Steven Axelrod is a former student, a painter of houses on Nantucket, an inveterate blogger on Open Salon.com. He also won the 2010 Memoir-in-a-Box contest with a gorgeous piece on the demise of a marriage. Herewith another in an infinite series of Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” pieces, in this instance, Steve’s elegiac homage to his adoptive hometown.
What it’s like living here
By Steven Axelrod on Nantucket
Closed for the Season
You walk around your island, stunned by the sudden fair weather, the giant wheel shifting the wind from north east to south west, the air like silk against your face, the town moving into full dress rehearsal mode for the coming summer: painters sprucing up the store fronts, renovations scrambling to completion, pot holes patched, grass cut, hedges trimmed, waiting for the first boats full of Memorial Day tourists, the first surge of Range Rovers and boat trailers as the summer people take their seats and the curtain goes up.
Your son Tom graduates from high school today, and you feel ambushed by your own emotions. For years it seems you’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards you: this is going to make you angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this comes at you from too many directions at once. It’s strange and troubling to have a feeling you can’t identify.
You grasp just bits and pieces of it at first. You feel a tug of genuine suspense when your son was crosses the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. You know other people feel the same way: You make the joke with a few of the parents you know, and see the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then comes the relief.
You call your ex-wife and you talk for a while. Later, you say to your Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she says, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” You hug and you find that you’re crying. She says: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And you really have no idea. But you feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if you had graduated, not your son.
But even that isn’t all. The graduation unplugs you from a whole community that you didn’t even know you cared about. You weren’t really part of it, in any big way: You didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But you know these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island you live on and the town that had somehow, almost against your will, become your home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to you; the next crazy teacher won’t be your problem. So this rite of passage isolates you. It makes you feel your age. You finished my fiftieth year, your first real novel and your children’s high school careers, all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.
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