This week we're introducing a new column by Susanna Graham-Pye,“The Place Between.” An Orleans resident since age 12, she is a former Chronicle staff member and novelist who currently teaches at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. Her column will appear monthly.
I’ve heard it said that Orleans folk are “full of ginger.” It’s pretty true if you ask me and I’m one of them. We’re a spunky bunch, up and at ‘em, hard working and, yes, let’s admit it, we’ve got a peppery side when we need it.
Yes, Orleansers can be spicy like ginger, but many people here are sweet like ginger too, committed to one another and the community, pulling together when the need arises. So yes, I’d say the ginger analogy holds.
Confessing character traits, we might add smug to the list. Yep, sometimes we can emit an air of smug. Why shouldn’t we? Orleans has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the ocean, the star that guides our days and dominates the rhythm of our lives. We’ve got the bay beaches – Skaket and Rock Harbor. Got ocean? Yes, we do. Nauset Beach, North Beach And South Beach (which is North Beach if you’re in Chatham). There’s Town Cove. And of course, a huge portion of the town is shaped by the Pleasant Bay estuary system, with its meandering rivers and tucked away tidal ponds, sweep of marsh and the lacy white of the barrier beach that separates it all from the ocean’s reach to the horizon.
Smug? You bet. Our town is the heart of the Nauset region – both historically before political borders divided things up and here and now with our current designation in our four-town region. I love that the word Nauset, an Algonquin word, means “at the place between.” To me, that’s precisely where we are here on this fragile spit of land that curls in on itself, on this part of the Cape where the connection to the mainland narrows more, where the distance between sunrises and sunsets, past and present, is tiny.
But I digress – back to the whole thing about ginger. The origins of the “full of ginger” description of Orleanians goes back to a shipwreck. Darned if I can remember the name of the wreck (and if anyone can, please do share).
On the day after the storm that took the vessel, Orleans’ citizenry showed up in force on the beach, scuttling over the storm-flattened sand gathering up all the gnarled roots of ginger they could find – an unexpected gift of a rare and precious spice. I can picture it clearly. I imagine it like one of those bright post-storm days, when the sky is that wiped-clean, sparkling blue. The waves have calmed, but the ocean’s recent battle is still visible in the heavy, heaving rise and fall of its breathing.
I can see it so clearly, and I think you can too, because we’ve all seen mornings after the storm, when we head to our beloved Nauset Beach, our place between past and present, between the never-ending and ever-changing meeting place of sea and shore. I’ve seen residents scurrying about on the beach searching for treasures cast onto the sand. I’ve been one.
For me, beachcombing at Nauset (beachcombing anywhere for that matter, but home is best) puts hope right at the center of my heart. On the beach, I’m always in the present, smack dab in the place between where my feet have left imprinted proof of my passing and the smooth untouched expanse of possibility that lies ahead of me. I think of that saying “Every step I’ve ever taken has led me here, now.” On the beach, when I’m searching for shells and stones, thoughts and memories, I always feel if I go a little bit farther I’m sure to find just one more next unexpected best gift.
So call me and the rest of us Orleans folks “full of ginger” if you want. It’s true, and I don’t think many of us would have it any other way.