by Sally Williams
Originally published in the Dukes County Intelligencer, vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 32-58. Copyright 2013 by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum; further distribution without the express written permission of the Museum is prohibited. To purchase printed copies, or request permission to reprint, please contact the Museum at www.mvmuseum.org
The following collection of articles is written about Sally Williams’ family and her neighbors.
THE WILLIAMS FAMILY BUYS A COTTAGE ON THE LAGOON
The Williams family members:
- Paul Williams, 1900-1973 and wife,
Helen Hobart Williams, 1898-1998
Katherine (Kay) Williams Brown, 1930-
Sarah (Sally) Elizabeth Williams, 1934-
My parents were looking for a summer cottage at the end of World War II, when I was eleven. Since my father was a college professor, the family could take nearly three months to spend away from our winter home. When a Mrs. Glover, in California, decided to sell a cottage she owned on Lagoon Pond, my mother decided to buy it. After squashing several sensible financial objections from my father, we bought a shack and a wonderful view for twenty-eight hundred or three thousand dollars. (Mother, years later, could not remember which.)
Our new shack-with-a-view had a two-room main house, with a watertight roof and several smaller buildings, including an outhouse and a garage. All of these were eventually incorporated into the main cottage building.
The main cabin was located about twenty-five feet from the edge of a thirty-eight-foot high cliff. It was a “house builded upon the sands,” with no rocks worthy of notice. Later, I was told it was part of the sandy washout from the secondary moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier.
Everyone in the family had her or his appointed tasks that first summer. Mother did what mothers usually did in the nineteen forties. She must have been the cook, but I cannot remember what the source of heat was–maybe a two-burner camping stove. Most of the heavy jobs were done by my father. Much of his time that year was spent under the house, fitting cement blocks to strengthen the foundation. I wanted screens; he refused to do screens before setting a decent foundation. Mother solved the screen problem by tacking cheesecloth over the windows. Much of the rest of my father’s work time was spent writing his book about the religions of America. It was a formidable task and one well done. He was working on a third edition when he died thirty years later.
My biggest task was a daily sweeping of the cottage floor. Each sweeping garnered at least two full dustpans of sand, and I never actually got rid of the sand. Another of my tasks was to pull up the food that had been lowered in a pail eight feet or so down a well. The well kept the food cool and the task helped keep me busy. Since we had no electricity, the well was the coolest spot on our property. Pulling ticks off our dog, Patty, was a job we all had, but I did not know enough to be squeamish, and Patty, surprisingly, let me pull the ticks. I played with her a lot and she was used to my being hands on with her and teaching her tricks. She probably saw pulling ticks as just another game we played. I cannot remember what Kay’s particular tasks were, but they were certainly more onerous than mine.
We had neither electricity nor water that first summer. We were used to camping with electricity, but water posed a more serious problem. We probably got it by hoses from our only near neighbors a couple of hundred feet away. None of us liked the chemical toilet, but it, in addition to mosquitoes, was my only real discomfort during that first summer. We had electricity by our second summer because we needed it to get power to the pump, which brought water up from the well. Water meant a water-flushed toilet, which made me especially happy.
THE HARLOW LEGACY
The families who lived in our small community on Lagoon Pond were far from diverse. They tended to have two things in common: they were related by blood or friendship to Marion and Ralph Harlow and/or they were families of clergymen.
The senior Harlows, Ralph and Marion, were both Harlow and clergy. Ralph had the gift of making friends and most members of our community liked to have a summer cottage in Lagoon Heights in proximity to the Harlows. Their family consisted of the Rev. Dr. Ralph, who taught religion at Smith College and was a Congregational minister, his wife, Marion, and their two daughters, Ruth and Betty.
Ralph could make you feel you were the most valued person in the world when he was talking to you. Ralph charmed and helped to manage the world while Marion managed Ralph, the Harlow household, and anyone else lower than she in the pecking order. A friend of the family called her “Managing Marion.”
When I was little, Ralph told me Johnny-in-the-Penny stories. Johnny, who lived in a penny that was always in Ralph’s pocket, had wonderful and unlikely adventures that I pestered Ralph to tell me. Unfortunately, I have forgotten them.
