Having a Senior Moment
Older Island Residents Pen Memoir Collection
Ruthie Grieder sat in a worn Windsor chair at her kitchen table overlooking Hither Creek, Little Neck and beyond into Madakat Harbor. Tuckernuck Island floated further out on the horizon. From a nearby shelf, Grieder dragged a worn red, white and blue canvas tote stuffed with papers, notebooks, pens and pencils to the table, and upturned it. The sleeves of her blouse rolled up as if ready to work, she sorted through the scraps of handwritten notes, old family photographs and many photocopies of partially written stories about her life on Nantucket.
“At 84, it wasn’t so easy to get to class at the library dragging this stuff along,” she recalled, “but I saw a poster in town advertising this Memoir project and I thought, ‘why not?’ It was well worth the effort and good fun.” Ruthie’s amber eyes, set off by a honey colored tan, crinkled with pleasure, a shock of white unruly curls framed her face.
“I am a sixth generation Nantucketer, and I have a heck of a lot of stories to tell, so this writing project was a good adventure for me,” she added.
The well-worn tote Grieder hauled to the Nantucket Atheneum Library for eight consecutive Fridays contained the many drafts of essays and mini- memoirs she wrote for “The Nantucket Memoir Project” – a writing workshop offered by the Nantucket Writers Studio to Island seniors in the fall of 2010. The project was a collaborative venture between Boston’s Grub Street, Inc., a nonprofit creative writing and literary center, and the Nantucket Writers Studio founded by islander novelist, Kathryn Kay. The shared undertaking resulted in the fourth book in a series of locally crafted mini memoirs titled Little Gray Island, Life on Nantucket Volume I, and published by Grub Street. The book is on all Island bookstore shelves and on-line sales through Grub Street.org. The proceeds from the sale of the book benefit additional Grub Street Memoir projects.
The book’s essays paint a vivid picture of island life during several generations, which for some, began in the Roaring Twenties, when the automobile was still new to the Island and one piece bathing suits were making an initial splash.
“This originally all happened during a cup of tea,” said Kay, whose new novel The Gilder, comes out in January of 2012. “I went to Boston one afternoon see if Grub Street could work with my Writer’s Studio in some way. When the staffers heard I was from Nantucket, they instantly put me in touch with Hillary Hedges Rayport, who is the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors there and, as it turned out, a Nantucket neighbor. I invited her to my Nantucket studio one afternoon where we got to talking about bringing the Memoir project here and the rest is narrative history” she added with a smile.
Christopher Castellani, Artist Director of Grub Street and author of A Kiss from Maddelana, the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, hadn’t planned for the project to leave the Boston neighborhoods. Asked if intended to take it even further afield, he replied “No-it was a fluke that it got to Nantucket-completely unplanned, but I think it’s great.”
Nine months later, Little Gray Island sprang to life in a makeshift classroom space provided by the Atheneum Library where Grieder and 23 other Nantucket senior citizens gathered together to craft 27 beautifully rendered memoirs of raising families, working, going to school and vacationing on their beloved elbow of sand. Stories with titles like Memories of a Washashore, by Mary Kenny; Piera, by Joseph Welsh; A Change of Address, by Elizabeth Murray; A Medical Perspective, by Dr. Stephen Chase: Island Houses We Have Known, by Marylyn Burns; create a rich, reader’s chowder from which to feast.
Marjorie Colley, a girlhood friend of Grieder’s, and now retired from a life in Nantucket’s fast- paced restaurant business, contributed two memoirs to the book. In one of her stories, she remembers a time grilled cheese was made on the Nobska ferry and eaten in the privacy of one’s own stateroom.
“Things are a bit different now,” she said. “and even though my husband and I owned and ran a good number of eateries- the Tavern, The Rotary and Dockside- the grilled cheese from the boat is still the BEST sandwich I have ever eaten and it is one of my favorite memories of coming here as a child.”
The book is not only unique in its creation, but also exceptional in that it is one of the only collections of memoirs about Nantucket that was not transcribed from oral interviews. Time at the table gave writers like Elaine Williams age 77, a chance to carefully craft her thoughts onto paper:
“As I write these memories, the wind outside roars through the trees of early autumn. I love that sound. It means that I am on Nantucket Island, out to sea, where the natural world reigns, “she wrote in her essay –A Love Story.
Nantucket based writer Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner, In the Heart of the Sea, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in history for his book, Mayflower, championed the project from the start and contributed the forward for Little Gray Island.
“My parents are of an age now, where we want them to look back,” Philbrick said.
“My father-in-law fought at Normandy World War II, but he has never talked about it. Recently, however, we were all in Belgium together and he began talking about growing up on Cape Cod. He surprised not only us, but his own siblings with things we didn’t know about him. He then wrote a memoir for us... Having had this personal experience, I really appreciate what good and important work memoir writing is.” Philbrick said
Michelle Seaton, a journalist, magazine editor and radio reporter and a Grub Street Memoir instructor came to Nantucket for the first time in October to teach the class .
“Each successive Friday I could see the writers progressing from never having written a word for print before, to in the end, getting involved in the editing process. This was a very articulate group, whose commonality helped bring each other’s memories back to life.”
Hillary Hedges Rayport, a Nantucket “washashore” since 2000, supplied initial seed money for book production costs and together, she and Kay locally sought out literary and other professionals to act as writing coaches, contribute writing space, photography, and meals. Back in Boston, Grub Street staffers oversaw copy editing, design, and printing.
Wendy Schmidt, president of ReMain Nantucket, whose mission is dedicated to keeping Nantucket’s downtown area vibrant year round, earmarked a sizable donation for the project as well.
“Not only is this a wonderful off- season undertaking for our Nantucket seniors, but a future treasure for Nantucket’s next generation. These stories raise questions of who we are as Nantucketers, and how far we have come. They help create a map for our island’s future. We were eager to help a project which can help bring Nantucketer’s out of their homes and into town in the quieter months.”
Bartlett Farms donated the lunches and snacks for tea during writing sessions, and eight coaches came to listen to drafts, hand-hold and offer encouragement to the writers.
Additionally, photographer Beverly Hall, age 70, donated the author portraits, and a magnanimous group of supporters dug deep into their pockets to come up with the remaining funds needed to complete the mission.
Kay admits that looking back, the project was well worthwhile, and the results remarkable, but the undertaking for everyone involved was, at times, daunting.
Hall, for instance, juggled three jobs including taking all the pictures for the book, penning her memoir The New Old South Wharf, plus coaching some of the writers.
About the experience of creating stories instead of photos, Hall said, “Overall, it was a very historical feeling, but the writing for me, was like pulling teeth; I slaved over it. But I have been waiting to be forced to do something written instead of always being behind the camera.”
Sally Nash, still a world traveler at age 77, opens the Little Gray Island with her essay about Nantucket’s infamous fog and, additionally she closes the book with memories of her grandfather, born here in 1875, which she titled Big Palma.
“My children and relatives have been after me for quite some time to write about my life. My memories of Nantucket seemed like a good jumping off place for me,” Nash said.
Philbrick remarked that Nash, “just had a really nice voice” on the page. When she learned of Philbrick's compliment, Nash replied with a blush almost visible through the telephone line, “Well, that’s so nice. I’ve been writing letters most of my life, because my family has lived all over the world. I guess my scribbling’s having paid off.”
Nash’s closing memoir, which provides the finale of the book, ends this way:
"In my grandparent’s Nantucket dining room hung a portrait of Big Palma’s great grandfather, Daniel Russell. We loved his mischievous expression, and we assumed he was cheering us on to be naughty. The grown-ups referred to him as the 'old reprobate' and told us that he had owned and been the master of the whale ship Essex, which he had sold for a nice profit. History tells us that the very next voyage of the Essex became the infamous story of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and was retold again in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. But for us, Daniel was the man in the painting who could see us from every angle in the dining room. We could toss a blueberry at a cousin when the grownups weren’t looking. Big Palma, who was one of us, would toss one back, and Daniel would smile.