By Sarah White
I wrote this in response to the writing prompt, “Who I was at Age _____.”
It is August of 1969, I am 13, and I have come to Martha’s Vineyard to babysit my 10-year-old cousin Alice. Alice’s mother Jane is my cousin too, my father’s brother’s child. Jane and her husband adopted Alice. I met them occasionally on family visits, where I would be set to play with baby Alice, then toddler Alice, and so on. The husband died when I was about 10. Jane and Alice shook the dust of Muncie off their feet and moved to New York City.
For the summer of 1969 they rented a house on Martha’s Vineyard. By August, Alice was completely bored. Jane called my mother and asked if I would like to come out for a visit. My mother agreed.
I remember walking across tarmac to a plane at the Indianapolis airport, my suitcase and guitar checked for the flight. I am nervous. I’ve never flown before, and I have two connections to make: one change of planes somewhere in flyover country and then in Boston, another transfer to the little puddle-jumper that will take me to the island. I have an obsessive fear of getting things wrong: arriving at the right time but the wrong day, right day but wrong place. Enumerating all the ways these connections can be missed makes the cross-country flights pass quickly, if not comfortably. But the puddle-jumper flight is a revelation. I love to fly! The earth below is a magical moving map full of toy-sized life, unfolded to my god-like eye.
Arriving at the island’s tiny airport I’m met by Jane and Alice. We begin driving toward the cottage that will be my home for the next two weeks.
“Want to go to the beach for a swim first?” Jane asks.
“I didn’t bring my bathing suit,” I reply.
“Incredible! We’ll stop for one.” She can’t imagine how I boarded a plane for an island vacation without a bathing suit. I can’t either, but it must have to do with shame. I hate my body, and I hate the bathing suit my mother sewed me. Nothing in stores fits me right now, as I weigh a little over 150 pounds, though I’m only 5 feet tall. My mother sews all my clothes, bathing suits too. I must have left that gingham nightmare out of my suitcase on purpose, but without thinking about the consequences.
Now I am in a dressing room in a shop in Oak Bluffs and nothing fits me but the suits for old women. I let Jane buy me a black-watch-plaid two-piece with red trim; there is a ruffled skirt masking the panty half. No one under 50 ever wore such a suit.
Whether we went to the beach then, or drove on to their cottage, I don’t remember. The house I do remember vividly. Its high chalet roof slants down to low eaves, storybook charming inside and out. A great room with sofas and a piano has a mural of gods and fairies at play painted over a big fireplace. A motto curls above it with a poem that begins, “Oh Happiness! Thou golden butterfly of fate…” I can’t remember the rest.
Alice and I have rooms upstairs, each with a balcony overlooking the great room; the railings have heart-shaped cut-outs straight from Heidi. I’m happy to discover I don’t have to share a room. Jane’s room is downstairs, and another room is for her brother Jimmy, who lives in New York and visits often. Jimmy is young and gay—plays fast-tempo jazz on the piano, chatters amusingly about goings-on in the city. He really IS gay, but I don’t yet know what that means. I just know he sleeps most of the time he’s here.
I like the house, the big hammock outside, the nooks inside where I can hole up with my guitar and sing softly to myself. My guitar is my soul’s outlet, which I need on a daily basis, and also my badge of the tribe I hope to join—the hippie folk-singing flower children. Too shy to perform for others, I still must keep it with me at all times so they will know me when they see me.
The house is out in the country, within view of the coast over rolling meadows of beach grass. There is nowhere to walk to. Jane drives us to the beach for picnics and swimming; she drives us to town to shop for groceries.
Up in my little room a few days later my period arrives. I have been menstruating for several years but I am in deep denial about it. It is beyond me to think of laying in supplies, or predicting that a period will arrive while I am Jane’s guest. My denial is a gift from my mother, who failed to tell me anything about this fact of life before it surprised me one summer morning. The lesson I took from this is that THIS MUST NEVER BE MENTIONED. So here I am, hostage of Jane, unable to get away to buy my own supplies and unable to tell her I need them. I am making little pads of toilet paper to get by. I am making up excuses to stay out of the water when we go to the beach. I am imprisoned in my body, in my shameful old ladies’ bathing suit, in my quasi-Victorian nanny role.
We quickly develop A routine: Every day Jane drives us to the beach, then retreats with a book or talks with brother Jimmy. Alice announces “I’m bored,” and I invent some pastime to amuse her. I’m very good at this; I can spin a story about anything, make up a game with no more than two rocks or a twig.
There are several different types of people using these beaches on Martha’s Vineyard in 1969. There are day-trippers like us, with our chairs and umbrellas and picnic spreads. There are girls who ride their horses here to swim. And then there are the hippies, who are camped in their Volkswagen vans with the Peace signs replacing the logo on the front. I think they are on their way to Woodstock.
I want to go to the hippies, fade from my little familial group and take root in their circle, but Jane won’t let me wander that far. I pass time trying to find opportunity to make Hippie Contact, but it never comes. Too soon Alice’s “I’m bored” brings me back to duty.
“See that Alice is Happy” is the prime directive. When the weather isn’t great for the beach, Jane takes us into Oak Bluffs so we can ride the Flying Horses Carousel. Alice has been trying all summer to catch the brass ring, but she hasn’t yet. Astoundingly, I do. Again I’m ashamed; it’s not my place to best Alice at her game. I present the free ride I’ve won to her, but it doesn’t help. She cries, and remains grumpy with me for days afterward.
Near the end of my visit, a couple from a nearby house come for dinner, with their boy who is about Alice’s age. As the adults settle into appetizers and cocktails around the grill, I ask if I can take the children out into the meadow with our own picnic, have our own fire. I will bring my guitar. “We’re going to make a Woodstock,” I explain.
The visiting father repeats what I said. “Do you hear her? She’s going to ‘make a Woodstock.’” Is he amused, or dismissive? Either way, again, I feel shame. I have been lumped in with the children, play-acting fantasies, and that’s not what I meant at all.
What for a moment felt like a statement of tribal membership is suddenly just another diversion to keep Alice from announcing “I’m bored.” There went my Woodstock.
These people have no idea what it’s like to be 13. Can’t anyone see that I’m becoming a young hippie?
I myself have the fear of doing things wrong ..
“Happiness, thou golden butterfly of fate, that from the flower desire sips hope’s sweet opiate, by all in foolish frenzy sought, to prove a flimsy nothingness if caught.”