When I was thirteen, and like most thirteen-year-olds rather unsure of myself, Ralph told me I would become a beautiful woman. Since I knew I had rather irregular features, I suffered from a sense of being unattractive. Ralph’s comment did wonders for my self-esteem.
The Harlows had two daughters, Ruth and Betty. The elder, Ruth, graduated from Smith College and briefly taught at Northfield School for Girls before she married Hal Berman, who was off to World War II after having helped to start what became a large family.
Betty went to Mt. Holyoke College and married another soldier, named, to the confusion of many, Hal Harlow, like her brother-in-law and father. I was seven and went to their wedding. Ralph had a moving picture camera, not an everyday thing in those days. One reel showed a picture of the wedding party with me on the sidelines wearing a pink party dress. In an earlier sequence on the same reel was a picture of a turkey, his fan-shaped tail in full nuptial regalia, which we had stopped to admire.
THE HARBER MELANGE
Betty, Ruth and the two Hals, their husbands, together bought the property just behind us. They named the place “Harber,” combining the first three letters of each of their last names. This multi-buildinged establishment had adequate space for their combined families of four adults and seven children. One structure held a living room and kitchen; beyond that, connected by an outdoor walkway, was a building with two large bedrooms, a closet-sized room, and one small bath without tub or shower, that served the whole family. Next was a barn with unstructured space that held several of the children and another bedroom. Lastly was a tiny extra building, which was made into a bedroom. The entire place resembled the Minotaur’s maze at Knossos.
The combined families produced together a numerous tribe: Steve, Linda, Jean, Dick, Susanna, Bonnie, and Johnny. Steve would bring to our house eels that he caught in the lagoon. Mother cooked them for our family. They were very fat and I hated their taste; so did my father, but we ate them anyway (my parents had lived through the Great Depression and went to considerable lengths to save money). Linda, I recently learned, would take her dates and go necking beyond the scrub oaks at the top of our cliff. Jean, when just older than a toddler, repeatedly bounced happily down the low front steps of their cottage the year it was purchased. Susanna painted pictures, some of which ended up on the cottage’s walls. Johnny earned my wrath when I stupidly called down to him from a makeshift scaffold from which I was painting an inside wall of our house, not to step on the floor because the paint was wet. I’ve never let him forget that.
The first person to welcome our family to the new shack on the lagoon was Miss Lillian Chignall, who was recently retired as a governess to a New York family. She must have been about seventy years old when we first met her. I had encountered a governess only in my reading and was somewhat surprised to discover they existed in real life. Apparently they did in 20th century New York, and Chiggie was proof of the existence of the occupation.
Her transportation was by foot. She was the first visitor to our new cottage and sought us out to introduce herself. Invariably, she wore a hat; she had several, but all were light-colored. Fairly short in stature, she had good posture and (as would be expected of a governess) was always straight and proper. She was wonderfully good with children (I was ten or eleven). We were all delighted to see her when she came for drop-in visits.
Chiggie lived in a haphazardly-built cottage called Huckleberry Lodge, because it lodged in the huckleberries. The house had a small living room with a fireplace, which, I think, supplied the heat for the whole building. That tiny living room was surrounded on three sides by a big, screened porch where she entertained in warm weather. The fourth side was a kitchen, which was on two levels; half the kitchen was four or five steps above the rest of the kitchen below. I never knew why the kitchen was two levels, and I am not sure anyone else did, either.
Chiggie was English and an established tea party giver. These were delightful occasions somewhat muted by mosquitoes that got through the screens. I learned the protocols of tea from her while I gobbled as many biscuits as I dared.
Miss Chignall was well versed in the flora and fauna of the Island and gave my parents gardening advice. We lived less than twenty feet from the highest cliff on Lagoon Pond, thirty-nine feet high according to the surveyor, and we needed to put plantings on and at the top of the bank to hold it in place. She strongly approved of huckleberries that grew at the top of the cliff. She suggested black locust trees, which grew fast and would hold the bank. She was right. The locusts are now towering above all the vegetation in the yard, including an enormous oak. They have spread their runners and upward growing sprouts too enthusiastically all over a large and somewhat wild yard. Chiggie misjudged badly how extremely happy the locusts would be at the top of our bank. “Invasive” is the word used these days to label fast-growing and spreading plants.
She lived in that house in the woods midst the huckleberries until she was nearly one hundred. Then, one of her friends persuaded and helped her to move into a house in Vineyard Haven. She did not like it there, but her friends insisted she should not live alone. Chiggie died in a nursing home after she reached the century mark and started to lose her memory.
I visited her once in Vineyard Haven. She was delighted to see me, just as she wanted to see all the children she had visited when she was younger.
THE FLECKLES FAMILY
The family that lived nearest to us was the Fleckles family. They were much the closest because they had placed their house at the most southern edge of their property and ours was already at the northern edge of our property. Their house was a temporary building left behind by the military when they moved out of the airport after The War (World War II, of course).
My father obtained the trees from the State Extension Service. While he placed foundation cement blocks in the sand under the floor, the mothers put spruce seedlings in the sand along the boundary line. Luckily the small spruces survived, thrived, and now there is a solid row of evergreens and satellite oaks and wild cherries so thick we can hardly see one house from the other.
Cherry Fleckles was a full-time homemaker and Elliot a military chaplain at the veterans’ hospital near Northampton, Massachusetts. The family had five children–four sons and a daughter. The boys all left the Island as adults, but one daughter, Carol, bought out her brothers and owned the summer house after her parents died.
The Fleckles family bought an old Quonset Hut that had been built by the military at the airport for wartime use. They divided the main space in this structure into a living/diningroom, with small bedrooms along its sides. In my opinion, the kitchen was the best room in their house; the family had a real icebox instead of a refrigerator. After the first summer when my family put food down the well to keep it cool, we got an electric refrigerator. (We needed electricity to get water that was not hand pumped.) An icebox was a splendid “new” creation for me. The ice arrived in huge blocks and went out in buckets of water. I sometimes helped with the latter. At our house I always did the run to the well when Mother needed the butter.
Carol, her older brother, my older sister, and I jointly owned a small boat in which I more or less learned to sail. The older siblings tended to ignore the boat, but Carol and I sailed it. None of us loved it very much; it side-slipped badly, and the winds on the lagoon were usually fluky. As a result, I ended up a less than enthusiastic sailor.
THE MEAD FAMILY
Not all our neighbors at the top of the bank were drawn to Martha’s Vineyard by the Harlows. The next family north along the bank after the Fleckleses was the Mead family, who had been established in Oak Bluffs before either the Harlows or Williamses moved to Lagoon Heights.
The Meads came to the Vineyard every summer, as did we. The original pair of small cottages that they owned was passed from the senior Varnum Mead to his son Varnum Junior. Each time a house adjoining theirs went on sale, they acquired it. First the Clark cottage went to sister Priscilla, then the Kirkpatrick cottage fell under the gavel to Jan, wife of Varnum Junior and mother of Dottie and Susan, the next generation. Susan built a year-round house a short distance away on land her family owned. Dottie and family now come for summers. The Meads were, and still are, good neighbors.
A close friendship between the Meads and my family did not come about. Mother was a little suspicious of the senior Meads in her generation; if they voted Republican, they could not be truly acceptable as friends. When I was little, I did not know them well. They had no children my age for me to play with. I was suspicious because they owned a large, and I believed, ferocious German Shepherd. Rex, fortunately, did not wander over into our yard. Whenever I came close to their house, he came to meet me and I went in the other direction.
Until I moved from Barnes Road in 2007, the Meads were my best and closest year-round neighbors. I also owned and loved dearly a large and enormously noisy German Shepherd who likes to go and meet people. My minister at the time, who has cats and is wary of dogs, called my ferocious beast a “cream puff.” The Mead dog may have been one, too.
THE BOAK FAMILY
The Boaks were near neighbors who lived outside of and predated by a generation the Harlow/clergy circle. We became, and still are, good friends, in spite of the fact that they were Republicans. My father was a Democrat and my mother a rather intolerant Socialist. The Boaks and the adult Williamses frequently enjoyed themselves of an evening playing bridge. Mother came away from one bridge session making the comment that she never realized that Republicans could be such nice people. (She had the same problem with the Meads.) Peter Boak, grandson of the most senior Boaks and now the director of the Island Community Chorus, used to help Mother maintain the yard. Clearly, politics and gardens were separate from each other in my mother’s mind.
Peter’s uncle and aunt, Mary and David Boak, were active bird watchers, as were my mother and I. They kept a list of all the birds they saw from their property, which gave me the idea of doing the same thing. I have an advantage and therefore a longer list; at my house on the lagoon, one could list a number of shore and water birds that the inland Boaks lacked.
THE MABEE FAMILY
Still headed north along the bank toward the bridge, the next neighborhood family was the Mabees. They had been a missionary couple, and also taught at a college in Maine. They, too, were friends of Ralph Harlow. Since their children were older than my childhood generation, I did not know them well, even though they had no dogs. The senior Mabees were close friends of my parents.
I do not remember Mr. Mabee at all well, but do recall that he was a Baptist clergyman. After he died, I came to know and love his wife. Miriam Mabee was a grandmotherly lady with white hair, a slight limp, and a kind smile. She wore printed gingham housedresses and baked good cookies of which I consumed a goodly number. She had a strong religious faith, which was expressed in kind acts.
The community children had a path that went along the top of the bank, close to its edge, for about a quarter of a mile. We used it regularly, including at night, and I could find my way on it, even at the time of a new moon, with no difficulty at all. The path came closest to the waterfront cottages in front of the Mabee home, essentially trespassing on their front lawn.
Miriam and I became very close in her later years. I often stayed with her in the “off” season when I came to Martha’s Vineyard while my parents stayed “in America.” Miriam became my honorary grandmother. She had chosen to live on the Island alone in the woods, as did I for many years after I retired. I went to her to be mothered with cookies and an understanding, listening ear.
I also felt safe in her home. At the time of these visits, I was developing into a very troubled alcoholic. No alcohol was present in her home and I could not betray her trust by bringing some in. We never discussed my addiction, although I think she must have been aware of it. I always knew she would love me and support me if I came to her for help. Her home was a safe haven where I could stay sober.
Some of my best experiences with nature on Martha’s Vineyard were at Miriam’s home. My only sighting of an island scarlet tanager was in the woods behind her house; it was probably migrating through to breed in the north. The most dramatic and exciting sunset I can ever remember seeing was from a window in the living room looking toward the west over the lagoon. It was a ribbed display of exciting colors blending into each other: purple, coral and gold.
The only time I saw Miriam getting angry was one morning when she went outside and discovered that a rabbit had eaten ALL the petunias she had planted the day before. No four-letter words for this lady–but she would gladly have done in the rabbit.
THE FAULKNER FAMILY
Another family in our community, close friends of the Harlows although not with any religious connection, were the Faulkners, headed by Harold and Ethel. Harold was a history professor at Smith College who preferred to stay at home in Northampton and do research while the rest of the family spent the summer at the beach. Their two daughters, Pam and Shirley, were the same ages as my sister Kay and I. Ethel had given up work on a Ph.D. and a career in order to get married, a not uncommon practice in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Almost all the mothers in our lagoon circle, including my own, had abandoned careers in favor of marriage. Harold Faulkner had been an unusually successful textbook writer, and the house he and Ethel (mostly Ethel) built on the lagoon was very large for a “cottage.”
Ethel was a frustrated professional and ran her household the way she would have organized a job. This story is probably apocryphal, but she carefully saved pieces of string that she labeled “string too short to use.” As a result of being a frustrated scholar, she became an overzealous housekeeper, along with being a wife and mother. She probably was also a valuable research assistant for her husband.
My special friend was Shirley Faulkner who was my age. We sailed my boat in races put on by our neighborhood children’s yacht club. The boat was so inferior–it side-slipped dreadfully–that no one else wanted to handle it. So, by default, it was my boat. Shirley and I sailed in many of the club’s races. We always came in last. We earned the Davy Jones’s Locker Prize as our reward; we did not receive the Plugger’s Cup because we “didn’t try hard enough.” (I never learned to enjoy sailing after that.) Shirley and I had private conversations during our races and became fast friends.
Pam, the older daughter, was four or five years older than I was. That age spread is negligible when you are retired and writing your memoirs, but the ages seem worlds apart when you are twelve or thirteen. As a result, Pam and I never knew each other, although we summered in neighboring cottages and our families usually celebrated Thanksgiving together. From the records of our local teenagers’ yacht club, I recently discovered that she raced a boat named the “Dodo,” the same boat I also owned and raced. She, too, appears to have been a mediocre sailor.
