!

“I discovered immediately that I so enjoyed the work. I saw how people loved to tell their own stories, and I loved to listen. Their personal stories, shaped by memories, were magical. The power of history was alive in each one of them.”

For five years, Linsey collected oral histories from more than 125 people on the Island. She says of those early years of collecting, “There was a real window on history that was still open on the Vineyard, through the elders with whom I spoke. Because of the Vineyard’s relative isolation before the Second World War, and Vineyarders’ tendency to hold fiercely onto tradition, I spoke with farmers and fishermen who had used methods that hadn’t changed substantially in over a century. I would talk with people who remembered their grandparents — grandfathers and grandmothers — coming home from whaling voyages, and the gifts they would bring them from the Pacific islands. They grew up before the age of TV; some may have left school just after eighth grade. Yet they were all exquisite storytellers. When they opened their mouths, it was like they were singing — they would speak with such fluidity and beauty.

“Hearing of their experiences, listening to these stories was so wonderful. I wanted to do it forever.”

Linsey’s sense of social responsibility led her off-Island for seven years in the 1980s. Working with an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge as a community advocate for housing for the homeless, she also created what has become a nationwide program aimed at linking the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program with local farmers markets.

Continuing this call to public service, she made the difficult decision to set aside her oral history work and enroll in divinity school in California.

But fate intervened. In August 1992, the week before her planned departure, a bicycle accident changed her life forever, and ultimately brought her back to the Vineyard.

“I biked everywhere in Boston, and although I do not recall the accident, I came to a place where there was construction, and I was directed over some recessed MTA tracks. My tire must have gotten caught between the tracks and I flipped over the handlebars, landing on my head.”

Linsey was unresponsive at the scene, and not breathing. An emergency tracheotomy would irreversibly damage her vocal cords and account for her signature raspy and understated voice today. The resulting traumatic brain injury put her into a deep coma for days.

Her parents were told she might never recover, and would most likely suffer extensive impairment of brain function. “For weeks after I woke up, I remember writing my question over and over to everyone: What had happened to me?”

She would spend months in the hospital. At first, the rehabilitation was slow, but Linsey soon made extraordinary progress. “I had to relearn everything — how to walk, how to talk, how to reason. I was so determined not be a brain-injured person, I really focused on all my therapies to retrain my brain. That’s all I did, every moment, every day.” She adds, “Of course, I would not recommend a brain injury to anyone, but to have the opportunity to be so focused and so determined to reach your goal, it was in some ways pretty wonderful.

“Losing my voice was very difficult. Ironic for being an oral historian. But in attempts to restore its function, I would spend weeks not talking. I would have to write to communicate. Going into a store, for example, I’d write on the pad I carried, ‘Where can I find the maple syrup?’ People would start to write down the response. So I’d write, ‘I can hear, I just can’t talk.’ Then people would respond to me speaking very slowly and loudly. It gave me a realization of the kind of attitude that people with disabilities are faced with daily.”

She returned to her home on the Vineyard with no guarantee of full brain-function recovery, so she turned to what she knew she could do — work on gathering oral histories. She says the accident brought a gift of sorts — the knowledge of “how precious life is, because it can be extinguished in a flash.” She volunteered at the museum, and continued recording stories, and she slowly gained fuller functionality.

“Living with a brain injury was a revelatory experience for me in terms of my work in collecting stories.” She expands, “It gave me a deep understanding of the challenge and frustration of not being able to remember as well as you know you can. Of not being able to get a word that you have in your head. Of trying to connect disjointed thoughts. It helped connect me to the process older people often face. It made me understand both the elusiveness of memory and the strength of memory.”

Although Linsey now functions at a high level, working to deal with the challenges of brain injury will always be part of her life. But Linsey says that it was her marriage to Vineyard Conservation Society director Brendan O’Neill that made her finally realize that “I was all right. I was capable.” (They now live in West Tisbury with their 12-year-old daughter, Mya.)

