Island Girls: While the watermen are at sea, the women of Tangier do their part to ensure the survival of this windswept outpost.

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Much has been said about the watermen of Tangier Island, that dot situated in the Chesapeake Bay. Many times, the crabbers who make their living catching blue crabs with chicken wire cages called pots have been followed and photographed by writers curious about their way of life. But what about the other half of the island’s population of 600? Who are the women who live in this remote village miles from shore and the nearest shopping mall?

To solve this mystery, I’d have to venture out there myself. So, on a recent Friday afternoon, with my 17-year-old daughter Liza in tow, I pack lightly and drive to Topping, Va., where we meet pilot Mo Smith. Minutes later we are airborne, skipping through the air like a tiny flea, over Irvington and Reedville and acres of water. It takes all of 15 minutes to get Tangier by air, and we realize as we look down on the speck of a settlement that the same amount of time might be all we’ll need to see the island though we’ve committed to 24 hours.

After landing, we are offered a ride to “town” in the golf cart of Tangier waterman Richard Crockett – there are very few cars on the island. Arriving at our bed and breakfast, Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House, we are greeted by proprietors Susan Crockett and Glena Crockett. (That’s a lot of Crocketts, you say? Yes, Crockett is one of a handful of last names on the island, all descended from John Crockett who is said to have settled on Tangier with his eight sons in 1686.) After checking into the clean, comfortable and air-conditioned hostelry, I get a little guidance from Glena, and I set out to seek conversations with the women of Tangier.

 

Across the street from the Chesapeake House is the tiny Crab Shack, a gift shop where I find Betty Dise, a friendly woman who speaks with the traditional Tangier accent that is said to be quite close to that of the original settlers from the British Isles. Betty grew up on the West Ridge of the island. Her father was a “crab potter,” and her mother was a homemaker who did a variety of jobs to help out with the family budget. “She would sew for people … anything to make an honest dollar,” Betty remembers. Though her sister moved to Richmond and her brother to Hampton, Betty stayed on Tangier with Gladstone, the man she was married to for 43 years. He was from Canton on the other side of the island and had been in the Coast Guard when they started dating in 1950. When they married, there was no honeymoon. “No, he was a waterman, and he couldn’t take the time off.”

Raising three children on Tangier was a pleasure, says Betty. “You can let them grow and play with a lot of freedom and no worry about them being taken. People here look out for the children. And in school, the classes were small and if they needed help, they could get it.” Her children have stayed on the island and Betty now has six grandchildren who are natives. “They crab, and they learn to run a boat young.”

In her 79 years, Betty has seen the island evolve in many ways. “When I was a girl, there was a movie theater and a dance hall … there were three big grocery stores and a lot of little ones.” Back then, the population was three or four times what it is today, and families were bigger. For many years, there was only the Methodist church, but in the 1950s a group defected and started the New Testament church at the other end of Main Street. Hard feelings split people apart, but the wound has healed, Betty says. Generally, everyone gets along even if they have the occasional difference of opinion. “Like I heard someone say, ‘they’ll talk about you one day and help you out the next.’ I think the best people in the world are here on this island.”

 

Lining Main Street are neatly kept houses, some vintage and some new replacements for storm-torn homes, their yards full of flowers, lawn décor and American flags. You can almost smell the apple pie – or crabcakes -- as you walk the narrow lane and dodge people on bikes, scooters, in golf carts and on foot. This might be where they made up the word “amble,” and it could be where the screened front porch gained popularity as the site of idle chatter. Tall trees shade hydrangeas and figs. Cats of every description peek out from behind birdbaths and tool sheds.

Later that night, after a delicious family-style dinner, Liza and I get ice cream from Spanky’s down the street then relax on the front porch of the Chesapeake House sketching lazily with pencils while dusk turns to dark. Sometime around 9 p.m. the distinct scent of freshly baked cake begins to swirl out the front door and into the night air. Further investigation reveals that Gina Crockett is in the kitchen making 10 pound cakes for the next day’s lunch and dinner guests. She finishes up and joins us on the porch, sharing warm slices of cake and details on her life on Tangier.

Gina’s day starts with the morning ritual of making husband Richard his lunch – four turkey and cheese sandwiches. He’s gone by 3:30 a.m., off to the Double 6 breakfast bar, then on the water and back home mid-afternoon. While that early rise might seem impossible for most, like other women on Tangier, Gina does not complain. Most wives of watermen know this routine – the early ring of the alarm clock and the fall months when their husbands might be gone oystering for weeks at a time. Her main focus is on her three children and how life on the island is starting to change.

“It’s getting harder to make a living,” she says. “There are more men going on the tug boats.” The waterman profession has become unpredictable and less profitable as sanctions have been put in place to preserve the crab population in the Bay. Tug companies along the coast of Virginia and Maryland are secure alternatives for men who work on the water.

Gina supplements the family income with her own niche jobs – homemade cakes and helium balloons. Her specialty is a layer cake with chocolate frosting. She learned her trade from her mother, Alice Crockett, who has helped support her family by working as the island’s seamstress and as a tour guide, a job popular with a number of island women.

 

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, I return to the front porch where I meet Barbara McCready who works at the Chesapeake House. Barbara grew up on Tangier, married a waterman and has only spent time off-island to visit places like Lancaster, Penn. and Ocean City, Md. I ask if it gets kind of small sometimes in this place where everyone knows everyone. “Yes, it’s like one big family,” Barbara assures me, adding in her dryly humorous tone, “It can get a little annoying.”

