Midsummer Intimations of Mortality

In the second week of June, we took an early-season family vacation to Nantucket Island. Nantucket is approximately 225 miles east of the New York City suburb in which we reside, so the sun rises approximately twenty minutes earlier there. Which, combined with the southeastern exposure of the room we were staying in, might explain why my seven-month-old son Sebastian woke up at exactly 5:45 A.M. every day.

In an effort to give my wife a bit of a vacation, and to avoid the ire of several generations of family peacefully sleeping in various parts of the house (and, most importantly, to ensure the continued slumber of his two-and-a-half-year-old sister), I climbed out of bed the first morning and strapped Sebastian up in the front pack for a stroll about town.

That first morning, a Sunday, we ventured down toward the sparsely-populated docks, then down Easy Street to Steamboat Wharf, out past the White Elephant toward Brant Point, and down toward Jetties Beach past the manses on Hulbert Avenue. We made it back in time to rouse the rest of the family for the 8:30 A.M. Mass at Our Lady of the Isle.

The second day set the rhythm, with Sebastian and I exploring the lanes and docks of the old whaling village while all was quiet and the sun was still casting long shadows. After our walk, we met up with the early risers at the 7:30 mass at Our Lady of the Isle, and headed to breakfast afterward at the Fog Island Café.

At first, we walked among the fancy boutiques in the center of town and passed the few yachts that had ventured out across the sound before peak season. But as the days went on and my historical curiosity was piqued, we began to wander further afield and to take note of the truly ancient, by American standards, architecture on the Island.

White men first settled Nantucket Island when several non-Puritans fled religious persecution in Massachusetts in 1659. The first whaling fleets were organized by 1690, and in 1715, after a ship blown out to sea by a gale had come across and taken a sperm whale, deep sea whaling began in earnest.

    St. Mary, Our Lady of the Isle

For the next hundred and forty years, Nantucket would be the whaling capital of the world. But it was not to last. A whale-oil fire in 1846 nearly destroyed the town. At the same time, the gold rush in California drew away many able-bodied young men who would have manned the great sailing ships of the Nantucket fleet, and the Civil War diverted the supply of young sailors even more completely.

All the while, petroleum fields in Pennsylvania were producing kerosene, making whale oil obsolete. Nantucket harbor silted up, making it impossible for large whaling ships to enter.

And so the economy of the island-based global powerhouse came to a halt, and the thirty miles of intervening sea served to insulate and preserve the now-quiet town from the industrialization that swept the mainland. As a result, we have today a perfectly preserved colonial village, frozen in the nineteenth century.

As Sebastian and I strolled about, I began to be struck by the magnitude of the town’s history. I found myself standing, time and again, in front of homes that were built by British subjects, ninety years before the Revolution. Generations of Starbucks and Coffins and Macys and Folgers lived and died on the island before one of them had to ask himself, Where do I stand on the question of independence?

I was struck most strongly one morning as I stood in front of an enormous brick building on Winter Street. It was the Coffin School, built in 1854, after the original structure was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1846. The original mission of the school was to educate the descendants of Tristan Coffin, who died on Nantucket in 1681. I had been on the island more summers than not since I was my son’s age, and I had never seen this building before. Here was a great building, built by great men, long dead. It has been generations since anyone was educated in the Coffin School.

As I walked on with my infant son asleep on my chest, I considered how short and fleeting is life, for all its pomp and vanity. It seemed to me then, as we walked slowly down the hill to Our Lady of the Isle, that there aren’t too many things that really matter in this world.

Sebastian was soundly asleep on the Monday after our return when I left for work at quarter to eight. It was as though he knew the vacation was over. It was, but I won’t soon forget the time I spent walking with my son in my arms, among monuments to men long dead.

Greg Pfundstein is the executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.