Soon to be Known as the Destefani House

When a house acquires a name on the Island, it’s a sign that a stranger has arrived, worked hard, sacrificed, and achieved something memorable.

At fifteen world-wise years, Mateus is the youngest of the three Destefani children – for my visit, he’d put some gel in his hair to give it a flip and a shine. Along with his seventeen-year-old brother Tiago and eighteen-year-old sister Talita, he sits politely on the overstuffed, red-leather couch across from the largest television I’ve ever seen. The children surround their mother Sonia. She smiles at me – her dark, lively eyes say, “Welcome to our home,” as much as they cast the occasional matriarchal, corrective glance over her brood. Valério, the husband and father, comfortably fills out a La-Z-Boyish easy chair. His manner is affable and full of pride when he talks about his Vineyard home, and about leaving Brazil. He looks especially proud when he glances over at his family.

The Destefanis came to the Island – Valério in 2000, Sonia in 2001, and the children in 2003 – from Barra de São Francisco. In Brazil, Valério worked on a farm, Sonia in a shop. The two have been married nineteen years. All five family members work at Cronig’s Market in Tisbury. “It was always a love affair, right from the beginning, that Sonia had with that store,” Valério laughs. “Our lives changed when we decided to stay here and make a life. Instead of just work, work, work, life became about living. Work hard, yes. And always school. But enjoy life, explore America, get settled, and put roots down into the community.” His children feel the same way. Talita knows she wants to become a dentist, Tiago an engineer. Mateus begs off: “I’m only fifteen! I don’t know yet!”

When they first saw it, Sonia and Valério fell in love with this Vineyard Haven house – the quiet street, the expanse of trees. They bought it in October 2003. As a family, the Destefanis enjoy entertaining together. “Brazilians – they like to have parties,” Sonia smiles. So Valério built out the deck, where families of friends and friends of the family gather to enjoy music, food, and a first language, naturally spoken.

Not far from the Destefani home, near the shoreline of the Vineyard and up in its hills, stand houses with enthralling views, architecture, craftsmanship, duplicate kitchens, and old and impressive family histories. But elsewhere – sometimes no farther away than the inland end of the same road – there are more modest places such as this one. In these houses live the people who keep the shelves stocked at the market; who serve as waiters and drive buses; who build, caretake, clean, and garden those spectacular Island houses at the other end of the road – folks, in short, who help Martha’s Vineyard keep up appearances while keeping more or less invisible themselves.

But even these simpler places are moving beyond the reach of working families. When a waterfront estate sells for $25 million, the value of everything else on the market rises vertiginously. And when a gallon of gas costs $3.55 and a gallon of milk can touch $4.69, you don’t have to look at the real-estate ads to realize that it’s probably a whole lot easier for a hard-working family to make it somewhere else. But the Destefanis and countless others hang on, because the Vineyard looks and feels different and welcoming to them too.

Whether we walked here before the seas rose, arrived with the first colonials 360 years ago, or disembarked from the ferry earlier today, we’re all newcomers to Martha’s Vineyard. When a home acquires a name on the Island – the Vanderhoop homestead, the Holmes Coffin house – it’s a sign that some stranger arrived, worked hard, sacrificed, and achieved something memorable on Martha’s Vineyard. In generations to come, Valério and Sonia’s home may very well be called the Destefani house, because this home kept a family together in an offshore land of promise and possibilities.