There are places that are saturated with memories. Places that even the smell of them evoke so much more than the present moment. Each action is accompanied by the multitude of times it has been done before. Every choice is influenced by years of past experience and memory. Great Island is one of those places for me, and the memories are usually lit in the golden glow of happiness.
Great Island is a little place off of West Yarmouth. It is not actually an island at all. Though it might be soon, from looking at the wear on the dunes by the salt marsh. One big hurricane is going to blow those bluffs down and create a narrow inlet that reaches from harbour to sound. It is small, private, and the community of people who live there in the summer have been there for generations. When I was little I thought it was heaven on earth.
Granny had a story about it being heaven. Granny had a story about everything. She grew up going to the island with her brother Peter. They grew up with busy and slightly apathetic parents and were raised mostly by a nanny. Therefore, they had to stick together from the very beginning and always remained close.
Peter, or Uncle Peter as her story named him, got very sick late in his life. He had pneumonia and sadly was incoherent in the last days of illness. Granny was by his side when he looked up, clear eyed for the first time in weeks and clearly said, “Jeanie, it is so beautiful here. I have always loved the Causeway in September. The wind and the waves are just perfect.” He never said another word. Just leaned back, closed his eyes, and passed away.
She left the story there, leaving the impression that for Uncle Peter the causeway on Great Island was heaven. Or the afterlife. Or something like it. When I first heard the story my unreligious upbringing was completely devoid of the idea that some people believed your soul goes somewhere after death. I was raised to believe that when you died, you were gone. This was not a sad thing. Just a natural thing. So, I don’t think Granny was overly happy with my response of, “Was it the sickness that was making him hallucinate?” I now know that Granny wanted to believe in an afterlife, especially if that meant an eternity of sitting on the beaches of Great Island.
From the moment I pass the gates onto the island there is ritual. The first thing I do on the island is slowing down to the speed limit of 15 and opening the windows. Even in the dead of winter, when the air is cold and sharp, the fetid smell of the sea and salt air envelopes me. It is a smell I associate with life and the primordial soup of existence. I think of oddly wistful emotions even though I am not prone to wistfulness normally. It is a smell that invokes ideas and feelings as deep as the ocean it comes from. All in all, it is complex and so distinct that I look forward to that first cracking of the window. Over time, it falls into the background and I stopped noticing the sea breeze but in those first breaths it is strong and intense.
The island is rife with ritual. For better or for worse. Sometimes the inability to change is a real source of contention. There are some things that need to change as times progress. Holding on to the past can be damaging but sometimes it can preserve memories. Granny was a stickler for preserving ritual. As one of only two girls in our hoard of cousins, I sometimes resented the insistence that the women cleared the plates after dinner every night. I have never believed in gender roles, confident in my ability to do just about anything that might be “men’s work”. Arguing with her was impossible and in the end, Sarah and I cleaned up dinner just about every family dinner there was.
Some of the rituals were good though. Going to Baxter’s was one of them. Everyone who was going would all clamber down to the beach on bike or catch a ride in Granny’s car. We would all pile into the slightly rusting boat even though there weren’t enough seats for us all. It always had a fairly strong gasoline smell when it started. The boat ride over to Hyannis is short. However, you get to go through the channel and the harbour. It still puts a smile on my face to watch ferries and all the different kinds of boats coming up through the channel. Just being on the ocean and away from land gives me a different perspective.
Baxter’s is a seafood restaurant right in the harbour. You can drive up, but that takes away all the fun. The true way to get to Baxter’s is to come up in your boat. You can tie up right on the dock and order all the deep fried seafood you could ask for. Granny always got clam strips and warned us about the flocks of seagulls that eagerly awaited any leftover food. She had one story of a little girl who pointed up at the seagulls with one finger. The seagull thought it was a French fry and swooped down. It bit it off in one go and the little girl never got her finger back! Needless to say, we Storrs kids weren’t allowed to point at the seagulls. We could throw extra French fries off the dock though. There were swarms of striped bass awaiting any deep fried cast offs. Watching them all converge on a French fry was pure delight as a child.
I have been going down to the Cape since before I can remember. I think the only restaurant I have ever gone to has been Baxter’s. I am sure there are wonderful options down there, but driving the boat up to get deep fried goodies always seemed like the best option. Especially on a gorgeous summer day where it was just an excuse to take the boat out.
I just came back form a Great Island weekend. Something I haven’t been able to do in years. The whole experience brought back so many memories of a happy childhood swimming in the ocean, sailing, and running around being free. All of them seem to involve my grandmother. She was a powerful woman. She was not always the easiest to deal with and she was prone to telling stories that only briefly resembled real life. However, she was a phenomenal grandmother. She took care of all eight of her grandchildren with care and a certain flair of her own. Though she passed years ago, she has been kept alive for me through memories. Being able to return to the island, even briefly and remember her in the place she loved the best was a real treat.