Around the corner from the ferry dock is Lorraines’s, the only place on Tangier Island, we’re told, open for lunch today. It is closed. This according to Lorraine, who is sweeping the steps. Tonight is the Senior Prom, and the Prom Dinner is at Lorraine’s, so they’ve closed to decorate and make preparations.
She says, however, there is one table of four that has not been pulled into the banquet table and decorated, and she can set that for five. As long as we only want crab cakes she will serve us lunch.
Crab cakes it is.
While engaged in these negotiations, the new owner of the shop tools on the ferry arrives, rolling them down the street balanced on a bicycle. Loading them into his shop, which apparently adjoins the restaurant, he jokes he will plane as many boards as possible during the dinner.
Lorraine’s is one of the oldest restaurants on Tangier. Of similar vintage is the Chesapeake House, run by generations of the Crockett family, where I ate with my grandparents family-style in Miss Hilda’s living room in 1972. Other places on the island have sprung up to serve visitors, too. Tangier has welcomed day visitors always, whereas Smith Island has remained essentially private and residential.
The Senior Prom is a big deal in such a small place. There’s an undercurrent of anticipation you can feel. Tangier Island still has its own small school. Smith Island’s population finally dropped so low that now the children there have to commute by boat to the mainland. A hardship, as it means many kids have to stay with relatives or friends all week, away from their families. But even on Tangier a graduating class may consist of only 2 students. So the “Senior” Prom includes 8th through 12th grades to ensure enough bodies to muster a festive atmosphere – this year the combined total amounts to 26, an average of 5 students per grade.
Inside Lorraine’s the room is decorated with balloons, crepe paper, and place settings. I look at the hand lettered the name tags by each chair and wonder what it must be like to sit across the table from a girl you have known all her life, known her family and shared ancestors, and see her blushing in a new dress, wearing something besides marsh mud on jean shorts for perhaps the first time in her life, a girl as likely to give you a black eye as not.
The odd presence of the young man on the ferry this morning, with the corsage and the new suit, now makes sense.
Like on Smith Island, the population on Tangier has been dropping steadily for decades. There are strong and strongly conflicting emotions among islanders for their offspring to pair up. On the one hand, parents know that far greater opportunities for their children exist only off-island. Of this there is no doubt. But the only way the island community will survive is if the children from here decide to stay here, and for the most part that means marrying each other. Rarely do off-islanders adapt to the hardships and limitations you must accept to spend a life in such a place. So these rites of passage and ceremonies like the Senior Prom, common all over the US, take on a special meaning here – incantations in which parents secretly wish for couplings and life decisions they could not, likely would not, vocalize openly:
“I know you cannot stay. Please don’t leave.”
After lunch we take our leave and walk the island for the afternoon. Carts whiz past transporting the day’s delivery of sodas and cakes. Bicycles, scooters, kids on foot. The few streets buzz with activity.
There’s a shortage of dry ground on the island, as in the swamplands of the Deep South. That means there are few places suitable for either houses of the living or burial of the dead. You often have to do both in the same place. Front yards become family cemeteries. It makes for a very Existential existence. You cannot leave your house or return to it without a constant reminder that one day you, too, shall lie in the ground, dust to dust, like all of your ancestors. There, carved in marble or granite, are the names of, and beneath that the bodies of, people you remember once bouncing you on their knee, and their parents and grandparents.
At the south end of the island the village gives way to the marshes. We go as far as the roads do, make the circuit across to the western side and work our way back.