Family Portrait: The Williamson Sisters

Life began off Edgartown’s Planting Field Way in the ’50s for five girls named Williamson. They were Phyllis, Baba (Gwynneth), Sharon, Cynthia, and Sunny (Sigourney). Their parents, Cynthia  Dickinson and Clement Williamson, met on-Island as teenagers in the 1920s. After marrying, the parents settled in Providence,  then bought eighteen acres of meadow and marshland that included an old Edgartown ice pond and ancient Indian planting fields. In 1950, the late Ed Tyra put up their summerhouse: a main room downstairs, a parents’ room upstairs, and a dormitory for the girls. No phone, no electricity: Vineyard living at its mid-century, elemental best.
Before long, Cynthia Williamson became bedridden with polycystic kidney disease. She died in 1960. But Clem and his girls continued to gather each summer off Planting Field Way. Mornings he’d thunder downstairs, ready for anything the day offered. An engineer, he planned and built a makeshift runway near the house for his STOL (short-takeoff/landing) plane. The girls were watching the day Clem landed his plane for the first time, threw down his hat, and shouted, “By God, I did it!” Due to complaints from golfers at the nearby Edgartown Golf Club, it was also the last time. But that didn’t stop Clem from flying in formation with a group of friends in the Sunday Morning Katama Squadron flying club. The girls often went along with their dad – they’d take off from the “little” Katama grass airfield and land at the “big” Dukes County Airport for breakfast.
All five girls learned to swim on-Island, spending days together at Bend in the Road Beach in Edgartown and graduating to the rollers of South Beach. One time, Clem sneaked an ex-circus horse from the mainland over on the steamer, leading the horse onto the boat on foot because trailers were too awkward to park, removing the shoes to prevent them from sparking on the steel deck. He rode the horse home through a driving Vineyard rain. The next morning, the girls discovered their new pet, aptly named Surprise, tied to a tree, grazing happily in the yard.  
“You can’t ride the horse until you build a barn,” Clem warned Phyllis, the oldest. Meanwhile, “Surpy” galloped across golf greens when he got loose. Golf club founder Cornelius Lee took one look at these “ragamuffin” girls and told Clem, “I guess I won’t sue you.” With wood imported from Vermont, the Williamson barn went up north and east of the main homestead. Soon, sheep were introduced to restore soil removed for Clem’s landing strip.
The sheep didn’t stay put any better than the horse. In 1989 sheep No. 27 went AWOL for a week. Sunny, the youngest of the girls, was married at this point and had four kids. The animal control officer would show up with reports of sightings – at 7 a.m. at least once. Sunny would pile the kids into her van and chase the runaway through town with stops to nurse her four-week-old. They’d get close, but No. 27 always escaped, until the day he was corralled with the help of tranquilizer-laced feed. The news made the Vineyard Gazette.    
The Williamson girls are grown up now, and Clem is gone, but every summer they come back to the house off Planting Field Way. With their husbands they divide themselves, eighteen children and twelve grandchildren, among four houses. Phyllis, who supervises programs for gifted children in New York, has the newest house. Baba is a retired nurse who spends six months in Texas and six in her Vineyard house. Visiting during the summer, Sharon lives in Hartford and, with a doctorate in education, teaches college-level reading and writing. Cynthia teaches art in Deerfield and also visits summers. Sunny teaches high school English and drama in Vermont, coming in summer and for brief winter spells.
The days when they all rode horses on the beach or played tennis before school are gone. But they still get together for occasions such as family weddings at an Edgartown summerhouse down a dirt road that once had five girls living in it, but no electricity and no phone.