In 1993 Linsey established the Vineyard Oral History Center at the

Martha’s Vineyard Museum (then the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society), and continued interviewing, community outreach, and fundraising, producing a sizable body of oral history work to add to the collection that she had brought to the museum. Much of that material was distilled into the first volume of Vineyard Voices; Words, Faces and Voices of Island People, published by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society in 1998. A second volume, More Vineyard Voices, was published in 2006. In 2010, Those Who Serve — Martha’s Vineyard and WWII was published.

Linsey shares her process: “Before an interview, I do as much research as I can. I go to the Gazette and read from their library, and try to learn about the person and their history. Then I sit down and think of questions, and organize them, usually chronologically. I always have an outline of questions, but who knows if I will follow them,” Linsey laughs. “You never know where an interview will lead, or what unexpected stories you will hear. You have to listen and think on your feet.”

Explaining how her interviewing technique has been refined over the years, she says, “Sometimes I look back at those early interviews, and I think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I ask this, or why didn’t I do that?’ There’s always something I’ve missed, there’s always more I could have done.” And she notes that editing is a challenge: “Hundreds of pages of transcript might produce a three-page edit or a two-minute audio clip. In the end, I feel my responsibility is to the interviewee. I always have them read through the edits to review and approve.”

Linsey is a professional listener. She often collaborates with local schools to bring oral history techniques to the classroom. She says she encourages students to look for lessons in the oral history. “Listen to these older voices, and you can see that life on the Vineyard was difficult. People struggled. Their strength and personal resilience comes through in their stories. How they adapted, and learned to overcome their challenges, is relevant today. These voices remind you that we can make do with what we have or, when change is necessary, we can do this by working together.”

Linsey has witnessed dramatic changes on the Vineyard in recent decades. “Vineyarders have always been deeply independent people,” she says, “but also dependent on their surroundings, and part of an interdependent community. I think that living in harmony with a place, with the land, is still a powerful tradition here. But the future holds great challenges. The beauty of the Island draws more people from many places, and the lure of remaking this place in their own image is great. Awareness and understanding of the past will hopefully help us sustain some kind of balance into the future.”

Linsey has curated and expanded the museum’s oral history collection to more than 1,500 entries. Outreach has brought in collections from interviewers including Basil Welch, Stan Lair, Connie Sandborn, and others. “Our collection is now quite extensive, and it includes stories reaching back to the whaling days of the 1850s, the transition from horses to automobiles, two World Wars, the Depression years, Korea, Vietnam, up to today’s Internet age.

“I continue to do audio and video interviews. And we are always looking for more interviews to add to our collection, which is available to the public for research and enjoyment.”

This year, she begins work on a third volume of Vineyard Voices. “I try in each volume to have the voices that reflect the incredible ethnic, cultural, and experiential diversity on this small Island — the Wampanoag, African American, Portuguese, Brazilian, Eastern European, and Yankee communities. The Jewish, Buddhist, farming, fishing, LGBT, summer, art communities, and more. I especially try to seek out interviews with the people whose stories have not been heard.”

“I am so moved by people’s generosity in sharing their lives,” she says of the interviewees who filled her years with their stories. “I learn so much and so value (and enjoy) the time I get to spend with people. It makes you realize how special every life is. Many of the interviews I do are with older people. When you are talking to someone over 100 years old who is still so engaged and curious, it’s really inspiring. That spirit can inspire all of us to keep going, to keep exploring, to keep reaching. You learn about having the strength to accept life as it is — it’s a lesson I keep having to remind myself of.”

When asked what she hopes is the effect of her work, Linsey says, “I often feel that by listening to others, by recording their life stories, I may, in a small way, help people to more deeply appreciate and value their own lives; to realize that their story is special, that their lives matter. That’s a joy. And I hope that hearing the stories and experiences of the past can help us make better decisions in the future. Because it really is about all of us — together — safeguarding and sustaining this community, this special place.”


Keya Guimarães is a former Vineyarder and longtime family friend of Linsey Lee. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son.

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