At Home with House Guests

“New England hospitality” is not exactly a phrase that rolls off the tongue like, say, “Southern hospitality.” Instead, the welcoming style in this grand northeast corner of America seems to be closer to Robert Frost’s analysis. “Good fences make good neighbors,” as he succinctly puts it in “Mending Walls,” really does sum up the inherent distance – the real or imagined stone walls and stonewalling – that crusty Yankees put between themselves and thee.

Remember Art Buchwald’s annual June column inviting guests to the Island, at least those hardy souls who could withstand ticks, poison ivy, skunks, preciously priced blueberries, soggy towels, and bumper-to-bumper traffic at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven? He might as well have put up a “Closed for the Season” sign – on Memorial Day. Even magnanimous Vineyarders tend to chuckle when they first read the bumper sticker: “Summer people, some are not.”

Yet despite what appears to be an us-versus-them, less-than-inviting attitude among some year-round and summer residents, that’s just the crusty surface. Not far below, Vineyarders exhibit an undeniable generosity of spirit and inclusiveness, no matter how many times they kick you off private beaches. You just have to be a little patient.

Eventually the Island’s welcoming spirit melts that hard-boiled New England exterior. Have you noticed, for example, how infrequently Vineyarders actually say “no” to those long-lost relatives or friends who come out of the woodwork each spring to slyly schmooze an invite for a few days? We say “yes” because we love to show off our Island even more than we love to show off our exquisite houses with their manicured landscaping – as long as house guests have the decency to shove off in a timely manner.

In truth, the Island herself plays hostess, whether to the 15,000 die-hard year-rounders or the swelling 100,000 of summer. We humans just set the table, preferably with Island fare foraged by the intrepid hunter-gatherers among us. Beatific beaches and womb-like woods, charming villages and tree-lined green tunnels that pass for roads up-Island – these are the main attractions and, like any good host, they bond us one to another.

But it’s the hearts of Vineyarders that turn our houses into homes, whether those homes are the almost Zen-like rustic camps of old, the glorified wooden shacks where fishermen may have stored their gear and taken refuge in a storm; or the modern everything-including-two-kitchen-sinks architectural gems; or the humble (read “affordable”) but perfectly utilitarian classic capes that are the envy of those friends and family from urban wherever.

How we decorate our homes to make them warm and welcoming is a very personal matter; Vineyard design tastes run the gamut from lobster traps and faux buoys to the latest catalogue-cover couches and big-name artwork. But we can all agree the kitchen is often the universal magnet, where the freshest fish and those pricey berries hold court, laid out on a kitchen island topped with a sturdy butcher block or an expanse of gleaming granite. There’s something metaphorical about gravitating to an island on an island.

I love those winter dinner parties when we hunker down and, over smoked bluefish and a petite syrah, try to put into larger perspective what (and whom) we left behind “back in America.” But I also long for the summer cocktail-cum-barbecue gatherings that spill out onto lovely lawns, and under stars so close you can touch them, we contemplate Big Questions.

With our ambivalent outstretched arms, we Vineyarders can be particular when it comes to being welcoming. Letting people onto the Island is one thing. Letting them into our homes is another. But letting them into our innermost thoughts, hopes, and dreams – that’s where insular Island people draw a line in the sand and allow only their nearest and dearest to cross it.