Simple Magic

By staff October 1, 2005

As grand palaces rise all around us in Sarasota (like the 20,000-square-foot edifice that a retired couple will soon move into on Longboat Key), it's worth escaping every now and then to the pleasures of rustic simplicity. That's just what I was lucky enough to do this summer, when I-and three other editors at the magazine-flew off to visit photographer Rebecca Baxter at her cottage on Martha's Vineyard.

Becky grew up spending summers on the Vineyard; her mother and father fell in love with the island on a sailing trip, and bought several hundred acres of land around Edgartown Great Pond. They turned part of the land into a farm, and her mother, an artistic and exuberant spirit, bought a dairy cow at Macy's in New York one day and founded the island's first dairy co-op. Becky's brother Michael, another larger-than-life spirit, lived on the island until his untimely death a few years ago, and Becky's cottage, on the family's last 10 acres, is an enchanting assembly of rooms, artifacts and memories from that family history.

Martha's Vineyard has become one of the most fashionable spots in the country, with mansions and real estate prices that make Sarasota look like a country cousin, and Becky, like so many longtime islanders, rents her place much of the year to help defray the ever-rising property taxes. But she spends early summer and snippets of other seasons there, and for years she's been begging us to come for a visit. So at the beginning of June, Susan Burns, Marsha Fottler, Kay Kipling and I flew to Boston, then took the bus to the ferry. A northeaster had sent temperatures plunging a few days before, but the minute we stepped aboard, the clouds peeled back, and blue skies and bright sunshine took center stage for the weekend.

Beaming and waving, Becky met us at the dock. Then she drove us past gray-shingled summer homes and chi-chi little shops, pointing to landmarks and movie stars' houses along the way, and up a secluded dirt lane that ends at her cottage. As soon as you walk into the tiny, wood-paneled kitchen, where well-used pots hang from hooks, flowers in a jelly glass brighten the window sill, and a delicious clutter of wine bottles and fresh fruit waits on a weather-beaten wooden table, you realize you're in a special place.

Like a human being, or a story, the cottage has evolved over time and is a combination of several different structures, each with a history of its own. The dining room was once a produce stand; the living room, a barn that Becky and her brother took apart, numbering the ceiling beams and re-assembling them one by one. The house has two small bedrooms and a bathroom, with whitewashed wood walls and wood floors throughout. Some things are brand new, like the big windows in every room, or the outdoor shower-which Becky's two daughters swear the carpenters, who were working on a nearby estate, built with sides low enough to allow them glimpses of the girls from their job site. But everything is warm and comforting, from the well-worn Oriental carpet in the dining room to the cozy built-in beds and piano in the living room.

Everywhere, there's art-family pictures, a wire sculpture by Michael, and paintings, some found at local thrift stores and others by well-known artists. Famed island painter Alan Whiting created a luminous scene of the Great Pond as a tribute to Michael, mixing some of his ashes with the paint. I also loved a beautiful blue-hued primitive depicting three men in a boat rowing mightily to escape a diving whale.

Becky had cooked an island specialty, a Portuguese soup of fresh-caught fish, sausage and kale, and after drinks on the wooden deck overlooking the meadow that leads to the pond, we pulled up mismatched chairs to the big round table and dove in.

The next morning, we explored the property, which has all sorts of tiny outbuildings, each one like something out of a fairy tale and full of surprises-snug bunk beds up to the ceiling in one; outside another, next to a pump, a table holding a stainless steel sink and drainer for washing dishes; a staircase to a platform offering a view of the nearby sea. Down by the pond, a human-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty holds a torch out to passing boaters, and sculptural homages to the four elements-earth, air, fire and water-created by Michael's daughter, Cleo, are installed among the vines and flowers.

Almost everyone who visits Becky contributes something to the evolving cottage. Last spring, some Sarasota tennis friends painted the bedroom doors bright yellow and tangerine. After we left, college classmates who are horticulturists helped landscape her garden. Beach glass, driftwood, and other found treasures remind of other visitors. We didn't make as much of an impression, though Susan-who knew our brainy business magazine editor was also a household wizard?-left the kitchen immaculate, and at an island yard sale, I bought Becky a pretty old pitcher and glasses hand-painted with summer fruit. But I like to feel we left a fleeting imprint, like footprints on the shore before the tide comes in; and I know that cottage left its mark on us.

Though in two short days we managed to see most of the island-running into other Sarasotans just about everywhere we went-the high point was always returning home. On the last night, reluctant to end the holiday, we stayed up late around the fireplace, drinking red wine and talking nonstop.

Five women who have worked together for more than 20 years, we probably know each other better than some husbands and wives. Together, we've encouraged each other's talents and aspirations, celebrated our successes and agonized over our failures. We've listened to each other coach and chastise our kids from birth through graduate school; seen each other through romances, heartbreak, marriage and family tragedies; and if we flip through the pages of the hundreds of issues we've produced together, we can spot long-ago pictures of each other and watch ourselves getting old.

You would think we'd said just about everything we needed to by now, but as the night wore on, listening to the summer rain pour down on the roof and lit by flickering candles, we found there was even more to share. Maybe the same thing would have happened if we'd spent the weekend in a magnificent new mega-home, but I doubt it. I credit that storybook cottage with sparking the magic.

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