Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard
AJ Robinson

The name often elicits snickers. Me, I grew up hearing it, so it never meant anything different to me. Of course, in these PC times, it's gone back to the Indian name of Aquinnah. Oh, excuse me; its native name of Aquinnah.

For me, it'll always be Gay Head. From the scenic overlook, you could see the beautiful clay cliffs stretching out before you - red, gray, white and a dash of yellow. The colors rolled and blended across the open expanse from the hilltop to the narrow stone beach below. The ocean waves crashed into the rocky shore. It wasn't the sort of beach one went for a leisurely stroll on. If you watched the waves and looked quick, you could glimpse the massive boulders that lurked just below the surface. The waters here were called "The Devil's Bridge" for good reason! After a rainstorm, the sea was always stained with a rainbow of colors. And, off to the south, just at the horizon, was the island of "No Man's Land." No, it wasn't a convent; it was a barren island the navy used for target practice. Some days, we'd stand and watch the ships firing away, see the flashes and hear the booms. Hey, for an eight-year-old boy, it was better than fireworks on the Fourth of July!

According to myth, the cliffs got their color from an Indian god; a giant who, when his stomach rumbled, would wade out into the sea and scoop up a whale. Yeah, he was a big giant. He'd clean it and cook it and toss the scraps upon the slopes, staining the earth. It also explained why Gay Head was essentially a rolling plain of grass, not a tree in sight. The giant had used them all up cooking his dinner. Frankly, I was disappointed; you'd have thought he'd have been more environmentally sensitive.

Years before, you could climb the cliffs. Often, my Father told me of the day - long ago - when his Dad had carried his Sister up the slopes.

From the overlook, a tourist had said: "Oh look, that big, tall Indian is giving that little white girl a piggyback ride."

Yeah, a different age.

My Grandfather always did tan heavy, while my Aunt stayed white as paper.

After my father's passing, among his effects I found an old picture, lovingly preserved. It was of his parents; in the background stood the Gay Head Lighthouse. Yeah, that place had seen a lot of my family's history. My Dad loved that photo. Grandfather was standing so nice and natural, not stiff and posed. Normally, anytime a camera was pointed at him, that's what you got. In this case, the photographer caught him by surprise.

With my first camera - an old black and white box model - I took my first pictures of my Mom and Dad at that overlook. Somehow, even without color, the cliffs looked great!

Nearly a quarter century later, I showed my girlfriend Jo Ann those cliffs. A tourist snapped a picture of us, the cliffs framing the background. Time and tide and rain had worn them down, and you couldn't climb them any more. I felt a great sense of loss that day, a small piece of my childhood had left me. Standing at the overlook, I gazed down at that well-worn path, now overgrown with vines and grass. For a moment, I thought I saw a shadow flicker there. Was it merely a trick of the sun, or a specter of the past? It did seem very tall and tanned.

A few years after that, I took a video of my wife Jo Ann, our toddler daughter Alexa and my Mother at that spot. Oh, and with my camera, I got a picture of my Mom, sitting on the same spot as that first picture from so many summers ago. Later, I compared the new one to the old one. The lighthouse had been moved back and the cliffs had shrunk yet again. Mom's hair had thinned and grayed a bit, and her face - like the cliffs - had a few more lines.

It was then that I saw the cliffs for what they really were: not mere clay and dirt and soil, but a living, breathing being. Like us, it aged and changed; it wept and thinned - despite the best efforts at "facial reconstruction."

As we left, I had to wonder: how much long would the cliffs "live?"

Click here for more by AJ Robinson.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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