Valerie Reese, Model of a Vineyard Camp, Martha's Vineyard Museum collection, gift of Wendy Weldon.

Ray Ewing


The Tender Trap

Sometimes all you need is a few hundred square feet and the love of a place.

For some, love of a place is as strong and as deep as the love of a lover can be.

The cottage was called the Poop Deck. The name took some getting used to for me since I wasn’t especially nautical, but once I learned that the poop deck is the highest deck on a ship, the name came more naturally.

“I want to live there,” I said the first time I saw it. It was perched like a treehouse above a garage, at the end of a long, steep dirt driveway that ended in cobblestones laid in a pattern of fans. Lagoon Pond glittered just beyond. “Too bad,” my friend, the caretaker, said to me. “It is already taken.” But just a month later the tenants moved out. I moved in and stayed thirty-nine years.

The main house the owners called Twice House, because like many custom-built houses it took twice as long and cost twice as much to build as had been expected. But the Poop Deck was small, made simply and quickly, a place for the owners to live while the main house was built.

Put up in the sixties, pre-zoning, the Poop Deck had eccentricities that couldn’t be gotten away with today. For the first few years, you had to climb a ladder to get from ground level up to the front door. Eventually stairs were built, but I lived there for years before railings were added. Railings were finally built as well around the tiny deck, which the carpenters called my “playpen.” The ladder inside, which led to a loft, was in time replaced by stairs with twelve-inch risers. 

The Poop Deck’s 625 square feet included two lofts off the main room and a bedroom just big enough for a chest of drawers and a double bed. The cathedral ceiling was high, but due to the architect’s lack of experience (he was young and eager, fresh out of MIT), the lofts were just a foot too low to stand up in. There had been no architect’s drawings, just a sketch on an envelope, and, forgetting that floors are required to have joists, he only drew a straight line. The house had thirty windows, which for many years had no storms, so in winter the curtains would flutter and flap in the draft. The light, though, was splendid.

The first winter I lived in the Poop Deck, which was also my first on the Vineyard (and, in fact, my first real winter anywhere, having grown up in the South), I was unprepared. One night it rained, then the temperature dropped, and the woodpile I hadn’t thought to cover froze solid. I had to pry the logs off with a crowbar before I could thaw them out enough to burn in my tiny wood stove. I can remember one snowstorm that winter, shoveling out my stuck truck, wearing slippery leather boots and a thin wool coat in the howling wind and swirling snow, and thinking there was no place I’d rather be. 

The Poop Deck was built by Allan Miller, who built the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven. (Later he had a construction company called Lazy Brothers. He and his partners painted the name on their trucks with the paint dripping up, but in fact they were master craftsmen.) Allan once built a wooden car and drove it to California and back. He also built a beautiful catboat called the Cacahuate and sailed it away.

Made by a sailor for sailors – my landlords cruised each summer in their thirty-two-foot sloop – the Poop Deck had the feel of a ship. There were built-in bookshelves, a built-in couch, a tiny galley kitchen, a lazarette for storage, a ship’s bell for a doorbell, and a caged brass lamp by the door. In a storm you might imagine it was rocking. The walls, at first, were dark knotty pine, but I painted them white – quite a task with all those windows.

When I first moved in, in 1975 (and for the fifteen years after), the rent was $115 a month, plus utilities. The landlord said to me one day, apologetically, that the rent had to go up to $135 as the town had started charging for garbage collection. By the time I moved out in 2014, the rent was $260 a month, utilities included.

The owners of the house were a charming, eccentric, middle-aged couple. Dave Frantz was an oceanographic engineer who commuted in his boat to Woods Hole. His wife, Beatrice, who was always known as “B,” was the daughter of a French Rothschild and a Portuguese shipping magnate. Before they married, B lived in Woods Hole and Dave lived on the Vineyard. B told him she’d only marry him if they could have a boat, so as not to be dependent on the ferry. They bought Tracker, a work boat, and kept a car on the other side.

