My dad had a “three questions” rule. I could ask him three questions and only three questions if I was wondering about something. (I could not ask for more questions.) I had to think very carefully about my three questions and usually, after thinking, observing and pondering, I answered my own questions.
No. Yes. I don’t know. I understood that my not-yet husband was trying to make a new and different life for himself and his daughter. I understood how challenging that would be for the two of them.
I think I came here out a sense of responsibility. I’m here because they needed me. The first thing I did when I came to the island was post the dinner menus for the week. It was one tiny bit of consistency; a thing missing from their lives. My sweetie and his daughter looked at that list a dozen times a day. No matter what, every evening at or thereabouts, dinner would be ready. I fed them non-stop: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. They were certainly ready to be nourished.
I don’t think folks had much hope for us. Maybe they thought we’d turn and run for town as soon as it winter hit. Or if offered the opportunity, the kid would go back to her city life. The first big school event in the fall brought two sets of grandparents, the kid’s mom, and mom’s friend out to the island. I had the feeling that the kid could have left with them if she had wanted to. But she stayed. And so did I.
I moved to the island in October, but we didn’t get married until December. I lobbied for a nice wedding: sunset, beach, maybe in the tropics, a couple of my friends in attendance, a nice dinner. I clipped pictures of pretty dresses from fashion magazines and pictured myself with gardenias in my hair. My friend Suz bought me a waffle iron.
We tried to set a wedding date and the venue fell through. We tried to set another and my friends weren’t available. We gave up and decided to get married in district court on the shortest day of the year. I called around and found four friends who could drop everything and come. One friend brought yellow roses and cedar for my bouquet. We did have a very nice dinner at a great restaurant.
New plan: our friends would join us on the longest day of the year at the restaurant and we’d have a little celebration. I sent out emails to save the date. A month before our celebration, the restaurant burned.
I can take a hint. No more planning of celebrations.
Folks here are used to failure. Get a car out here and it’ll quit working. The new refrigerator will balk, the stove will blow up, and the boat will refuse to start. A 25-cent fuse ends up costing $60, once you’ve got yourself into town and back. You had better be a jack-of-all-trades and be prepared to fail.
Fail in the city and you can quietly leave, start over somewhere else. Fail here and everyone knows. Years later, they’ll still be talking about you. But island folks are pragmatic. They wait and watch and you can ask for help—up to a certain point. But on some level you have to show that you have the resources to solve your own problems. You take responsibility for living your life.
We live in the land of Murphy’s Law, Exponential Model: if anything can go wrong, it will… and if it only screws up twice, you’re doing pretty well. It’s not surprising that just about every man who actually lives on the island owns a backhoe or two. When in doubt, use the heavy equipment.
Solder copper pipes in 12-degree weather.
Fix the roof in in a storm with 45-mph wind gusts.
Dig a trench and run power out to the shed.
Fix the fuel filter in the truck, the starter in the boat, the carburetor on the ATV.
Grow your own food; shoot or catch what you can’t grow.
The ancient, inefficient, leaky washing machine died in December. It spewed gallons of water all over the floor, but there’s no insulation under the floor, so the water just seeped down to the ground below.
My island neighbors generously offered use of their washers and dryers. I packed up loads of clothes on the ATV and scooted to friend’s houses to do laundry, drink coffee and gossip. A dryer! What a luxury! I’d been hanging clothes above the woodstove to dry them.
Then it froze. The power went off. No power, no well pump. No matter. The pipes are frozen. I could hear diesel generators firing up all over the island. Our generator was broken.
I lit candles and Coleman lanterns. I unplugged the fancy electronic phone and plugged in the old mechanical phone. It rang immediately. “Are you OK out there? Do you need anything? If it gets any colder, come to our place.”
I cooked dinner on the woodstove, told the family that we could go to any one of a half-dozen houses if we needed to. I thawed snow on the stove and did the dishes.
We live on a vacationer’s island. In the summer there are people everywhere, boats on every mooring buoy, planes zooming in and out. But by the end of October, I’d guess that 90% of the houses on the island are empty, most buttoned up for the winter.
In November the winter storm systems start booming in. If you live on an island, no matter which way the weather is coming from, you get slammed. A storm ripping down the Fraser River Valley hits one side of the island, a Pineapple Express slams us on the other side. A 60-70-80-90 mph gust sounds like a train roaring in the distance, it slams into the house, it roars off.
We hunker down. But after six weeks, the cupboards are getting a little bare. There’s no store on the island. No gas station. No coffee shop. Grocery shopping (any shopping) means a trip across Puget Sound. We do not have state ferry service. We travel on our own boats or planes; or use a water or air taxi service—when there’s a break in the weather. We check to see if neighbors need anything.
There is no garbage service—whatever we haul on, we haul off. We are very good at not making garbage.
In the summer, people ask what it’s like here in the winter, I say, “Cold, wet, dark and windy.” They laugh, and then they ask what I do all winter. I say, “Try to keep warm.”
I am not laughing. I am absolutely serious.