THE KLEIN FAMILY
Another family of our Lagoon Heights circle of friends–and close friends of the Harlows–was the Klein family. Mrs. Klein, Sylvia, had been a student and close friend of Ralph Harlow at Smith College, but she married a dentist, not a professional clergyman. She might have considered becoming a rabbi herself, but I am not at all sure Jews ordained women in the 1950’s. A somewhat obscure religious connection might be made through Sylvia’s uncle, Morris Cohen, who was one of America’s better-known theological thinkers.
There were four Kleins: father Al, who was a dentist; mother Sylvia, who followed domestic and intellectual pursuits; and two school-age sons, Bob and Marvin. My first clear memory of Bob and Marvin, who were a little younger than I, comes from a time I babysat for them. My parents had bought our cottage within the last two or three years, and the Kleins had rented a house nearby on a lot with a beautiful view of the lagoon. Bob was too old to need a babysitter and resented by presence deeply. He had, however, recently broken his jaw in a bicycle accident. His jaw was wired shut, and he had to drink from a straw. The adult Kleins hesitated to leave the boys home alone with Bob incapacitated, and I was hired to look after them. Bob was incensed and refused to accept my authority in any way. I did not know what to do, and I don’t remember Marvin’s reaction.
Al was one of my favorite people. He was kind and loving and knew how to talk to young people as equals. He was a member of, or advisor to, the yacht club formed by some of the young people who lived on the lagoon. Once he and a teenage club officer paid a formal visit to invite me to be club treasurer. I was terribly flattered and I’m sure I accepted. In retrospect, I cannot think of anyone less appropriate for the job. I still have trouble adding 9 plus 8, to say nothing of dividing 24 by 4.
Sylvia had a quick wit combined with a swift tongue, which was something I enjoyed even as a child. She was a good cook and often invited my family to supper. We usually had my favorite dessert–a blueberry pie from Humphrey’s. She also had a dishwasher, something I lusted after; I was the dishwasher in my family.
Since Bob and Marvin were boys and enough younger than I to make a difference, we were not playfellows. I’ve always been fond of them and grew more so as we got older, when age and sex made less of a difference.
The Kleins owned my favorite toy. It was a closed box with a marble-sized steel ball, a top one could tilt, and a hazard course with holes and barriers. The goal was to get the ball on a path from the top left to the lower right without letting it fall through a hole. I cannot recall ever succeeding, but I do remember hours spent trying.
OUR FRIENDS, THE TAYLORS
The Taylors were close friends of the Williamses, but were neither clergy nor particularly close friends of the Harlows. In another sense, however, they were quite close as residents of the Central Massachusetts Connecticut River Valley, albeit the Amherst rather than the Smith side of the river. Both fathers were professors who taught at the colleges located in the valley. George Taylor professed American economic history.
The other members of the Taylor family were daughters Debbie and Sally, the same ages as were my sister Kay and I, and their mother, Mary. George was one of my favorite people, warm and loving, with a good sense of humor, while at the same time being relentlessly rational. That is not to say he was not emotional and irrational–that’s part of the human condition. But he believed the source of truth was objective reality, a characteristic (I’m tempted to say “failing”) he shared with many professors of his generation, including my father. He left child rearing largely to his children’s mother. The Taylors bought an old farmhouse in the hills above the Connecticut River before World War II.
Both parents had grown up in an era when every rural family raised chickens and possibly a pig for food. One of my earliest memories is of a chicken running headless around the yard because George had just cut off its head with an ax.
Mary was like many professors’ wives in those days and was expected to choose between a profession of her own or follow the expected path of marriage and motherhood. As a result, she was constantly researching the history of our town of Pelham, Massachusetts, while never writing the history. She enjoyed her research greatly, and Sally and I sometimes played in the cellar where Mary collected artifacts, such as candle snuffers, candle molds, or canning jars, or wove endless lengths of linen bureau scarves. She was always late as a result of her ongoing researches, crafts, and projects. But she always found time to feed her family and friends well with plentiful meals accompanied by tasty leftovers from many meals gone by.
A final member of the Taylor menage was Bijou, a bright russet Maine coon cat who could as well have been named Amber.
The Taylors purchased a Methodist Camp Meeting cottage in 1951, six years after we bought our cottage on the bluff.
Additional articles were written by other residents of Lagoon Heights.