By Alexander Dominick
My favorite nickname for Jupiter Island is “God’s Clipper Club.” It’s the place where old people go in the winter–to visit their parents. Situated about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach and nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Inland Waterway, Jupiter Island has served as a winter home for many of America’s wealthiest families since the creation of the Jupiter Island Club by the Reed family in the 1950’s. The island can be reached on the south side from the town of Jupiter, or from the north through the smaller town of Tequesta. From the Tequesta side you cross a drawbridge that spans the Inland Waterway. There are always a few thin old men dangling fishing lines over the bridge, day or night, sitting on overturned bait buckets, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, passing time.
Once on the island, giant ocean pine trees bracket the narrow avenue, arching over the road and darkening it as if you were entering a cathedral.
My parents began to winter there in the mid-70s. My father suffered from late-onset multiple sclerosis, and my mother took care of him for the last and worst six years of either of their lives. How they got there is irrelevant to the telling of this story. What is relevant is to understand the people who inhabit this island.
The vast majority are American royalty, born to wealth, sent to the best schools and the best universities, groomed for a lifetime of privilege, and well aware of their exalted status in society. There is never any question about the “rightness” or fairness of this good fortune. That certainty of position permeates everything on the island. The signs of wealth and privilege are everywhere. All the houses have names discreetly displayed by the driveways. They are immaculately kept, and most of them exude that air of simple elegance that is expected of a winter home. (Some of the “newer” people have had the gall to build giant compounds, great walled fortresses that shriek nouveau riche, but they are the minority and only marginally tolerated by the Old Guard. It’ll be a long, long time before they’ll gain membership at the Yacht Club.)
The police are extremely polite. One evening as I walked to the beach from my parents’ home, a cruiser stopped and the patrolman inquired if I needed any assistance or if he could give me a ride. This after making sure I actually belonged, of course.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of status is the style of dress. Plaid pants, citrus-colored shirts, white shoes–all very common attire. My mother wanted to buy me a mustard colored blazer, a Brooks Brothers shirt and a navy blue tie with ducks on it for the “Young People’s Dance,” but I was able to escape with only the tie. As a postscript, this dance is open to all the children of club members, as long as they are younger than 40.
Fast forward to 2002. My father died in 1981, and my mother has aged beautifully, living to an age that no one else in her immediate family has ever reached. She is in a remarkably healthy state of mind, spirit and body. She continues to winter on the island and summer in Colorado, driving herself back and forth cross-country every year. She lives alone in a secluded house in south Denver, and is also alone but slightly less secluded in her house on the island. She has the wonderful gift of being able to listen and relate to everyone. All of my visits to her home there have been punctuated by her friends’ declarations that, “Your mother is the most popular woman on the whole island.”
One of her dearest friends is a woman named Martha, the proprietress of the local antique store who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Martha is a Southern woman who came of age in Knoxville. She is fully armed with the weaponry bestowed on all Southern society women. She is also remarkably healthy, with one glaring exception: she is 95% deaf, even when wearing hearing aids. Still, she drives all over the island, seeing friends, playing bridge, dining out and managing a store full of merchandise that she personally selects at antique markets in England during the summer.
Another dear friend is Emmy, a woman of indeterminate age who stands erect and shines the light of Northern aristocracy from her piercing blue eyes. One can see by the “cut of her jib” that she’s a Yankee through and through: tall, spare, charming when she wants to be, with rapier-quick reflexes when meting out judgments on social inappropriateness. Emmy too appears very healthy, playing tennis regularly, appearing at social events and quickly becoming the center of attention by both her demeanor and her striking appearance. Again though, there is one small glitch: in spite of her healthful appearance, Emmy’s mental faculties have jumped ship. She is increasingly unable to remember where she is, where she is supposed to be, or what she should be doing at any given moment.
On a recent visit to the island, my brother Michael and I were privy to a very amusing evening. Mom had invited Martha for dinner. I had met Martha and socialized with her over the years, and knew her to be charming, witty, gracious, and very, very funny. Michael had also become acquainted with her and had been the recipient of her generous offering of two unused bicycles for his young daughters when they were visiting their “Mimi” on school vacations. We all looked forward to spending a quiet evening at home with this special friend. Neither Michael nor I was aware of the extent of her hearing loss, however.
At the appointed hour, Martha screeched to a stop in her gray Volvo station wagon, spraying gravel across the front lawn. She parked in front of the house, maneuvered out of the driver’s seat with assistance from her cane, and came to the door. She came in loud, a preemptive strike against having to be at the disadvantage of not hearing what we were saying.
“I’M SO FLATTERED TO BE INVITED TO YOUR MOTHER’S HOUSE!” she yelled. “SHE’S THE MOST POPULAR WOMAN ON THE ISLAND, YOU KNOW!”
The tactic worked. Michael and I, stunned by the volume, backed away and made hand gestures to her to show her that we’d like her to come in and sit down in the living room. Mom came out from the kitchen to join us in greeting her and was treated to a similar onslaught.
