Late afternoon, Nantucket, Massachusetts. I am about to board a sailboat with my ex-husband and our son and daughter, aged 13 and 19, the day before I leave them for the summer. This marks the first time the four of us have been sailing together, and conditions are windy, probably not safe and maybe not going to happen, but it’s still our plan. The SS Minnow jokes come easy as we take the launch out of the harbor to where our boat is moored.
Sea Change // Author Ashley Warlick joined her ex-husband, Ron, and their teenage children, Hudson and Sophie, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, earlier this summer.
From the perspective of the water, the town seems outside of time. Church steeples rise above the rooflines of the captain’s houses and widow’s walks. There’s a kind of artful, honest composition to the view—weathered shingle, blue sky, fresh lemony green leaves on trees bent to the long winters on an island 30 miles out to sea. It is a place not like anyplace else I know, a combination of nearly 400 years of staunch New England history and recent tremendous wealth, determined to preserve it. This was once the whaling capital of the world, and sailor after sailor took this same last glimpse of home.
The children sprawl at the back of the launch, an honest-to-God American flag whipping out behind them, the town beyond. I get out my phone to take their picture. I have to tell them three times to sit up straight and act nice, because they’re kids, they’re goofing around, but I want something of this moment to take with me when I go.
Last Thursday, I left Greenville at 4 a.m., taking a car to the airport, two planes, a bus, a ferry, and a walk to the little cottage that’s been in my ex-husband’s family for generations. This travel has been part of my summer for 26 years, and for the children, all their lives. It’s something we continued for them when we split up, this month away to the place least like their home in the world, but still, by dent of marriage and history, theirs. Junebugs ping like gravel against the screens at night. Hydrangeas bloom. There’s fog and foghorns, lighthouses and cobblestones, freezing cold Atlantic waves, the need for a sweater even in August, but especially in June on the water.
To say it’s windy is an understatement. There are whitecaps in the harbor, and we motor past the other moorings, boats with names like Wife Goes On, Seas The Day, Respite, and the one we’re going to: About Time. It was the boat’s name when Ron bought it, and he tells me it’s bad luck to change.
On deck, Ron busies himself attaching the sail to the mast, lines loosened and then tied off, the snap and crack of the fabric like a big dog at the end of a short leash. The boat is an O’Day 240, and can sleep a small handful of people below deck, where Hud now promptly tunnels down and stretches out. “It’s what he always does,” Ron says. Sophie takes the ropes as directed, mumbling under her breath that it’s too windy for this, which is also, I expect, what she always does. The boat is part of their father’s life since our divorce; they have their roles, but mine is just to watch.
There are the things that steer, that swing, that whip if you’re not careful. We have the “if the engine dies” conversation. We have the “Life Sling” conversation. We loose ourselves from the mooring and motor off, the boat heeling even as the sail is still wrapped tight. The sheer power of what it means to put a little boat on the vast body of the ocean is suddenly, perfectly clear. The sound of the wind in the halyards is straight out of a nightmare.
When it was a whaling town, Nantucket was a town of women, undoubtedly aware of the same wind and water, their men at sea for years at a time. Back when we were married, a friend of Ron’s lived in one of the Three Bricks, identical Main Street mansions built for brothers in the early 1800s. In the attic, there were artifacts worthy of a museum: newsprint, shell, bone, weapon and map, literally centuries of island history contained in a family’s objects. There was a blubber hook, a flaying knife, somebody’s cane, all labeled with notecards and approximate dates of use. The names of incoming ships were written on the rafters in chalk. A couple of years ago, the house sold out of the family for the first time. I heard the Whaling Museum on Broad Street took what they wanted, but I wonder where the rest of the artifacts have gone.
Ron’s family’s house was once his aunt’s, and its history only goes back to the 1920s. But his mother rents the house in the high summer season, and we’ve found paper hangers written with recipes for cocktails for crowds, Legos and matchbox cars, once a fake nail in the cushions of the couch, a produce bag of Viagra in the back of the master bedroom closet. You can reconstruct a lot from what gets left behind.
We round Brant Point and wave to the fishermen under the lighthouse, turning back without ever raising sail.
But back at the house, we feast. Lobster rolls, seared scallops, beer-battered cod (with beer from the incomparable Cisco Brewery), burrata cheese split over the hothouse tomatoes grown at Bartlett’s Farm. After dinner, we drive to Steps Beach in time to see the sun sink into the Atlantic from the dunes covered in rugosa rose, the scent heavy and salted, not so much grandmother as essential, smelling like roses the way honey smells like sweet.
By Land & Sea // The family continues to enjoy time on Nantucket each summer, as has been tradition for more than two decades.
Over the dunes to the beach, we collect handfuls of golden jingle shells, calico scallops, a serpentine chain of whelk egg sacks, each once filled with tiny, tiny whelks. It’s hard to imagine how the animal makes such a complex, big and beautiful thing in reproduction. It’s hard to imagine how any of us do it, but here’s the proof, the artifact, washed up to shore.
Ashley Warlick is the author of national bestseller The Arrangement and the editor-at-large of Edible Upcountry. She lives in Greenville, where she is a partner and buyer at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers.