Age-Defying Vineyarders

A plethora of older folks are relishing their golden years on the Island, keeping active by working, volunteering, socializing, and doing everything that makes them happy.

Sporting buttery leather boots that seem a tad handsome for farm chores, Ed Child makes his way down the path from the backyard, through the grape arbors and to the sheep pen. Five merino sheep greet him with gentle baaaas. They hope they’re in for a mid-morning snack. They settle for pats on their heads. “The brown ewe is especially affectionate,” says Barbara Child. “Her nose feels like velvet.” Barbara is bent over double, deadheading in her perennial garden. She is Ed’s partner in marriage, farming, disaster relief, and camping trips. Ed is eighty-six. Barbara is eighty-two.

The Childs are among untold numbers of age-defying Vineyarders who, like the Energizer Bunny, just keep on going. Into their eighties and beyond, they run businesses, work jobs, and volunteer their time. They pursue hobbies as predictable as quilt making and as counter to stereotype as conga drumming. Plus, they look so darn good. Maybe there’s something in the water, as the saying goes, given the many seniors who regularly take to the ponds, the Sound, or the ocean for swimming, boating, surf-casting, or shellfishing. Then again, maybe this is just the Vineyard version of a positive nationwide trend.

Dukes County, comprising Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, has the second oldest population, on average, in Massachusetts. The challenges faced by seniors everywhere – cost of living, access to health care, isolation, proximity to loved ones – are more pronounced here. “Fortunately, the services for seniors on the Island are very comprehensive, compared with similar areas,” says Leslie Clapp, director of the Island Councils on Aging Inc. She cites the activity-rich senior centers and the Supportive Day Program. New among the service providers this year is Vineyard Village at Home, which offers transportation, home repairs, and other services to seniors who are otherwise self- sufficient. Nonetheless, many seniors wind up having to leave the Island once they can no longer live independently.

Yet it’s terrific there are so many Island seniors who are still vigorous and independent in the first place, like Ed and Barbara Child. Granted, Ed is more vigorous in spirit than in body. He suffers from Lyme disease, and recently he cracked a vertebra. “Probably when I lifted one of those rocks,” he says, pointing at a suspect boulder in the sheep pen. The retired engineer is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and his Boston-born spouse has a three-hundred-year Vineyard pedigree – her maiden name was Barbara Cottle. Neither of them farmed in earnest before they were adults. Ed’s medication may upset his stomach and make him feel weak (“Grouchy,” says Barbara, with smiling blue eyes), still he feeds the sheep twice a day on the seventeen-acre farm the couple bought in the 1950s near Upper Makonikey in West Tisbury. “If it weren’t for the sheep, I’d probably be in the house not doing anything,” he says.

Don’t believe it. Besides sheep, the Childs also grow hay – nearly three hundred bales this past spring alone for market as well as for their own animals. They supply skeins of soft merino knitting wool, knitted caps, and blankets to outlets like the Heath Hen shop in Vineyard Haven, and they’ve hawked their wares at Vineyard flea markets. “We’re not natural salespeople,” Ed admits. Do you ever wonder who empties the clothing from all the Island’s big, white Red Cross donation bins? Yep, it’s Barbara and Ed. And over the past ten years, they’ve traveled across the Island and the country to aid victims of fires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and the September 11, 2001, terror attack on the World Trade Center. Only recently have they given up rushing to disasters at the drop of a hat, but they stand ready to man an on-Island Red Cross shelter in the event of an impending hurricane or other wide-scale emergency.

In a more tranquil pursuit, Barbara arranges wedding corsages, boutonnieres, and other “smalls” – sometimes for as many as nine events a week – for Island florists Marlene Sylvia and, up until recently, Joan Merry. She also volunteers with the Lambert’s Cove Christian Church and as a water runoff inspector for Tisbury Waterways Inc. And when wanderlust hits, these two wild and crazy kids hit the road in their 1972 camper. They’ve done three round trips to Alaska alone, and they’re thinking about doing a fourth. “I like adventure,” says Barbara, whose ancestor from the Luce branch of the family once sailed out of Tisbury harbor through a British blockade. “I’ve got sea captain in my blood.”

Since Ed’s back injury, the Childs’ three sons are beginning to think their parents should be more careful at their age. Meantime, the couple is thinking about making wool rugs, putting a new-found sailboat on the water, and growing the sheep herd again. “We really don’t think about our age,” says Barbara. “We don’t have time.”

Shops on the Vineyard come and go, but Mary’s Linen Store seems to be an emporium for the ages. Owners and sisters Celia and Ann Tuccelli and Elena Iacoveillo marked the store’s sixtieth anniversary this year with cake, punch, and gift bags for friends old and new during the Oak Bluffs summer solstice festival. Since 1948, the Circuit Avenue storefront has barely changed. Neither has the interior, with its sturdy wooden tables and shelves laden with fundamental dry goods – bedding and towels, curtains and tablecloths, children’s clothing and souvenir T-shirts. If meatloaf is comfort food, Mary’s is a comfort store.

“People say we have the cheapest prices on the Island,” says Celia.

