Among our many interesting island traditions is one that’s wonderfully functional. Before one of our favorite institutions, The Paper Store, closed, whenever an islander died, or someone with an island connection—a seasonal resident for example or even the mainland relative of one or the other—a little basket appeared on the counter there at Carlene Michael’s Main Street newsstand, stationer, and gift shop emporium.
I assume it was provided with “seed money” when first placed on the counter because the basket, at least whenever I first encountered it, was already full of cash, mostly singles, some fives or tens. A generous slip of paper—an 8-inch by 11-inch sheet folded twice and cut to provide eight surfaces—invited me and others, having made a contribution, to sign our names.
The discovery of a basket on the counter was—more often than not—how most of us discovered that one of our fellow islanders or an acquaintance had passed away and it certainly seemed to many of us that the Paper Store had celestial foreknowledge.
She had learned to “trust but verify” and that rule had resulted in there having been very few instances of death wrongfully reported.
I can’t remember ever having heard of one of our own passing, without finding that the Paper Store knew already, or, in fact, I found out myself by discovering “the basket” on the counter. In fact, though, we all knew, upon learning someone had passed on, that we had an obligation to let Carlene know right away.
She and earlier Paper Store proprietors, however, had learned, over the years, to “trust but verify” and that rule had resulted in there having been very few instances of death wrongfully reported, only one I can think of and that was really just the result of wishful thinking on someone’s part.
More often, we knew that the deceased had been ill, or simply elderly and failing and so the passing came as no surprise.
More often than not, there was no basket on the counter because, of course, days when there is a death among our thousand or so are far less frequent than the alternative. There were rarely ever more than two baskets on the counter at a time; and days when there are two deaths were and are rare but one day, back in the ‘90s, there were four baskets on the counter.
An elderly lady, not exactly an island native but one of those rare and stalwart persons who could easily and did convince one otherwise, passed away at 93 having given us three sons, one of those to the Vietnam conflict. Discharged, he’d suffered way too long before succumbing to his wounds.
As it happens, his name was added to the Vietnam Memorial only after my brother determinedly petitioned the Department of Defense to have that done.
Two other folks, one an islander, one seasonal, died way too soon of cancer, each having fought long and hard, and another elderly lady, an indefatigable island institution, fondly hoped we who remained would celebrate her 90th birthday the following spring. And we faithfully did precisely that at a waterfront island fish-house offered then and regularly, and frequently catered, for such occasions by a generous and community-minded fisherman and the Vinalhaven Lions Club.
The “basket” tradition continues, thankfully, today at Island Closet.
Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven where he owns the Tidewater Motel. He may contacted at PhilCrossman.VH@gmail.com.