OAK BLUFFS — The childhood home of Phyllis Méras still stands in East Chop on the outskirts of Oak Bluffs. “On its wide porch, I learned to read. From my bedroom, I could hear the West Chop foghorn bellowing and the bell buoy clanging off East Chop when the wind was right,” she writes in her latest book, “In Every Season: Memories of Martha’s Vineyard.”
It was Méras’s great-grandfather, a French professor from New York, who made the move in the 1890s to teach at the recently established Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute. While his tenure was short (the school closed in 1895), his decision to venture off the mainland is a gift his descendants cherish to this day.
It’s a short walk from Méras’s first home to the bluffs overlooking the rock jetty in East Chop. Almost every night she would take this walk with her grandmother. When a schooner would sail by, she would wave her kerchief. Looking around at the dirt roads and historic houses still standing from that time, she says, “I’m delighted this hasn’t changed.”
Recent change was the impetus behind last year’s “In Every Season,” a collection of essays that span her life on the island, illustrated by her late husband, the artist Thomas Cocroft, and the couple’s good friend Robert Schwartz (Schiffer Books, $16.99). Noteworthy homes have been torn down recently in Edgartown, and there is talk of a Stop & Shop in Vineyard Haven doubling its size. Méras, a diminutive octogenarian who recently returned from her 60th class reunion at Wellesley College, is highly opinionated, with a deep voice that resonates.
“I’m worried that places like this are disappearing. People are tearing down old homes to build estates where they live for three weeks. The irony is that they come out here for the nature, yet ultimately will transform the landscape so they can have the same amenities they have back home, like a large grocery store,” she says.
Méras never ventured to the island’s bucolic interior until she became managing editor of the Vineyard Gazette in 1967. She had been a reporter at The New York Times when an editor and colleague, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist James Reston, purchased the Gazette from Vineyard conservationist Henry Beetle Hough. Méras would write for the Gazette for six years before becoming travel editor at The Providence Journal and later a prolific writer of travel stories and of books on New England crafts, regional travel, and local cuisine.
Her travels have taken her across the globe but she has remained a full-time Vineyard resident since she took that job 46 years ago. She refers often in the book to travels in Tanzania, Scandinavia, or Zimbabwe. Returning home, the Vineyard seems like her retreat, a place to unwind. This is especially true when walking with Méras to two of her favorite watering holes in West Tisbury, Mill and Glimmerglass ponds.
“After years of absence at the West Tisbury Mill Pond, a pair of swans has taken up residence and appears to be surveying the scene for nesting purposes. An osprey has been sighted perched on a branch above the pond and an otter was observed splashing about by the pond’s edge,” she writes.
Méras walks past the purple irises to a bench where she and her husband spent many an hour. The book is arranged chronologically from season to season, starting with her observance of skunk cabbage in early spring through the months to animal tracking on the snowy trails near her house. The essays often have an “Our Town” appeal, mentioning neighbors she meets along the way. There are also columns solely on ice cream, summer beverages, back porches, and yes, benches — references to simpler times that one expects to find on the island.
As we stroll on a root-studded, moss-covered trail to the serene shores of Glimmerglass Pond, Méras says winter is her favorite time of year here.
“It’s so much quieter and the whole island is yours to enjoy,” she says. Close to her house in West Tisbury, Glimmerglass Pond comes up often in the book, from seeing the water lilies in summer to viewing ducks and Canada geese on the “ominously black” waters of winter.
“Once, several winters ago, after a real snowstorm, I lost my way on this very same route and found myself crawling beneath snow-laden limbs into mysterious territory. How curious it was to have lost my way that time in virtually my own backyard,” she writes.
Méras’s house has a bow-shaped roof, which she says was built by a captain to resemble an upside-down ship’s hull. A back deck overlooks apple and cherry trees and a patch of blueberries that she loves to pick come August. Cats also figure prominently in the book, especially one yellow cat that went missing after Méras returned home from her travels. She never did find that feline, but now has two furry friends who rub against my leg.
Landscape paintings and self-portraits by her husband adorn the walls while long bookcases are stacked with the complete works of Dickens, poems by William Blake, and Disraeli’s “Curiosities of Literature,” among countless others. In her childhood, Méras met artist Thomas Hart Benton (“quiet, unassuming”) and celebrated thespians Katharine Hepburn (“stuck out her hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Kate’”) and James Cagney (“gregarious, loved by the locals”).
After the filming of “Jaws,” Méras says the Vineyard became as popular as Nantucket and soon the Clintons and Obamas were venturing to the island on their vacations. Near the summer cottage of playwright Lillian Hellman, who died in 1984, she has me pull the car over to walk the beach of Aquinnah close to Gay Head Cliffs.
“That’s a sound I like to hear,” Méras says, referring to the waves lapping ashore as I try to keep up with her. She walks swiftly up and down the soft sand, stopping briefly to smell the wild roses. After talking with a surfer, she shows me the erosion caused by winter storms, noticing that there’s never been this many rocks on the beach.
In the essay titled “A Beach Walker’s Treasury,” she writes, “The sand was bare of anything but a handful of shells, a driftwood root, and one tree limb, but it was a good day for beach-walking and remembering childhood walks along South Beach when my father pointed out to sea and told me that Spain was over there, and I squinted hard in hopes of finding it, and made cups of my hands around my eyes so I could see the way binoculars do.”
Our last stop is Edgartown where Méras shows me the relatively new estate that stands at the site of Hough’s former home. What she finds particularly irksome is that the current owner cut down most of the trees.
Her frown turns to a smile when she licks her ice cream outside an Edgartown scoop shop. Then she laments the fact that she can’t find a cone in the off-season. In her essay “Hooray for the Ice Cream Cone,” she writes, “Ice cream cone lovers know no seasons. They long only for refreshing ice cream presented in a crunchy cone, to remind them of carefree, happy childhoods.”
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.