The real spirit of Nantucket has nothing to do with wealthy summer residents
The island has a reputation as an exclusive summer enclave, but my favorite resident was a year-round, down-to-earth legend.
People think of Nantucket as a summer playground for the wealthy, but to me it will always be Millie’s Island. Honeysuckle perfumes the salty air, the sea yields world-famous scallops, and the sunsets are spectacular. But Millie always stole the show.
My relationship with the irascible Madaket Millie immediately got off on the wrong foot. Actually, it began with a quick right jab to the windpipe.
Oh, I deserved it. It was 1980, and I had lifted my camera to make a picture of the Nantucket legend. I didn’t ask permission, and Millie, built like a fullback, didn’t hesitate to whack me. “Take my picture and I’ll have your damn camera,” she growled. But behind her bark were a kind heart and a personality as distinctive as the Big Dipper on a moonless night. I eventually won her over with cranberry-nut bread, coffee ice cream, and 11-by-14-inch prints of Snoopy, her beloved white German shepherd.
Mildred Jewett was famous for using a pitchfork to kill a shark washed ashore by swells from Hurricane Edna in 1954. She also discovered a lost steamer ship that ran aground in the fog on the very day the Coast Guard closed its Madaket station in 1947. She eventually became an honorary Coast Guard warrant officer who protected Madaket, on the west end of Nantucket, until her death in 1990 at age 82.
Millie rarely left the island. She didn’t have a car, consumed barely any electricity, and had little use for money. Once she asked me to count the cash stuffed into shoeboxes under her bed; she had $10,300. I kept that a secret because the Coast Guard took her grocery shopping every Wednesday, and she never locked her door.
She was gruff with grown-ups but loved children, the ocean, the wind, and above all animals. If you wanted to be her friend, the animals that invariably gravitated toward her were the judge and jury. If they liked you, that was good enough. “People,” she’d say, rolling her eyes. “Thank God for animals.”
Decades before FaceTime, I called her from the depressing hellholes I covered for the Globe. I could picture her cluttered cottage, Snoopy relaxing on the bed like the prince of Nantucket. A single path led through the mess. In the kitchen area was an old stove with who-knows-what caked on the pots and pans. It’s amazing that Millie’s, a restaurant named after her, now stands just down the road. The Board of Health would have quickly shuttered the original Millie’s.
Today Madaket Millie is a mythical figure. She lives on in postcards, a children’s book, a hot sauce, and artifacts in the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum. How she would have hated Millie Mania. Fame was never important to her. Her neighbor on the other side of Hither Creek was Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She treated him the way she treated everyone else.
In 1981, Millie needed brain surgery and was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. When I came to visit, her head was shaved, and she was scared. She hated the dull fluorescent lights and sealed windows. To my surprise, there was Mr. Rogers. He and I stood on opposite sides of her bed. We each grabbed Millie’s hand and prayed. Even then, her grip was arm-wrestler strong.
When she was discharged, she donned her dress white uniform, and a Coast Guard chopper gave her a ride home. She was so excited that she ordered the pilot to make an emergency landing at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. She had to pee.
Nowadays Millie’s, the restaurant, is jammed every night. But the nearby beach is eroding quicker than those who actually remember Millie.
I can feel her spirit in every dog that dashes into a crashing wave and every hawk that coasts effortlessly on the wind currents.
Millie isn’t a restaurant. She’s the salt of the earth in the air on the west end of paradise.