It was 1993 and our yearly summer vacation. It was not our first trip to the Vineyard so we were eager for South Beach, Menemsha’s coloured sands, bike rides along Joseph Sylvia path, ice cream from Mad Martha’s, grinders!, video movies for extended bedtimes and all the other activities we came to associate with the island, my favourite being the magical stroll among dimly-lit cottages on Illumination Night.
The pastel coloured cottages on Oak Bluffs contributed a fairytale element with gentlefolk in vintage linen clothes, their shadows elongated by lanterns that lined the walkways. We were too polite or maybe slightly afraid to actually enter their small dwellings but just the same, we courteously nodded at the owners and renters in their rocking chairs on that special night. I’ld read Alice Hoffman’s description that commences in the campground’s Tabernacle mid –August, but being there far exceeded any words that attempted to characterize it.
As cynical Canadians, we chortled at the sheer number of patriotic songs that set family groups swaying as the sun settled:” Yankee Doodle Dandy, Red River Valley, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, You Are My Sunshine…” We felt the well worn benches beneath our bums, moving shoulder to shoulder and side to side with the real chauvinists from everywhere in the U.S.A., our children’s roaring voices inaudible from the the rest. Maybe we even heard the echo of Martin Luther King’s deep and resonating voice as he was known to vacation and once even preach here.
We did not know Bill Clinton would also choose to visit this summer.
We anticipated these summers with delight, selecting from the different locations of the island, never quite knowing what to expect from the properties wonderfully described in brochures. We had reserved our ferry tickets from the mainland in February, wanting to avoid the long, long lineups for the ferry, But even then, there were few spots to be obtained. Preparing for the trip was a process shared with our children who would recall this moment or that from a previous trip.
The drive was long, hot but finally endured.
When we heard of his sudden plans, we drove to the airspace and parked ourselves on the small dusty runway for hours, waiting for a glimpse of the arriving president. When he finally prevailed, he was a mere dot at the end of the tarmac. We didn’t care, for lazing on Martha’s Vineyard has a special air to it: of watching the flowers sway, drifting talk with other tourists, sinking into the grass, soaking your senses in sights and smells that keep you warm in the chill winter. A time before Ipads, the kids chased butterflies, poked one another, stretched long in the sun.
The next day, we continued our island vacation, aware that the island had been transformed. It felt as if the air had been changed; it was charged or filled perhaps with the expectation that you might encounter a president as a real person, away from the flash: just being ordinary like you- as if he was the person lazily waiting behind you, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he patiently reviewed the variety of flavours of ice cream on a hot Saturday afternoon at Vineyard Scoops or Mad Martha’s. We were happy to wander aimlessly in Edgartown, bicycle a bit, tease a wave, hike into town. We knew Clinton was there but the news only added to the magic of a summer vacation that prolonged summer days into months. Even the names of Chappaquiddick, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, Illumination Night, Menemsha, Lake Tashmoo and the promise of the return of Jaws all tickled our imaginations.
Around dinner time, we sauntered off early to The Black Dog on the shore at Vineyard Haven. The Black Dog is one of those restaurants for which you must turn up at least an hour early. Everyone knows about it so the lines are incessantly long and the food is always good. So we waited our time, poked into the neighbouring shops and eventually were seated.
Our waitress, a person who looked to have survived the era of hippies, braids in tact, was particularly nervous. As she dropped her tray on my husband’s head, she delightedly whispered, “This will be the most wonderful night of your life.” Too much hash, maybe? A special recipe with chowder perhaps? We rolled our eyes and giggled.
But then I noticed men in grey suits with headphones and I figured it must be a new exclusive band that was being added to the venue. They seemed to scurry much like upright mice as set themselves up in the four corners of the room. Two rather lumpy women entered through the back door and we exclaimed to one another, “There’s Hilary. There’s Chelsea!.” Our mouths dropped. Vernon Jordan followed closely behind. We turned to one another, amazed and aghast.
There were cheers outside as the president entered. My god, he was tall and possibly the best-looking man I’d ever seen. I knew at once the meaning of “charisma” as he towered well above the rest of us, easily radiant as if lit from behind in a soft and friendly light.
I noticed my young son discretely leave the table and approach the great man.
“Hi, Bill”, he said, facing Bill directly.
I gasped to think this child, my child, was referring to possibly the most famous man in the world by his first name. While my boy fiddled with his camera, Bill stood quietly and softly smiled. My kid, hardly a crackshot, tried again, and then again, and still again, with little luck.
And Bill stood there,
patient, smiling, waiting for a child to finish fumbling with his camera and take his picture. No attitude, no hint of annoyance. Unable to work the camera properly, my son finally shrugged and returned to his chair. Bill smiled that smile of his and went to his table directly across from us. My son turned his camera yet again towards Bill, and Bill again, unaffectedly, smiled warmly.
Jordan, our son, had captured an image of the President of the United States and I recall thinking this was one very kind man.
The spell was broken as our waitress popped back to our table and promised that we could stay as long as we liked. After a while, we finished our coffee and pie, ordered a second coffee but decided those people at the other table were also just eating their pie and drinking their coffee and really, how long could you watch people just eating pie and drinking coffee. So we departed.
There was now a yellow rope that cordoned off The Black Dog from the celebrity watchers, keeping them out from the space we had just shared with Bill. The gathered hoards, eager for the glitterati, or even those who might pose as such, cheered as we exited as if we were part of the entourage. We returned their pleasure with a wave- as the Queen Mother might have offered.
We printed the photograph and sent it to The White House. Bill signed the photograph and it sits on our mantelpiece in our living room.
We had many vacations with our children while they were growing up, as I had with my own parents to places less exotic; and from each, there remains a memory, a faded reminder – of a person, of a place, of an experience that has lodged itself and reminds of a day, a keepsake or tiny treasure that occasionally rises to the surface of one’s consciousness, is turned over and grasped anew.