B and Dave didn’t rent the Poop Deck because they wanted the money. They liked having young people living nearby, and someone to keep an eye on things when they traveled, which they did often. Since the Poop Deck was close to the house, it had to be someone they got along well with, and we got along very well. My duties when they were away were to water the plants and to feed the cat.       

They had a horror of flaunting their wealth. Dave dressed most days in old khakis; B favored overalls. They drove a Volkswagen Beetle for years until it began to wear out. Then they bought a Subaru and sold me the Bug for a hundred dollars. The wine they drank at lunch and dinner came in a gallon jug; they saved the better stuff for company.

I’d lived in the Poop Deck for quite some time before it struck me that if I had a small boat I could take it into town. Not long after, I found an abandoned boat on the beach below the house. I called around to the neighbors to ask if anyone knew whose it was. Tom Grew, who lived next door, said, “Yes, it’s mine – do you want it?” And so I had a boat: a twelve-foot, worn-out, flat-bottomed skiff with cracked wood and peeling paint. It needed everything. It was beautiful. 

Around that time my friend Diane Gorman arrived for the summer with no place to live. Summer rents were impossible. B and Dave had an eight-by-ten-foot shed, but it was in awful repair. Diane, with her unfailing artist’s eye and energy to spare, set to work making it habitable for the summer. It was full to the rafters with filthy debris. She cleared it out, primed and whitewashed the walls, painted the floor a lovely sea-green, and furnished it from the thrift shop for herself and her new husband Oliver Sorg, who’d be arriving soon. The shed had electric wiring, so part of the battle was won, but it had no water or bathroom, of course. B and Dave, always generous, offered a hose and the use of one of their bathrooms. Diane bought a tiny fridge, a Coleman stove, and a hibachi. She had a landline put in and hooked up a vintage Bakelite phone. When she called me (from fifteen yards away) I could hear her actual voice as well as I heard it over the line.

When Oliver came, we scraped and sanded and caulked and painted the boat with a dark blue hull, mint-green inside, and bright yellow oars for those times when the used four-horse motor (which was noisy and stinky and leaked gasoline) conked out in the middle of the Lagoon or, worse, in the harbor, with a ferry bearing down. We learned to row very fast. We christened our boat Marie Laveau, for the nineteenth-century New Orleans voodoo queen, and lettered the name in gold leaf on the transom.

We feasted on corn and grilled fish and drank lots of cheap red wine. Diane biked to her job at the Oyster Bar in Oak Bluffs; I had a little gallery in what was once the Barnacle Club in Vineyard Haven; Oliver fished and sketched and swam and lived on his meager savings. We chugged up the Lagoon in our little blue boat, tied up at the Black Dog Tavern, had breakfast, and putt-putted home. We were young, it was summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and we didn’t need one thing more than we already had.

B and Dave grew old, were moved to a nursing home, then died, and Twice House and the Poop Deck were sold. Thus began a new chapter for me. The housing crisis had swung into gear; I moved twenty-one times in five years. I had a good place for a couple of years, an apartment a friend built for me. But it was sold too, and again I’m in search of a home.

B called the Vineyard “a tender trap,” and, just perhaps, it was that. I’ve also heard it called “a womb with a view.” I was safely settled – and so privileged to call the Vineyard home – for almost forty years. Now, with affordable housing so scarce, living here is challenging, if not impossible, for those of us with limited means. 

For some, love of a place is as strong and as deep as the love of a lover can be. To leave the Vineyard, which I may have to do, would break my heart. It would mean the loss of my community, of my livelihood, of the joy and comfort of having friends nearby. Some might say I should have spent all those years climbing a different ladder. I chose my life on this Island instead. As painful as its loss would be, I still don’t regret my choice.                

Valerie Reese is an artist, designer, writer, and seamstress who has lived on the Vineyard since 1975.

Comments (1)

Oh Valerie -- What sweet, delicious memories. I trust more sweetness will come your way. May it be so soon.
March 14, 2024 - 12:07pm