Mary’s regulars will spot each season’s novel offerings, such as this year’s floppy dolls with the big round faces. Once upon a time, the new item was a T-shirt with the words Martha’s Vineyard. “We were one of the first stores to sell them,” says Celia, while minding the store one Sunday with Elena’s husband, Louis. It’s a rare day when all three sisters aren’t on the floor. In summer, the store is open seven days a week for up to thirteen hours a day, and they typically work all seven days – in shifts, thank goodness. Celia is eighty-nine. Ann and Elena are eighty-five and seventy-six, respectively. Louis is seventy-eight. The foursome shares an Oak Bluffs home as well as the operation of the store.

“They commandeered me,” says Louis with a grin.

“The women customers all like him,” says Celia with a soft smile.

Celia began working at the store twenty-five or thirty years ago, she estimates, traveling from her home and grocery-chain job in Boston to help her mother on weekends. Their mother, Mary Tuccelli, bought the linen business and building on a whim, not long after the family acquired their Oak Bluffs vacation home in the 1940s. Her husband, Angelo, stayed busy fishing, but Mary was itching for something to do. On a walk down Circuit Avenue one day, the previous owner of the store made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. After Mary passed in 1986, her daughters took over full time. Celia hasn’t missed a year since.

“We’ve had five generations of customers,” says Celia, who enjoys the store mainly for the people contact. “Some people who arrive for the summer come in to see us right away. I don’t think they even go home first. They’re just glad to find out we’re still here.” Those who have been absent from the Island for many years speak nostalgically about coming into the store as kids. And in the years since their mother’s passing, Celia and her sisters continue to learn of her charity. “She extended credit or gave away clothes sometimes. People tell us they don’t know how else they would have made it.”

The Tuccelli sisters share the tasks – marking items, arranging displays, cleaning the store. Elena does the bookkeeping. Just about the only pastime they make time for is going out to eat. This explains why Angelo’s vast vegetable garden, which once included six hundred tomato plants, went to seed long ago. At least Celia is following doctor’s orders: “‘Keep working,’ he always tells me. ‘You gotta keep working to stay young.’”

Mary’s closes for business from October until April. Still, there’s work to be done. From their winter home in Boston, the proprietors travel to trade shows around Massachusetts and do the buying for the following season. “I’d love to go to a show in New York,” says Celia, “but it’s just too difficult.” They otherwise spend their downtime entertaining, shopping the malls, and taking the occasional gambling trip to Foxwoods casino. None of the sisters has children, let alone grandchildren, but thanks to their brother George and his six offspring, they’re surrounded by plenty of family.

Without fail, the Tuccellis make a brief return trip to the Island before Christmas every year to decorate Mary’s windows for the holidays. Celia says they do it mainly for the children. “And we get cards and letters from Islanders, thanking us for doing it.”

“I struggled with my flawed sexuality.” Whoa. So these are the Howes House Writers – a Tuesday morning conclave of essayists, memoirists, poets, novelists, and short-story authors who dare to read excerpts of works in progress in exchange for gentle critiquing from their peers. Some members have been Howes House Writers since the group’s inception some ten or twelve years ago. They’re at ease baring their souls.

The Howes House Writers aren’t seniors by definition. Yet they happen to meet at Howes House, home to the Up-Island Council on Aging (where the conga drumming goes on, by the way), and most of the twenty-one members happen to be seniors. The three oldest are in their eighties. Some members are published; most are not. In various orders of importance, they come together for artistic development, encouragement, camaraderie, and love of the spoken word. Getting their projects published would be icing on the cake.

Cynthia Riggs is the group’s founder and facilitator, but on one recent Tuesday, the well-known, gray-haired runabout is regretfully absent due to goodness knows what – the taping of one of her Island television shows, turnover cleaning at her bed-and-breakfast, or maybe a looming deadline for a draft of her next mystery novel. This doesn’t hamper the group’s agenda.

Ten are gathered on this day in the Howes House library: One is a short story writer and three-season resident of Aquinnah. Another is a retired mental health professional and “more of a painter and artist than a writer,” she humbly states. A retired rabbi describes herself as an “agent of social change,” who’s currently imploring this year’s presidential candidates to pay more attention to the environment. A semi-retired “minister who writes murder mysteries” also makes art quilts. Another fabric artist is also an award-winning home gardener. The rest of the group includes a poet and public health consultant, a visiting anthropologist, and three retired teachers from the Edgartown School. “I’ve been retired from teaching for more than the twenty-two years that I taught,” says Shirley Mayhew, whose essays have appeared in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Some members washed ashore on the Vineyard way back when, as young adults. Others are former summer people who transitioned to year-round life, or nearly so.

“None of us are short-term visitors,” says the aforementioned fabric artist Jeanne Hewett, of Vineyard Haven. And if you stamp the label “retired” on these retirees, you’ll get an earful. “We’ve simply quit doing that thing that once made us part of some regime. And now that we’re no longer doing one thing, some of us have picked up five other things.”

Jeanne’s patchwork pillows appear in the Granary Gallery and in off-Island boutiques, and at least one of her pillows graced the Clinton White House. Her husband, Edward “Ted” Hewett, keeps busy too; he is a muralist, cartoonist, and poet, whose latest book of cartoons, Extreme Birding (Westmeadow Press), was released this summer. He’s also a volunteer with the Vineyard Haven thrift shop of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, where he has a keen nose for the “good” stuff.

