Widows’ Walks: 2

In Nantucket, Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Photograph of Nova Scotia shore.

But this is only half the story. The men who went to sea are easy to admire. The world revels in their brotherhood. We can picture them, sweaty and scarred, huddled around the enormous metal trypots, where blubber was boiled into oil. They sailed together, ate and rigged together, nursed each other through sickness. We can all picture them below-deck, cramped, sighing, playing songs on their concertinas, waiting for the call from the crow’s nest: Thar she blows!

But what about their wives? What did they do all that time?


The Nantucket woman is born into a protestant family, and she goes to school. She learns to read, studies the Bible, helps her mother around the house. She sings in the church choir, maybe tries a respectable instrument, like piano or organ. She wears heavy dresses, thick shoes, and she pulls her hair into a bun. Her family abhors jewelry and makeup, and her words are short and modest. She allows men to pursue her, but her family prefers landlubbers, like bankers and ministers, men who won’t disappear for months on end. She marries young – sixteen, eighteen – because the alternative is to grow old, become an old maid, spent her years at a library’s circulation desk. The wedding is a pensive affair, shared with family and friends, and it’s very likely Quaker. Instead of expensive white dresses and long church services, relatives gather in a meeting house, sit in silence, and when the spirit moves them, people stand up and say something meaningful.

Nantucket is cold and overcast, and half the year the island is frozen in winter. She looks forward to Christmas, a season of candles and dumplings and roast goose; this punctuates the long darkness with warmth and cheer. She wassails from door to door, clumped with a happy bunch of singers, but rarely, in this Puritan town, does she ever see anyone dance. She settle into her husband’s cottage, and her entire life revolves around the hearth and kitchen. The fire is always burning, the chimney always smokes. She abstains from drink and tobacco, preferring needlepoint and the few books she can find. When she can, she joins her friends for a sewing circle, and they spend months on a single quilt, assembling their patches and gossiping as freely as they ever will.

But she puts her smarts to good use. The Nantucket woman often opens a Cent School, as Delia Hussey did, and children arrive from all over the island to learn writing and figures. They carry pennies in their tin buckets, and each day they pay for another lesson.

The Nantucket woman flirts with politics. She can’t run for office, but she may become an ordained minister at the Unitarian church. If she can afford it, she considers buying silk from the Atlantic Silk Company, because she despises Southern slavery and boycotts the purchase of cotton.

This is no pet cause. Because one in five whalers is black, and these Yankees are diehard abolitionists, the Nantucket woman fights slavery where she can. The African School opens up on York Street, and Zilpha Elaw (a black woman) and Salome Lincoln (white) preach sermons to a mixed flock. In 1841, Nantucket hosts its first Anti-Slavery Convention, called together by a woman named Anna Gardner. The hero of the night: Frederick Douglass, who is only 23, has just escaped his plantation, and has never spoken in public. His account of bondage causes the audience to explode in cheers and applause. Later, Douglass returns the favor, by lobbying for women’s suffrage.

Gardner is overjoyed by the convention’s success, because she spent her girlhood hiding slaves in her basement. Since she was young, the Gardner family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. A remote station, perhaps, but all that much closer to Canada, or the relative freedom of the sea. When the Civil War ends, Gardner will journey to the Reconstruction South to help build schools for freed slaves.


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