Sunrise, Sunset

Sunset in Aquinnah

One of the shortcomings of my house is I can’t see the sunset.

I see the sun rise from my kitchen window, and it’s a glorious way to start the day. But the sunset? It’s blocked by too many trees and houses.

Watching the sun go down, particularly over the water, is magical. I could do it more often if I drove 10 minutes to the harbor in my coastal community. Plenty of people make the trek every day and post their stunning photos on our town’s Facebook page.

But there always seems to be conflicts: meat to defrost and marinate, dinners to be cooked, news programs to watch or cross country practices across town at the high school. The sunset always falls by the wayside.

But there’s something about a vacation and slowing down that puts things in perspective. One day every year, we take a family outing late in the day to a rocky beach in the shadow of the lighthouse in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

The chances of a decent sunset weren’t great when we arrived.

The trip usually involves extended family: the Curmudgeon’s siblings and nieces and nephews. We haul beach chairs, coolers of beer and wine, and picnic fare along a long winding path through the grassy dunes to the beach. On our most recent visit, we were ushered by a baby skunk, who refused to leave until we started singing.

Our prospects for this year’s visit were grim. Around the time we planned to leave, it began thundering and the skies began to spit. The Curmudgeon crawled into bed and took a nap, promising to reassess in an hour.

Eventually, he and my son decided to go and take their chances. I decided to go, and soon, so did his sister and her crew. We made the 20-minute drive up the winding South Road at a surprisingly quick pace, watching for Chilmark police along the way.

The situation didn’t look promising. Huge clouds covered the sky, making the chances of a spectacular sunset bleak. And then it happened: As stories were shared over beer, wine and a few carrot sticks, the sky began to clear and the sun appeared.

As the sun began to set, it cast a golden glow over everyone, and people began to argue who was in its spotlight. I began seeing spots, fearing that looking at the glowing orb for too long might trigger an ocular migraine, a distinct possibility.

In short order, the sun looked like a giant orange ball and began its descent over the water. Photos and videos were taken, and a guest visiting from Oregon began to understand what all the fuss was about.

The takeaway?

When in doubt, show up. You never know when the skies will clear. And once the sun is gone and the bugs come out, run for the car.

Should I Stay or Go?

The view from the front porch at a socially distanced Fourth of July picnic.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of the past few months, I think it’s helped clarify how we want to spend our time.

Personal safety now trumps social and family obligations, making us ponder whether we want to accept an invitation or pass in the name of caution and self preservation. And though the decision to accept or decline has always been ours, the pandemic has made most people think long and hard about every social interaction.

My extended family typically hosts holiday picnics, but this year’s Memorial Day gathering was scuttled due to the virus. When the Fourth of July rolled around, allowing gatherings up to 25 in Connecticut, a last-minute picnic was organized at a relative’s house.

It was so last-minute that I wasn’t invited. People assumed that I was at Martha’s Vineyard, where we typically spend the holiday weekend. But that’s OK. I couldn’t have gone because we planned to attend a friend’s party on the beach in Milford, CT.

Though we attended the party and didn’t wear masks, we parked ourselves on comfy wicker chairs in a corner of the wide front porch and talked to just one couple all night. Ordinarily, I’d do a little more mingling, but this was how everyone operated that night. People kept to themselves, remaining as socially distant as possible in a party situation.

Throwing a post-Covid-19 party or picnic is not for the faint of heart. Our host made sure tables and chairs were six feet apart. Our conscientious hostess – a former high school classmate of mine – put everything from fruit and veggies to ripe tomatoes slathered in olive oil and Italian bread into individual plastic cups to reduce the risk of contamination.

Instead of grilling, the hosts hired a food truck, where two cooks wearing masks prepared hot dogs, hamburgers and gourmet hand-cut French fries. To reduce the risk of contact, you placed your order and then returned to your seat until your name was called. Only the most famished lingered near the truck waiting for their food.

After dinner, we ambled across the street to the beach to watch a series of fireworks displays. At one point looking along the coast, at least a dozen fireworks displays were visible, reminding me what I love most about the shore in the summer. Beach people know how to party.

Attending the party was good for the soul, giving me my first real taste of summer. As I pointed out to anyone who’d listen, the seasons meld together when sheltering in place and confined to property lines. Doing summery things like getting a lobster roll at a clam shack, watching a parade of Jeeps or running your toes in the sand underscore that it’s summertime, at least for me.

At the family picnic, people were invited to gather and swim in the pool, but were asked to bring their own food. Unlike the typical picnic, there was no homemade potato salad, macaroni salad or baked beans. But the organizers followed health experts’ recommendations for gatherings in the Covid-19 age, and most people understood.

The decision to have the picnic caused some debate. Some of my sisters didn’t think we should get together while others felt the pull to gather after so many months apart. For my part, I think people have a right to host get-togethers if they want. It’s up to guests to decide if they want to go.

My live and let live outlook is a bit of a departure for me. Ordinarily, everyone attends our family picnics and if one person is missing, their absence is noted and questioned. But things are different now, eliminating any suggestion of family or social obligation. Everyone must weigh whether socializing is worth the risk.

Gone are the days of going to something if you’re on the fence or really don’t feel like it. Today if people attend a gathering, I guarantee it’s been the source of discussion, debate and soul-searching, and if they’re there, they really want to be.

In my family picnic’s case, some of my relatives opted to stay home because they’re over 65 and/or have underlying health conditions. It’s understandable. Everyone must decide for themselves, and no one should fault or criticize their decision or feel slighted.

Of course, biting our lips about others’ choices has always been a challenge, perhaps more so today than ever before. But wouldn’t it be great if we all emerged from this with greater tolerance and understanding? We can always hope.