“I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU INCLUDED ME IN THIS, NANCY! IMAGINE, ME HAVING DINNER AT YOUR HOUSE, ALONG WITH YOUR TWO HANDSOME SONS!”
Mom laughed, welcomed her, and offered her something to drink. Martha just stared at her. Mom repeated the offer, this time with an empty glass in her hand.
“A GLASS OF ICE TEA WOULD BE WONDERFUL, THANK YOU!”
Mom went into the kitchen to get Martha her drink, leaving Michael and me to entertain.
My opener: “How have you been, Martha? You look wonderful!”
“I JUST TALKED TO MY SON, IN KNOXVILLE! YOU KNOW, SOMETHING BIG IS GOING TO HAPPEN THERE THAT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT YET! I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY ANYTHING!”
Michael and I looked at each other. It was his turn.
“We went by the store to see you yesterday, but you weren’t there.”
Martha just stared at him.
Just then, as Mom arrived from the kitchen with Martha’s ice tea, Emmy came blasting through the front door.
“Hi everyone!” she called out gaily.
“Hi, Emmy,” we called back. Michael and I scrambled to our feet.
Martha yelled from her seat, “IS SHE INVITED TOO?”
Awkwardly, we all stood there, except for Martha, who was comfortably installed on the sofa and wasn’t in the least interested in otherwise acknowledging the new arrival.
Mom, slightly flustered at the unexpected guest, quickly recovered and said, “Emmy, dear! You look wonderful, but we weren’t expecting you!”
Emmy’s look of confidence was immediately replaced with one of self-doubt and embarrassment.
“Oh dear,” she said. “Am I supposed to be somewhere else? I thought I was supposed to come here.”
“Well I don’t know, dearie. I saw you earlier today playing tennis with the Bishops, and I know they are having a dinner party tonight. Were you maybe supposed to be over there, do you think?” Mom was trying to be gentle, as Emmy was becoming increasingly distraught. Martha sat and waited.
Mom offered to call the Bishop house to see whether Emmy was indeed supposed to be their dinner guest. Michael, Emmy, and I stood in the entryway. Emmy made little half-laugh noises to try to cover her anxiety. Michael and I tried to make some small talk to put her more at ease. Martha, in her sofa seat, sat and waited.
Sure enough, Mom came back with the news that Emmy was expected at the Bishop party—but rather than leave, Emmy hesitated, shuffling her feet a little and biting her index finger. The anxiety was palpable.
“I don’t think I remember how to get there,” she stammered.
“Dearie, it’s the house right around the corner,” Mom replied. But it was obvious that Emmy had no idea how to get anywhere, much less “around the corner” in the dark. “Would you like me to lead you there?” Mom offered.
“Oh would you please, Nance?” she asked, almost out of breath. She glanced at Michael and me, standing behind our mother. “She’s the most popular woman on the island, you know.”
As they were going out the front door to Mom’s car, Martha yelled, “THAT WOMAN STAYS AND STAYS!”
While Mom was taking Emmy to her dinner party around the corner, Michael and I resumed our conversation with Martha. Having learned, we started off each salvo at high volume, making sure to have direct eye contact with Martha. Sometimes that worked, and she answered the correct question. Sometimes she answered a question she thought we’d asked, at length. Other times, she’d just look at us, turn her head slightly to her right and mutter, “Well….”
It was going to be a long night.
Mom returned a few minutes later. She apologized to us all for having had to leave and expressed her concern for poor Emmy. Then she ushered us into the kitchen for dinner.
The meal consisted of some kind of chicken patties that had been mixed with herbs and spices and cooked with a cream sauce, string beans, and wild rice. While she was facing the stove, she said, “Martha eats like a horse, so I’ll give her two of these patties.” She knew, of course, that Martha wouldn’t hear her.
Martha did, in fact, eat like a horse. While we were trying to talk, yelling across the tiny table in the kitchen, Martha methodically dissected and devoured the food on her plate.
“NANCY THIS IS DELICIOUS! DID YOU MAKE THIS? WHAT IS IT?”
“WHERE’D YOU GET IT?”
“WHERE? IT’S THE BEST CHICKEN I EVER TASTED.”
And then, “I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY ANYTHING, BUT MY SON TOLD ME TODAY THAT GEORGE BUSH IS COMING TO VISIT KNOXVILLE NEXT WEEK.” She bellowed it with a conspiratorial wink. “NOBODY KNOWS IT YET!”
Everyone within a three-mile radius now knew that George Bush would be in Knoxville the following week.
I watched as the food disappeared into her mouth, fascinated in particular, to see the way she slowly sucked in the green beans. I was reminded how an iguana might look, sitting on a hot rock in the Arizona desert devouring its prey.
After a few more minutes of idle, wall-shaking chitchat, Martha made her goodbyes and once again sprayed gravel from the driveway as she headed into the otherwise quiet darkness of Jupiter Island.
It seemed especially quiet after she left, and it took several minutes for the island’s equilibrium to ease its way back into our conscience, but once it did I recognized the quietly respectful symphony of night critters, as if they too were aware of the storied population and history of their human neighbors.
Alexander Dominick is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. More bio information to come!