Like some other watermen, Barbara’s husband now works for a tug company. “There’s just not enough crabs,” she explains. Things came to a head when their two daughters were getting ready to graduate from high school, and the family expenses were spiking up. “He’d come home and say, well, we’re only going to be going every other day,” Barbara recalls. When watermen scale back to every other day, that means there aren’t enough crabs to warrant a daily trip out, and that’s when their wives start worrying. “With the tug job, he has regular work, a 401K and retirement benefits.”

Before she begins her chores, I ask her about the names of the neighborhoods on Tangier. She lists them: Canton, Ponderosa, Black Dye, West Ridge, King Street and, oddest of all, Meat Soup. Where did these names come from? With a roll of the eye, she quips, “Lord knows.”

 

Spotting Alice Crockett on Main Street, I enlist her for a quick spin around the island. She deftly guides her golf cart and points here and there – homes being raised off the ground by FEMA to protect them from storm flooding, the health center, fire house, churches, the unspoiled beach, the school, airport, soon-to-be museum and post office with its handwritten notices for things like “grape ice for sale” or a wedding shower to which everyone on the island is invited. Glancing across a marsh toward the Bay, she talks fondly of afternoons spent helping her late husband with his daily crab catch – she’d meet him at the dock and assist with the separation of crabs in different stages of maturity. She’d pack “red” crabs into boxes to be sent by ferry to Crisfield, then trucked to New York and Baltimore markets.

Unlike some of her Tangier contemporaries, Alice has traveled far from home. “Oh yes, I’ve been to Niagara Falls, Long Island, Florida, New York – I love Central Park – we took a buggy ride once in the snow,” she reminisces. “But I love coming home … I can’t wait to see the church steeple.”

Alice ends my tour at the home of her sister, Virginia Marshall. Just two of seven siblings, Alice, 62, and Virginia, 80, are close, and they spend a lot of time with their two other sisters. “We used to get together every night at our mother’s house before she died,” says Virginia. “She told us ‘don’t ever stop getting together’ so the four of us meet here every night.” All have lived on Tangier their entire lives.

Virginia remembers the first time she met her late husband, Smith. “Back then we’d all go to the dance hall around 9 p.m.. The way you knew someone was interested was they’d say, ‘May I walk with you?’” Even though they both had grown up on the island, they did not know each other – he was from the other side of Tangier and he’d been in a different class in school. They dated for three years, then married. At one point, he wanted to move to Reedville where their son lived, but Virginia refused to leave her mother back on Tangier so they stayed put.

Known for her cooking, Virginia says she got her start in sixth grade by baking a “peach roly poly.” Her daughter Lorraine cooks, too -- she owns a snack bar. “In the wintertime, all of us sisters go to each other’s homes for dinner – each night one of us prepares dinner,” says Virginia. “We’re all very good cooks,” Alice adds proudly. Virginia puts copies of some island recipes in little containers on utility poles and asks for a small donation – this is truly Tangier marketing.

 

With only an hour to go before take-off, I leave Virginia’s cozy home and meander back down Main Street. Outside the grocery, I meet a teenage girl babysitting for a child in a stroller. Beth Langley is 14, and she’s quick to tell me she is not from Tangier. She was born in Louisiana, but her Tangier-born mother convinced her barge captain father that the family should move to the island.

So what do kids do here? “Hang out,” says Beth. “There’s a playground at the school and an arcade. You can go to the Rec and watch basketball games…” Does she like it here? “Well … it’s safer here.” Will she stay on Tangier when she finishes high school? The answer is an emphatic “no.” She hopes to follow her older sister to Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va. If Beth’s plans for the future speak for the next generation, Tangier’s ranks of women will diminish quickly.

I head back to retrieve Liza and our belongings from the Chesapeake House. Along the way I pass a line of golf carts, all staffed by women, poised to transport tourists from the approaching ferry to lunch at the Chesapeake House. A few yards beyond, I see my daughter sitting on a bench and staring blankly at her cell phone, desperately hoping it will flicker to life and connect her to civilization. No such luck. There is no cell tower on Tangier, and Liza’s lust for connectedness has her suffering through withdrawal.

“What do people do here?” she asks incredulously. I repeat Beth’s answer to that question. Liza is not impressed. But the fact is that, just like girls everywhere, girls on Tangier giggle and talk about boys and watch tv and do chores around the house and go shopping, albeit via a ferry to the mainland. They just can’t text their friends.

 

One last stop – at the home of Deborah Landon Karnes who left Tangier for 27 years and moved back in 2000. Her picket fence is draped with painted crab pot corks, and her house is chock full of memorabilia, books, DVDs and all manner of décor. With just a few minutes to talk, I ask about her return home. “I didn’t appreciate this place as a teenager,” she admits. But, after years in North Carolina, New Hampshire and other locales, she had a change of heart. “I wanted a simpler way of life,” she says. “This is the most stress-free life.” For her, Tangier is full of positive possibilities – crabbing, minnowing, swimming and “progging” – looking for arrowheads and old bottles at low tide.

An hour later, as we skim over whitecaps on the Bay, I wonder if I could exist in Tangier’s remote environment – harsh, icy winter weather that sometimes prevents food from being delivered, working as a crab picker, the long wait for a med evac helicopter to rescue someone sick, no drive-through nothing, the same 600 faces all year. Then I remember the pristine strip of sandy beach, how soundly I slept without the noise of sirens and traffic, the strength and commitment of the women who raise children away from the media and material cravings and have never regretted their choice, the way I was welcomed into the homes of people who did not know me, the strong sense of family held dear by generations. Maybe I could be content on Tangier … if only it had a movie theater.

elizabethcogar@gmail.com
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