As is customary, Jeanne serves as today’s no-nonsense facilitator in Cynthia’s stead. This writers’ group is no coffee klatch; it’s serious business. Readings are timed. If the subject leads the discussion astray (“Clothespins – I used to make clothespin dolls as a child.”), it gets put back on track quickly. The readers successfully transport their listeners with sentiment, intrigue, or humor – but mainly sentiment. One sets a scene in a family cemetery in war-torn Ireland. Another revisits a troubled six-year-old who once responded trustingly to the touch of her hand. A memoirist recalls a life-altering fascination with the writings of James Baldwin. A short story writer tells an evocative tale of backyard neighbors in Edgartown. Jeanne reads an essay about her late father and his garden: I got to know him better when he was in his eighties and nineties. He was crotchety and difficult. I understand him better now.

The peer praises are many. The criticisms are few and ever so polite: “This is really minor, but.” A poet caves in to every suggestion about his latest effort. “But you don’t have to change anything if you don’t want to.”

Two hours fly by, and the Howes House Writers call it a morning. Some head to life’s next appointments. Others linger to chat. All are inspired to get back to their memoirs, essays, poems, or stories and take them to the next level by next Tuesday.

Gloria Wong is later than usual this morning. It’s nearly 8 a.m., and she’s just now finishing her daily swim, peeling off her bathing cap, and getting ready to head home. She’s a member of the Polar Bears of Martha’s Vineyard, a mostly senior group of men and women who gather every morning except Sundays, from the Fourth of July until Labor Day (not the cold-weather Polar Bears in other locales), to swim laps or do water aerobics at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs. She can be found swimming in June and September too. And today, she is nearly done with her swim when other Polar Bears are just getting started. Lately, Gloria and several other Polar Bears have been harvesting seaweed for Island artist Rose Treat, who needs the greenery for her projects. Rose is ninety-nine and joined the Polar Bears in the 1950s – the first Polar Bears of Martha’s Vineyard club was formed in the 1940s.

Gloria prefers to keep her age off the record. She’s not ashamed; just private. Her appearance to the contrary, she has full-grown grandchildren. She first met the Polar Bears decades ago while riding her bicycle near the Steamship Authority terminal, by the beach where the current version of the Bears used to convene way back when, in the late seventies. Gloria was invited to join them for a swim some time. She did and hasn’t stopped since. Gloria, whose entire face is all radiance all the time, says “I’m one of the last two or three original Polar Bears [from the seventies].” She not only knows all the swimmers, Polar Bear and otherwise, she also knows the walkers, the cyclists, the bench potatoes, and other regular morning people along Seaview Avenue. And they know her.

Hi, Gloria. Oh, hi Marjorie. Hi, Gloria. Hi, Betsy.

Gloria has been a year-round Vineyarder for ten years. It’s the latest stage in a life journey that’s taken her from her birthplace in British Columbia to California and eventually eastward to the Boston area. She spent a dedicated career in clinical social work, mainly in public health, notwithstanding time off to raise five children.

The family began vacationing on the Vineyard in 1964 and purchased their Camp Ground cottage a few years later. After the home burned to the ground in the seventies, it was rebuilt so flawlessly, one is hard pressed to figure out which of the cottages on Trinity Park is the “new” one. Today, however, Gloria lives in a modern home in Vineyard Haven, and the cottage serves as an overflow guest house for a family that’s grown to include ten grandchildren. One branch of the clan just arrived from Hong Kong.

“After my husband died in 1995, I thought about moving to California to be with my sister. Plenty of people here on the Vineyard said, ‘Oh, you can come and stay with us anytime,’” says Gloria. “But you really can’t do that.” John Novak, who rebuilt Gloria’s Camp Ground cottage twenty years earlier, stepped up to the plate. He suggested that he could build her a year-round Island home inexpensively and helped her find a piece of land. “That was just before the real estate prices jumped up,” she says. “The Lord provides.”

For more than twenty-five years, Gloria has been active in the Episcopal ministry. In Boston, she served as a deacon and member of the steering committee for the Boston Chinese Ministry. Today, she frequently sings and reads from the Gospel for Sunday Evensong. She serves at Trinity Church in Oak Bluffs in the summer and at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven the rest of the year. Actually, she “serves” at Grace Church in the summer too, loading up award-winning lobster rolls on Fridays for an extremely faithful flock.

Gloria also lends her voice to the contralto section of the Island Community Chorus. And when she’s not singing, serving, swimming, or seaweed picking here on the Vineyard, she’s been known to take off to Singapore, Morocco, Japan, Hawaii – chiefly to the corners of the earth where her children reside.

On the Vineyard, however, Gloria flies solo. She’s comfortable knowing she has loved ones as close as Wayland and as “near” as the far side of the earth. In fact, her oldest son’s family is due to arrive on-Island this very day. In denim shorts, Gloria mounts her gray bicycle and pedals from the beach toward the Camp Ground to prepare to welcome them back to her world.