A Faraway Place
Nan stared directly into the gray fog, letting the present day obliterate into the cold ethereal wetness. Standing defiantly on the pitching deck of the fast ferry, the Flying Cloud, which had left Hyannis only one hour earlier, she stared blankly at the emerging and unwelcoming, rocky shoreline in front of her and the cream-colored moorings that dotted the horizon fast approaching. How could her mom do this to her? she questioned. She was referring to her mom sending her here, or was it… nowhere? How could her mom send her to the place the Native Americans called “that faraway place, Nantucket”? she asked herself. It just wasn’t fair. “She knew what summer vacation meant to me,” Nan declared stubbornly. Nan relived the worn-out argument she had had with her mom at the ferry terminal just before her departure. She didn’t want to understand why she had to take care of Grammy Armstrong in ‘Sconset for the whole summer while her mom stayed behind to work as a nurse at Cape Cod Hospital. She and her mom had moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, less than a year ago, just after the divorce. Her mom had said she wanted them to be closer to her family. Little did she know then she’d be sent to take care of an aging grandmother she hadn’t seen since she was five years old! “It’s not fair,” she heard her pleading words now echo aloud to an unsympathetic, weathered seagull who had come to perch on the cold, steely railing next to her. “I won’t see any of my friends this summer.” But no one was listening. She thought about the stolen sleepovers she and her new best friends, Molly and Claire, had carefully planned, the lost trips to sandy white beaches under azure skies that the Cape was famous for, and the lazy days she had planned to bank reading beneath the generous awning of a shady maple in the backyard before starting seventh grade.
Just then a single blast of a horn sounded to interrupt her reverie. “Prepare for landing,” she heard the captain’s voice bellow across the crackling loudspeaker.
The auburn-haired girl pulled her nubby, evergreen sweater tighter around her waist and wiped away a tear before finding her bag and departing down the gangplank with a crowd of tourists. When she reached solid ground, Nan dutifully pulled out her cell phone, dialed her mom first to tell her of a safe arrival, then the cab company owned by her uncle. In no time at all, a cheerful man of few words, simply dressed in a khaki pressed shirt and a sea captain’s hat, Uncle Tommy of Tommy’s Taxi, had scooped her up and headed for the eastern part of the island where she would spend her entire summer totally bored to death, no doubt.
When Nan arrived at the natural shingled two-story clapboard Cape on the leeward side of the island, she was immediately taken by the ruffled carmine-pink roses that grew in sprays from bushes hugging the bleached-shell driveway and the lacy blue hydrangeas in the front garden. The sunlight was peaking out from behind the clouds, now casting a cheerful wash of sunshine over everything in her path. She stole a quick glance upward at the black iron weather vane forged into the shape of a whale, which sat atop the roof, and wondered if it held any special significance. Upon entering the house through the side entry, Nan was enveloped by warmth that felt as comforting as her mother’s old calico patchwork quilt she used to drag from the hallway closet whenever she was sick. There was a familiar feeling to the place. Nan headed up the uncarpeted narrow steps to the breezy second-story bedrooms where Uncle Tommy had promised she would find her gram, before he had to hurry off to pick up a paying customer.
Immediately upon eyeing the frail woman with the dancing pale-blue eyes and mop of snowy hair, Nan knew she was home. “I’m so happy to see you, my Nanette,” exclaimed the older woman, with enthusiasm. “I hope I won’t be a burden to you,” she added meekly, her voice withering. “Ever since I caught pneumonia last winter, my Yankee stamina just hasn’t been the same.” Nan hugged the elderly woman firmly and returned a wide grin. She was genuinely happy to see her gram and hoped she would be on the mend soon. She now wanted to be of some help to the sprightly woman she felt close to but barely knew.
The next day, Grammy Armstrong was sitting up among the patchwork covers and working her hands to create what looked like a neatly woven basket. “It’s a lightship basket,” she informed Nan. My great-granddad was a lightship keeper in the early days, as were many in my family.”
