“Why did people here turn so ugly?” mused Lisa Williams, her big green eyes open wide. Lisa is one of the artists who rents studio space in my gallery, Shady Ladies Art. We sat down with a glass of wine after closing time. Both of us had experienced a frustrating day.
Lisa is a longtime Fernandina resident. She is clear to say she was not born here. “That’s different,” she cautioned me.
I asked if we could talk about how she sees this community now and how it is different from when she first moved here a few decades ago, at age 27. She was eager to do so and gave me permission to use her name and her observations.
Here are some of the things she experienced as a young wife, mother and business owner of a wallpapering business. “First of all, everybody knew everybody and I mean everybody!” she said. The island’s permanent population was that small.
Things were so quiet in the winter, restaurants closed for three months. People with service industry jobs (which Lisa said was just about every young person on the island) had to budget to make it through that time. At one point, she tended bar at the Down Under restaurant in the summer and made a dollar extra for every dozen oysters she shucked. On a busy night, she could make $100.
“That’s a dirty job and they are hard to open,” I said.
She replied she can shuck oysters like nobody’s business and was glad to do it to help feed her two young boys.
“We had the mills and the hospital for regular jobs. We were glad for the tourists. We didn’t call them that. We called them visitors. We welcomed them,” Lisa said.
It was a great place to raise her boys who had free reign of the island with other children. Parents watched over each other’s children and if yours misbehaved in public, you’d know about it. One day, she was driving home from work and saw a boy break a glass bottle and throw it on the lawn of the funeral home on Atlantic Avenue. She pulled her car over to the curb, rolled down the window, and shouted, “You wait right there! I am going home to get a broom and you are going to clean that up.” He waited, head hung down. She came back and he cleaned it up.
The driving force was community, according to Lisa. “Everyone cared how they acted in public because you didn’t want anyone to talk bad about you. If you acted out, the people who saw you knew 50 people who knew you, and word would get around. People were accepting of differences. Color, class or politics. We didn’t want any hurt feelings. We had respect for each other. We wanted to be good neighbors.”
She is quick to say it wasn’t perfect. But people put things aside to work together.
“And what about now?” I asked.
“The changes are a gut punch to me,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “I don’t understand why people turned so ugly.”
Yet she did have some ideas of why. “Social media is one reason,” she rolled her eyes. “People say things on there they would not say to your face.”
And obviously, the island has grown, she acknowledged. While the population is still relatively small, people don’t know everyone like before. There isn’t the same sense of mutual responsibility and caretaking, she said. Then there was the change in politics, and next – boom – COVID.
“It was a one-two punch,” Lisa said.
Her observations reminded me of a portion of one of my favorite poems, “Red Brocade,” by Naomi Shihab Nye.
The Arabs used to say, when a stranger appears at your door, feed him for three days before asking who he is, where he’s come from and where he’s headed. That way, he’ll have strength enough to answer. Or by then, you’ll be such good friends you don’t care. Let’s go back to that.
We can’t recreate the past, but we can learn from it. We can examine our values and our behaviors in public. We can be good neighbors. We can show respect and not intentionally cause hurt feelings. Let’s go back to that.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, New Jersey, and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.
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