The ancient Romans believed that strawberries helped alleviate melancholy. Maybe that’s why these women with maroon-stained fingers break into laughter every ten minutes or so.

On a brilliant June morning, twelve cheery souls sit at a large table in the parish hall of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. The rectangular room, tucked away toward the back of the church, is big, but it pulses with the cozy, collegial air of a village coffee shop. Four large windows, curtains pulled back, allow light to streak across the room and the table. The scent of wood polish mixes faintly with various perfumes. In this place there is a clean, orderly, festive vibe, thick with anticipation.

It’s prep time before the church’s strawberry festival, an annual fund-raiser that attracts hundreds, mainly people who want to support a good cause – the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury’s Church Improvement Society – but anyone, really, who happens to hanker after a luscious sundae, shortcake, or other concoction associated with the hearty, dimpled fruit.

The women clean, cull, and slice. The men help out, too, but right now, it’s just the ladies who dice and dish on every topic from Shackleton to Shakespeare. The atmosphere is light, purposeful. The volunteers work fast, keeping their heads down, while swapping strawberryisms. One tells the group: “Legend has it that if you break a double strawberry in half and share it with a member of the opposite sex, you’ll fall in love with each other.”
A tiny, silver-haired woman one-ups: “Madame Tallien – you know, from the court of Napoleon – bathed almost every day in the juice of fresh strawberries; she said it kept her skin soft as butter.” The women like this one. They nod their heads and a few stroke their hands as if to say, Maybe.

The room goes silent for a few minutes; a man arrives with two blenders and a gaggle of teenagers carrying fresh-baked biscuits from the culinary-arts program at the high school. The working area is filling up, but the women focus on the task at hand. They have a deadline to meet. There’s something industrious and utilitarian about the way they huddle like Knights of the Round Table, as if they’re on a mission. And I suppose they are. A young woman with a ponytail tells me, “If you live here, you give here.”

Richard Paradise of Vineyard Haven has coordinated the strawberry festival for the past two years. He works with the Reverend Thomas Roan of West Tisbury, overseeing hundreds of volunteers and dozens of Vineyard businesses that have given time, money, and assets to the cause. Richard talks about “the great spirit of volunteerism” on the Vineyard, not just with this event, but with other worthwhile fund-raisers. He says when people volunteer, “they become part of the community fabric.”

Around one in the afternoon, the festival begins and the volunteers emerge from the parish hall to join their kids, grandkids, friends, spouses. Their work is done; it’s time to savor the fruits of their labor. The crowd grows, and the only way now to spot a strawberry lady – several of them have moved from
the dicing table to the serving table – is by the pinkness of her fingertips. One approaches me with a smoothie. On this eighty-eight-degree afternoon, it tastes like heaven. She can’t help but share one last nugget about the fruit of the day. Did you know, she asks, that in Othello, Desdemona’s fate hinges upon the whereabouts of a strawberry-embroidered handkerchief?

I smile and think: win-win, this celebration of strawberries, volunteerism, fellowship. Dedicated folks coming together to raise funds for a worthy cause and savor a precious piece of Island life. Good stuff – any way you slice it.

Check the calendar of the Vineyard Gazette ( for the date and time of the strawberry festival in June.