Archive 2008 - 2019

Keep A Good House Part 1

by Sarah R. Commerford
10/30/2016

"Sarah, wake up. Wake. Up!"  my sister, Anna whispered, nudging me from deep sleep.
"What. What? What's the matter?" I asked, slowly sitting up.
"Listen, do you hear that?" she whispered. "Do you think it's the wind?"
Down stairs, furniture was moving - deliberately, the way a hostess tidies up after careless guests leave a party, carefully placing everything back exactly where it belongs: A chair nudged into position, a lamp slid to the corner of an end table.
"Jesus. Yeah, I hear it. There's no wind tonight. It's her. I know it is. She likes things a certain way."
"I know," my sister said, edging closer to me. "The kids left the living room a mess."
"Stay here with me, Anna. It's okay. She knows we love this house."

Call me a ghost, call me a presence, call me what you will. I have been the lady of this house since my husband, Austin, built it for us in 1847, and that's the way it's going to stay. A woman simply cannot leave a home where every staircase and floor board knows the sorrows and the joys she carries with her from room-to-room. Until tonight, not a living soul knew about me, although I think the sisters always had a feeling I was here. My name is Lavinia Smith, and this house held everything I was. It still does.

Original Photograph Property of Sarah Commerford, Circa 1842

Photograph Courtesy of Vineyard.net

Captain Austin E. Smith was my beloved husband. He was a handsome, serious, and successful whaling captain, whose ancestors settled on Martha's Vineyard in 1650. Like his father and grandfather, he was a mariner and fished off the shores of the Vineyard in his whaling schooner, the Elizabeth H, sometimes for months at a time. Austin was a good provider and worked tirelessly to give our family a comfortable life. When he was at sea, the children and I were well cared for by extended family, and our small, close-knight community of friends and neighbors. We had to rely on one another, because back then, fishermen could be at sea for years, sailing as far as the Arctic, leaving their wives, (who sometimes became widows), to care for the children and their homes. A few adventurous wives sailed with their husbands, like our closest neighbor, Lucy Vincent, but for the most part, we preferred dry land. Life wasn't always easy, but we looked out for each other, the way strong women do, and we took pride in that.
 

My husband and I had four children: two sons, Austin and Freeman, both Deaf and mute from birth, and two daughters, Althea, a quiet and introspective girl, and our sweet angel, Mary, who was called home to the Lord when she was just two years old. You might think it a hardship to have two Deaf mute children, but in those days, many on the Vineyard were Deaf, especially in Chilmark. People intermarried then, and being so isolated from other parts of the Island and the mainland, nearly every family we knew had Deaf children or relatives. I never remember anyone being treated differently, nor excluded from "hearing" jobs or activities, because everyone on the Island signed - it's just the way life was.

As for me, I am a Poole, and come from a long line of fisherman who have called this Island their home for hundreds of years. Martha's Vineyard holds my ancestry and my life. I have never known anything different - nor have I wanted to. To look at me, you wouldn't see anything special in countenance or stature, but underneath it all, I am a steady, strong woman who holds on. Losing my daughter taught me that.

Austin had a sound disposition. While some mariners were known for their quick tempers and affinity for rye whiskey, my husband worked hard and saved his earnings. It had always been our dream to own a farm, and as whaling became less profitable, Austin, and many fisherman on the Vineyard, traded in their ships to buy land and farm. In 1847, my husband sold his schooners and built our Greek Revival Cape on South Road, in Chilmark - it was everything we had ever wanted.

Photograph Property of Sarah Commerford, Circa 1847

We had twenty acres of fertile land. Together we planted orchards with peach and apple trees that yielded enough sweet fruit to eat all summer, and can for the winter. Wild grapes grew in such abundance, that we had jam and jelly to last us through the coldest months. The Vineyard's long growing season ensured a bounty of vegetables with which to stock our root cellar; potatoes and corn being our main crop, along with a small field of oats. With the help of friends and family, Austin built stone walls from granite, hauled by oxen and cart from a nearby quarry, or found on our land, with which he built lace walls - all still standing, more than 160 years later. One spring, before bad weather settled in, we built a barn where we kept large equipment and housed our sheep and cows. The animals provided a steady supply of meat, milk, cheese and butter, that we kept cool in our larder off the kitchen. You can still see the out-buildings where we dried corn and stored equipment. We had a chicken coop too, and more eggs than one family could ever eat.  Let your eye wander behind the house and you will see the stone walls and split rail fences that demarked our fields, meadows and pastures. That land was good to us.