Life on Matinicus Island
Donna Rogers is 71; she lives with her husband, Charlie, a lobsterman, in a home overlooking the harbor. She’s a painter, and in the summer also runs a small gallery she calls “The Fisherman’s Wife,” selling art, handcrafts, and notecards to the summer people. On my last day on the island, I went to see her there and bought a small, dreamy photo, taken years ago, of a rainbow over Matinicus Harbor.
She’s a little like a rainbow herself: stout and graying but full of wonderful old stories that paint pictures and cast spells. Many of them are included in the thin, typewritten, hand-stapled book she wrote a decade or so ago: Tales of Matinicus Island: History, Lore and Legend. It tells of Indians, settlers, famous storms, and old shipwrecks, as well as a long-ago girlhood of apple fights and ice-cream making and “homemade kites made of brown wrapping paper and miles of trawling line.” Nearly every home on the island has a copy.
She told me about how she’d first come to the island, as a 9-year-old girl–“a thousand years ago”–when her mother married a Young. Then she’d left, and returned again as a young wife and mother when her husband first took up hauling traps: “We’ve always had to fight to hold on to what we had, always. When Charlie first came here all those years ago, they cut his traps, too. Well, he just put more in, and they cut them again. So he put more in. He was new. He had to pay his dues. It’s what you had to do.”
Then she stopped. “But now with this …” She tilted her head back, hard, almost violently, toward the open window behind us and the dock and harbor beyond.
“Vance and I were kids together. He’s my family. All of them, everyone, the whole island–my family. So it’s hard, what’s happened. It’s very hard. It’s a break in the family …
“I don’t know what to think anymore. When Charlie and I were coming up, it was a different time. A gentler time, I guess you’d say. You had to fight then, too, but it seems like the rules were more moral. Does that make any sense? Now, with all that’s happened–I don’t know. It just seems like right and wrong mean different things today.”
All that was many months ago. The little photo I bought that day, of the rainbow over the harbor, hangs now over my desk at home. It seems almost of a different world.
It’s hard to account for why exactly. It’s more, I think, than the perfect calm of the water, or the hazy, purplish light that must have followed the rain that day. In the photo, the harbor boats seem smaller, and humbler, than I remember. They float at their moorings comfortably apart, not much more than a dozen of them, gentle neighbors under an early-evening sky. I can’t make out their engines, but I feel certain they were smaller, too–and slower, built for a lazier, more generous time.
On Matinicus Island, until that July morning two years ago, it was still that time. A fight was still just a fight, was still among family, could still be atoned for. The world across the water–“America”–had not yet quite arrived.
Now, I fear, it has.