“What’s a lightship, Gram?” asked Nan with keen interest.
“A lightship is like a lighthouse, only it’s a ship that floats offshore to keep sailors from crashing on the shoals,” she began to explain. “These waters south of Nantucket are some of the most dangerous seas you’ll ever come across. Hundreds of ships have wrecked in these parts, so the lightship was the answer to warn sailors in the south shoals.” It seemed Nan now had more questions, not fewer, after her gram’s studied reply.
“What’s a shoal? But how is the basket related to the lightship? Do lightships still exist? Can I go see one?” Nan anxiously fired back a flurry of questions.
“Come with me,” Gram beckoned, taking Nan by the hand and leading her downstairs to take up a comfortable corner in the warm, sunlit kitchen. Over steaming mugs of peppery Earl Grey tea and sweet raisin scones lavished with heaps of tangy rose-hip jelly, Grammy Armstrong told her tales of lightships and stalwart Nantucket whalers. The whole time, the older woman’s leathery and freckled hands never stopped weaving the lightly colored reeds to fashion the most beautiful basket Nan had ever seen. Nan thought Gram seemed delighted to share her tales and the apt skill she had perfected over her lifetime making the highly sought-after baskets prized by both locals and tourists alike.
Nan’s time on the island soon became a string of lazy days spent in the backyard staring down at her brown hands and arms which had been gingerly kissed by the summer sun as she gleefully but industriously worked her baskets. She didn’t even mind the necessary interruptions by her frequent bike trips into town to pick up Gram’s medicine at the small pharmacy atop cobbled Main Street, which also gave her a chance to window-shop at the local toggery or sample some of the “world’s yummiest fudge” at Auntie’s Fudge Shoppe next door. The days of summer soon flew by faster than the Flying Cloud, like they always do, and Nan was surprised how quickly she had picked up the art of making the elegant but simple baskets. “It’s in the genes,” Gram Armstrong had whispered to her one day, “just like the salt in the air,” she grinned. “Your great-grandfather was a whaling captain who built this home, and your grandfather was a shipbuilder on the mainland in New Bedford.”
Nan smiled back. Soon it would be time for Nan to return home. She cherished her time on the island. Her favorite pastime though had become her beachcombing excursions when she used the smallest of her baskets to carry her treasures home, including perfumed saltwater rose hips, heliotrope bivalves and glassy pebbles. She was content here and experienced a sense of belonging that she had never known before.
When it was time to say her good-byes, Nan was happy to see her grandmother looking so high-spirited and healthy. The lilt had returned to her laugh. She had apples in her cheeks and she was able to get up and move about the former whaling captain’s house more agilely. “Come back next summer, and bring your friends with you, my Nanette. Now that I am back on my feet, I could use your help restoring Sankaty Head Light.” Nan let her thoughts drift to the well-known landmark nearby and the pride she felt in the light with its signature red and white stripes. Her daydreaming however was interrupted by the kindness in her grandmother’s melodious voice. “Or you and your friends could hunt for relics for the whaling museum.” Nan pictured the prominent edifice standing tall at the end of Steamship Wharf that she had marveled at when she first arrived. “You were named for this island, you know,” she heard her grandma shout after her as she entered the familiar yellow taxi. “It’s in your blood.”
Nan looked down at the sturdy, rounded lightship basket carefully perched on her lap that she and Gram Armstrong had lovingly woven together at the start of the summer, which was now taking on a caramel patina. Nan thought about her savored trips to the local beach only steps away, the cool ocean waters lapping eagerly at her sun-baked shoulders and the welcomed salt spray that cooled her tanned face and made her rusty curls coil more tightly. She would miss this place. She had loved her quick jaunts to the shoreline to watch the rainbow fleet bob merrily by, engined only by the refreshing westerly winds. It had been a great summer and the best part of all was time spent listening to her gram’s stories about her family’s lore as keepers of the lightships and making beautiful baskets to while away the hours. Smiling to herself, Nan knew her gram was right. She would come back to this faraway place. Maybe someday, she might even call it home.