On Nantucket, where a summer dream disappeared

On the topic of longing for childhood summers, last week the New York Times ran a very affecting essay about what it’s like to have, and lose, a special summer place. The writer, Caroline Hamilton, spent the first 11 summers of her life on Nantucket, where her father was a seasonal tennis pro at one of the island’s yacht clubs. As a child she ran with the children of the well-heeled families that belonged to the club, largely oblivious to the social class dynamics between them, and only gradually came to realize the insecurity of her position.

For 13 summers, my father worked as the tennis pro at a yacht club on Nantucket.

During the school year, Dad coached varsity tennis for a university in Boston, and we lived in nearby Belmont, an intellectual suburb peppered with hockey heroes and Mormons. I rode the school bus with a family of blue-eyed angels who wouldn’t play spin the bottle. Our life was comfortable and ordinary, filled with sports practices and brown-bag lunches. The only thing special about me was that I had red hair. And that I went to Nantucket.

Every summer, my older brother, Jeffrey, and I woke in our staff cottage to the whistle of ferries and the scent of honeysuckle. In the mornings, while Dad was teaching lessons, we sailed dinghies in the harbor and played badminton in the clubhouse. In the afternoons, we navigated riptides and wandered the wharves. “I’m going to have one like that,” Jeffrey would say, pointing to a houseboat where crystal glasses sparkled on a wet bar.

I recommend the rest of the essay, which you can read here. Her themes, about how money and social class mediate our relationship to a place, reminded me of my post from last summer, “Social class and memories at a lemonade stand.” One point Hamilton makes that I particularly like is about how money shapes our sense of what it means to belong to a place. Her family couldn’t afford to spend summers on Nantucket, but on a deeper level, she felt that real, authentic participation in the island required a sailboat and a cedar-shingled spread.

We do this all the time, mistake the material trappings of a thing for the thing itself, as though there’s much of a relationship between a pair of shoes and being a runner, or anything you can buy in the world and being a parent. It’s a hard impulse to resist, and sometimes it takes serious displacement, as it did in Hamilton’s case, to realize you’re missing the mark. That said, we’re off to L.L. Bean in a few minutes to get flip-flops for Jay and a water bottle for Wally. They’ll be useful things to have (Jay’s old flip-flops broke in a Portland doughnut shop yesterday), but I’m also hoping the purchases will be noted in the ledger, alongside my morning grumpiness.

2 thoughts on “On Nantucket, where a summer dream disappeared

  1. I discovered your blog when I googled, “How do I prepare for my child’s future?” and clicked the link to your Washington Post opinion, “What matters more to my kid’s future..” I’m not sure when I started asking Google what I used to ask friends, but it was one of those anxious parenting moments when I really, really just wanted someone to tell me that everything was going to be all right. I liked your article, and I love your blog. My son is 3 and my baby girl is 10 months, so seeing your boys is like a peek into the future. You’re a very good writer, and I look forward to following along.

    • Brandi- It’s really nice to ‘meet’ you here! Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy my blog.


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