Summer, a Sweet Liberty

In her memoir, Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron lays bare the complexities of a turbulent family life with the late Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Styron, who suffered from debilitating depression. In this excerpt, she describes her summers on Martha’s Vineyard as much-cherished interludes, and great fun in their own right.

It would be hard to overemphasize how joyful the Vineyard made me. Like most children vested with the privilege of summers on the beach, I got a long-lasting, mellow kind of high from the annual pelagic assault on my senses – the feel of warm sand against my cheeks; the brackish air; the view of a lighthouse’s brave silhouette; ambient sounds made by boats at anchor, halyards pinkling against their masts. I loved to swim and would surf the chilly New England waters on an inflatable raft until my fingers looked like tips of white asparagus. I rarely got out of my bathing suit, never wore shoes, lived on fried food and Popsicles, and fell asleep each night to the gentle thrum of the ocean lapping our pebbled shore.

Life on the Vineyard was an outdoor arcade of activity, associations, secret pleasures, and freedoms unimaginable in the winter months. But, above all else, for me it was a complete hiatus from the anxiety that dogged my every conscious moment in Roxbury. On the Vineyard, I awoke most mornings and, in nearly one fluid motion, rolled out of bed, across the lawn, and through the hedge to the yacht club. Besides the occasional spring back home for a towel, a tennis racquet, or quarters for the soda machine, I stayed away till nightfall, engaged in every form of recreation (sanctioned and non-) I could scare up.

My only other base of operation was Tashmoo Farm, where, as in Connecticut, I devoted a generous amount of time to disappearing through the thick woods on horseback. In the summer, I lived entirely outside my father’s range of command. Not only did I not run afoul of him, but I rarely even ran past him. Many days it was as if he’d ceased to exist as a person to whom I was even marginally obliged. He went about his business and I went about mine. I was autonomous, without rules – a condition I embraced, and would push to its practical limit when I reached adolescence.

When I was a little girl, my room was in the main house, at the top of the kitchen stairs just above what was then an unfinished laundry room and half bath. With the exposed joists providing a conduit for sound, I was able to plan whole days around overheard phone conversations, or muse on the appearance of visitors who were always plopping themselves down at the breakfast table. The south side of my room furnished me with still more useful intelligence. Peering out these windows, I could watch my father come and go from the little shack where he worked, though I didn’t really need to look. The screen door’s screech-and-bang report was always as good as any scout in alerting me to my father’s whereabouts.

My room featured two other portals to knowledge as well, ones that, though not especially practical, made for countless adventures in voyeurism. A north-facing bedroom window offered a perfect view over the top of the outdoor shower – it was from here that Elizabeth Hackney and I once watched Frank Sinatra lathering up (his chairman of the board status far less amusing to a couple of seven-year-olds than the sight of his body parts). And, under one of the twin beds, you could peer into the downstairs bathroom through a hole in the floor, perfectly and purposely drilled just above the toilet. I couldn’t then, still can’t, explain that aperture. But lying with friends among the dust bunnies monitoring dinner guests’ potty rituals was often as entertaining as any movie playing down at the Capawock.

Excerpted from Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron. Copyright © 2011 by Alexandra Styron. Used with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.