Coming Home

Written By: Alessandra  Massa

“Mom, after I graduate college, I want us to live on Shelter,” I said, turning Beyonce’s latest hit up, as we started our long journey home to Bastrop, Texas.

“You mean after you’re the first female ambassador to Russia?” laughed my mom, who knew me well enough to know that anything was possible. “You’re only 17 and you have so many experiences ahead honey. You may change your mind.”

“It took me winning a scholarship to study in British Columbia and then my trip to Laos and Thailand to really appreciate what we have there mom,”

“You do get how lucky you are to have had your education. Right?”

“Yes, mom, but we’re talking about why I want us to live on Shelter.”

It had been a whirlwind year. First the $50,000 scholarship to study abroad as a junior in high school. As great as the opportunity was, it meant that I wouldn’t be the co-captain of my cheer team, or with my closest friends and family. My mom and I agonized over the opportunity. If I left the comfort of home to board with strangers from all over the world, we decided that it wouldn’t be fair to accept the scholarship and not finish my senior year in Canada. This was one of the many lessons that I was to learn about commitment and responsibility. In the end, studying abroad for a year meant that I’d leave home at 16. My single mom and I, often teased as the Gilmore Girls, decided that we would use my opportunity as a catalyst to reach for the stars. She went back to school to pursue an MFA, and I took off to the Great White North, having to explain to my new classmates that I didn’t have a horse tied up back home, and telling everyone in Texas that the’re no polar bears or eskimos in Victoria. The hardest part of our decision was that we would have to temporarily give up our life on Shelter Island, the one thing that made my mom the happiest, in order to make the logistics and cost work.

Looking back, I’d never have imagined that I’d graduate high school early, or that my obsession with all things Canadian would lead to a desire to study International Relations. Now, I knew that I wanted to enter the Foreign Service after graduate school to work as a U.S. Diplomat. Even more surprising was my realization that Shelter Island, thousands of miles away, was more than a place that I missed. Like the old cliche of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, I realized that Shelter was, and always will be, home. 

“How did living and traveling abroad make you appreciate Shelter, honey?”

We sat with a road map between us. We had highlighted our route based on towns with Whole Foods and independent theaters. Yes, our road trip routed us to green juices, foreign films, and independent screenings. It seemed surreal. Against all odds, I had just graduated and was already accepted to college. My mom’s business partner’s borrowed pick up truck was packed to it’s maximum with our Canadian life. We were en route to Tacoma to watch a film at our favorite independent cinema, but we wanted some freshly fried tortilla ships and a fresh squeezed green juice, staples from the Austin based Whole Foods chain. We were like that, full of juxtaposition, yet clear on what we liked and missed.

“When I was boarding with kids from all over the world, we learned a lot about each other’s homes, but even more about what we missed.”

Grabbing a hair tie, I had my hair out of my face in seconds, and the windows down as we flew across bridges after months in Victoria. You could smell our contentment, just like the ocean spray we left behind on our ferry. We were back on American soil.

“Mom, it wasn’t our life back in Texas that I talked about. Strangely, it was my tales of what it feels like to be  a Texan out on Shelter Island that everyone wanted to know about,” I said.

“Maybe when people talk about home they talk more about a feeling than a place,”

Between us sat my iPhone playing a radically diverse playlist and our converse tennis shoes, one denim pair, and one white eyelet pair. It was another family eccentricity. We had a converse shoe collection to rival most people’s entire shoe collection. But our shoes told stories, as we made it a point to buy a pair based on an event, like a road trip.

“Isn’t it funny that an accidental visit to Shelter Island, 5 years ago led to our calling Shelter home, although we’re only there part time,” said the woman who thrived on living abroad.

“Mom, we both agree that was no accident. Right?” I said,” closing my eyes and imagining golden sunsets over indigo water.

Nodding she said, “I used to think home as a place until I started traveling. Then I thought that it’s deep within us when we are out on the road. Now, I know it’s Shelter, because it consumes our because we take it with us everywhere, obsessing over when we’ll be there next.”

“What does home mean to you?

“It’s more than getting on a ferry, being cut off from the outside world, and knowing most of the town. I guess it’s partly about feeling safe, and…cliche or not, sheltered. “

“I like our rituals: Driving from Manhattan or JFK out through the North Fork and chasing the sunset to Jones Beach, driving down Lover’s Lane and finally, the best – getting on the ferry. “

“I like seeing the Roberts market in Greenpoint and knowing we’re almost home. I like the way that we get off and always stop in to Sweet Tomato’s before going home, to grab a bite and catch up on island life with Jimmy.”

“Mom, I already know what you’re going to say,” said the one person capable of finishing my sentences.

“I was going to say that Shelter is the only place where I want to stop, breathe in the ocean air, and be at home.”

“In the middle of my european history class I finally understood what you meant about a hamlet driven life, where there is a town center. Or how life centers around a hardware store in every Hamptons town. I always got that you loved to can tomatoes in August, but I never really appreciated that you have the best tomatoes until I traveled the world and tasted the difference”.

“We’ve always had the best of both worlds by falling in love with an island that we didn’t grow up in.”

“We’ve chosen our beaches like we choose shoes mom. We ride our bikes to Sunset Beach off season, collect shells on Shell beach, drive off-island to Egypt Beach in East Hampton, or out to Montauk where we can build a fire pit.”

“Who would have thought that a tiny SI bumper sticker bought at Bliss, a four aisle on-island department store, would be such a conversation piece. Eleven states crossed to bring you to Canada last summer. Remember how many conversations were had at gas pumps, hotels, and even on the road itself. Much like a masonic ring, our SI sticker signified  a membership to an an exclusive fraternal order,” I said.

“Remember the couple that found us in a restaurant in Wyoming, hollering, where are our Shelter Island neighbors?”

“Ha’ and how many people we jointly knew. Wasn’t it crazy that you both had stories to share about the island pharmacist who special ordered that $1,000 drug, that he sold to you for it’s wholesale price when he realized that you didn’t have insurance?”

“Maybe it’s the fact that we’re cut off from the outside world, by water, yet sheltered by land on all sides, in a place that you know that anything that you really need can be taken care of.”

“You know, I never thought about it, but it’s wonderful to be proud of a place with 27 million residents where everything’s bigger, but it’s really something to connect with so many strangers from around the world who call and island of 2,000 residents home.”

“Someday you’ll visit the places that you’ll fall in love with, and you might change your mind about Shelter,”

“Mom, never. Remember how many people we’ve met who said they grew up spending ever summer on Shelter, who are now retired there, surrounded by their grandchildren?”

It occurred to me that the famous life imperative is, “you can’t go home again. But maybe there are other people like us that find that the further we travel from home the more that we understand it, and perhaps even gain a greater longing for it’s platonic state. The irony of choosing a place so aptly named isn’t lost on me. What if we hadn’t found Shelter, where would we be?

“Mom, we need Shelter shoes.”