Nantucket Forever

By Paul Lancaster

Editor’s Note: 

Paul Lancaster, who died in 2018, was a journalist and author who spent many summers on Nantucket. He wrote this essay more than 50 years ago. His son John recently discovered it in his father’s old files. He thought it deserved a wider audience, and so did we.

Nantucket Island, 1973

Every summer when we come to this island, we drive off the ferry dock on the harbor and hurry across the moors to our cottage on the open Atlantic. At the crest of a hill as we near the cottage, the ocean suddenly spreads out before us. The day always seems to be sunny and the water dark blue, and even though we have seen the sight for many years now we still experience a thrill—a delicious sense of freedom and exhilaration.

It is dusk by the time the station wagon is unloaded and supper eaten, and then we go down to the beach to see how the winter storms have reshaped it and to watch the lighthouse come on. The next morning, we stop by the little store in the nearby village to arrange to have a copy of the newspaper set aside for us, and we stroll over to the tennis club to sign up for a court. By then the sun is getting high, and we return to the cottage and plunge into the water for our first swim.

Year after year it is the same. We are clearly in a rut. And we love it and plan to stay in it.

This is not to suggest that Nantucket is the ultimate vacation spot; a Lake Michigan beach or a cabin in the Rockies could hold equal attractions for others. The point is that despite the drumbeat of ads beckoning travelers to all manner of exotic places, there is much to be said for finding a place you like and then returning every year.

Some of the reasons are obvious. When you try a new place, chances are good that it will turn out to have drawbacks you didn’t know about. We once rented a cottage in Vermont sight unseen; swimming and tennis handy, said the ad. The swimming turned out to be in a stream whose bottom was littered with broken bottles and the tennis courts were nonexistent. We left after a couple of days.

Another advantage of going back to the same place is that life is pleasanter when you know your way around. The mechanics of life steal less and less time from your vacation. You know when the do-it-yourself laundry will be uncrowded and when it’s a waste of time to visit the supermarket until the ferry brings in new supplies. You know the ropes for getting onto a tennis court or golf course and where the best beaches are. It often seems to us that by the time newcomers to Nantucket have solved such problems, it’s time for them to go home.

Paul Lancaster with his children John and Jenny in front of their beach house in 1964, their first summer on Nantucket.

By the standards of many Nantucket summer residents, we’re still newcomers. This is our tenth summer here, but we meet people whose families have been coming for generations. Watching young women in fetching short dresses play a doubles match at a tennis club, an elderly but keen-eyed woman recalls a day in 1910 when she was ordered to leave the same club for showing up to play in knickers rather than a proper long dress.

In the case of Nantucket, the sea and the beaches and the unique appeal of being on an island help draw people back throughout a lifetime. But something else, by no means peculiar to Nantucket, also lures some vacationers to the same spot time and again. It is the quiet pleasure that comes from reestablishing familiar routine—a sense of continuity and sameness that is reassuring in a world where everything else often seems to be turning upside down. 

John and his son Drew at the family beach house on Nantucket in the early 90s.

When we look back over a summer on Nantucket, it is hard to single out memorable events. From last summer, perhaps we will remember the day when our young daughter delightedly brought home her first tennis trophy. Or maybe the unexpectedly rugged expedition over burning sand in search of the remains of an abandoned nineteenth century coastal lifesaving station.

But for the most part the days blend indistinguishably in a sort of golden haze. The images and sensations we treasure are the same from year to year—our children playing tirelessly in the surf, the rush of wind as we tramp the beach on stormy days, the familiar faces seen as we settle onto the hard wooden seats in the hall where movies are shown several nights a week.

Taking up old friendships is one of the highlights of our vacations. Summer friendships are different from those in the workaday world. In some ways they are sad; they are fleeting and sometimes you’re suddenly aware that people have gone before you’ve done much more than say hello. But summer friendships are relaxed and undemanding and they often resume without missing a beat; a mixed doubles rivalry picks up where it left off a year earlier as if only a day had passed. 

We now spend the whole summer on Nantucket. In June the season seems to stretch out endlessly before us. Then one day it’s over and we’re thinking about ferries and packing. 

It’s said that the test of a good vacation is whether you’re ready to go home and face the world again when it’s over. Sometimes the weather cooperates by signaling that the summer is ending. Last year one of the first storms of the hurricane season hit Nantucket on Labor Day weekend. The wind howled and the seas grew mountainous. Sheets of rain whipped across the blacktop roads, and leaves and branches dropped into the puddles covering the tennis courts. The storm reinforced our feeling that it was time to depart, and when the waves subsided and the ferries resumed their runs, we did.

But as this summer neared, the urge to return to the old rut was irresistible, and the thrill of seeing the ocean over the crest of the hill as we drove toward the cottage was as sharp as ever.

Paul and Susan Lancaster with their children John Lancaster and Jenny Clancy at a clambake in 2002.

Afterword, by John Lancaster:

When my father wrote this article in 1973, Nantucket was still in its age of innocence. At least, that’s how I’ve come to think of it. The island of my youth was low-key and unpretentious, much like the small cottage where we spent our summers. Built as an artist’s studio in the 1930s, it was a ramshackle place with an old brass porthole for a bathroom window and a tiny kitchen that always smelled faintly of cooking gas. The cottage sat on several beachfront acres owned by my grandparents, whose own place on the same land wasn’t much bigger. Both structures were nestled behind a dune that blocked any view of the ocean—possibly a first for waterfront vacation property. Not that any of us felt deprived. The broad empty beach was just steps away down a sandy path lined with rose hips and beach plums. The pounding surf was a constant in our lives, exhausting my sister and me by day and lulling us to sleep at night. It was idyllic and on some level we knew it couldn’t last.

First page of the manuscript

For reasons both practical and financial, our family property was sold in the mid 1990s following the death of my grandfather. By then a Wall Street-driven development boom was well underway. To no one’s surprise, the couple that bought our place built a grand new “cottage” in the high-Hamptons style. This one had an ocean view, of course, as well as a swimming pool and a tennis court. The original Depression-era cottages survived, though in greatly modified form, as I discovered when my wife and I sneaked back onto the property in the dead of winter a few years after the sale. The one where I spent my childhood summers now had a name–“The Tennis House,” engraved on a quarterboard above the door. 

But my family didn’t quit Nantucket—in fact, my sister and I and our families are still there. For all the changes of recent years, it remains one of the most beautiful places I know, thanks in part to some pathbreaking conservation measures that have preserved roughly half the island as open land. The beach on Nantucket’s south shore where I have been surfing for more than 50 years still looks much as it did in my teens. And the island’s rich history as a 19th -century whaling capital comes palpably alive in the cobblestone streets and columned brick mansions of its eponymously named main town. Years before my grandfather died, my parents gave up our beach house and moved a few miles away to Siasconset (pronounced “Sconset”), a charming seaside village whose history as a summer resort dates to the 1880s. They liked being close to their friends, the market where they collected their morning paper, and their century-old tennis club with its cupola-topped clubhouse and red-clay courts. They returned every summer until the end of their lives; their ashes are interred in the columbarium next to the Siasconset Chapel.

The family tradition lives on. My wife and I now own a cottage in the same village, as does my sister and her husband. All of us will one day join my parents at the columbarium. In the meantime, we return every summer with adult children and grandchildren, and for the same reasons that kept my parents coming back to Nantucket for more than half a century–the comfort of a familiar place, the sweet summer friendships, the thrill of that first glimpse of the open Atlantic. 

You might say we’re in a rut.

– John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and author of The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation