Divorcés Who Got the Vineyard Vacation House


That was Mom, circa 2004. Having yanked the plug on my marriage’s life support, I was beating a path back to the United States from abroad, in search of a familiar womb. New York? Too expensive. D.C.? Ditto. Dallas? Oh, please. The only place that resonated was the Vineyard – the lifelong vacation place, the healing place, and, on the practical side, the one place I still had a house. The prenup said the Vineyard house was mine forever and ever, amen. Best line in the document.

Yet winter was approaching, and to Mom, the notion of the Vineyard off-season was akin to the dark side of the moon. She may have pictured her dispirited baby in fetal position, clutching a fifth of hooch. Her baby was tougher than she knew.

Then again, on this eastern outpost in the eastern time zone, as the autumn sky grew dim right after lunch, I couldn’t shake the image of the ax-wielding character in The Shining, possessed in his wintry isolation by demons. I wimped out before Christmas and retreated to Mom’s home in the New York suburbs until early spring. I did this shuffle for one winter after another after another until light dawned: I was gonna lose my marbles on a tidy Westchester County cul-de-sac sooner than in the amiable embrace of Martha’s Vineyard.

Make that mostly amiable: At my first Island job, amid a snug little workforce of mid-life women, one co-worker was astonishingly aloof. “She got divorced a year ago,” the boss confided. “Poor thing’s still having a tough time.” The boss went on to share the full back story (as Vineyarders are wont to do). Evidently, my sad colleague had wound up with the Vineyard summer home in her divorce settlement – full time, year-round, and alone. She was me, minus the veil of gritty cheer.

And lo, as my off-season orientation expanded, I would discover we were but two members of a sizable, if scattered, Island society: Divorcés Who Got the Vineyard Vacation House. I met them working. I met them in the neighborhood. I met them at gallery openings and community meetings. We’re disparate souls: newbies to the club and old hands. Happy campers and not so much. And if you’re guessing we’re all women, guess again.

Every member of the DWGTVVH has crossed two thresholds at one go – one ushering us back into singlehood, the other leading us into a twilight zone of meager social ties, no agenda past Labor Day, and one eight-hundred-ton gorilla: The House. A house full of the ghosts of cheery family vacations. A house in a summer neighborhood with nary another porch light in view. A house whose sole owner is too timid to relight the gas pilot on the water heater. A house where, if you fell down the basement steps and broke your neck, no one would find you for weeks. A house with a ravenous appetite for heating fuel and where January gales slip through secret leaks in the windows and doors. A house with a driveway that now requires a snow shovel. The driveway had better not be on a hill.

But hey, most of us get over the gorilla, and here’s how: We make the home ours. We make changes we’ve always dreamed of and – ideally – that our exes firmly didn’t. It’s therapeutic. I phoned a landscaper posthaste and finally got perennial beds in front of the porch. My friend Marie added a sun room. Sherry transformed her ex-husband’s boatbuilding barn into an artisan’s studio, where she hunkered down and grew a craft into a bustling career.

Not every divorcé stays on the Vineyard for the long haul. Some move away once they’ve healed. Some move away because they haven’t healed. Sometimes it’s complicated: About three years post-divorce, Richard decided to sell his house and move off-Island to live with his girlfriend. He had a buyer squarely on the hook, only to have his daughter drop a nuclear reminder: “Doesn’t Mommy have the right of first refusal to buy the house?” One could call Richard a Divorcé Who Sort of Got the Vineyard Vacation House.

Ditto Janet: Her ex owned the Vineyard house; she occupied it. This was her lifelong legal right, unless and until he sold the house. Which he did. After ten sweet years in solo residence, Janet packed boxes and grieved. She found solace moving south to dote on her grandchildren. The little ones don’t quite get why they can’t spend summers at Grandma’s on the Vineyard anymore.

But life is not about a house. Divorcés who get the Vineyard house and successfully stay there tend to get out of the house. We work, we volunteer, we potluck, we yoga, we discover, we befriend. The brave among us date. So don’t work too hard trying to pick us out around the Island – we blend in with everyone else.