When Sarah asked if I’d be interested in sharing her island life with my readers, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be great fun to learn how a family is living with kids in a 1924 cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, and after interviewing Sarah, my thought was correct! It’s really lovely and interesting. You’ll see.
Hi, and welcome! I’m Sarah and I live year-round on Martha’s Vineyard with my husband Nick and our two young boys: Dylan is five, and Gray is two. Nick and I met in college but we were just friends then. A year after graduation, he moved back East after surfing in Hawaii for the winter, and came with me to a concert in Boston. He never left after that concert.
As a couple, we first lived in Boston in the dark basement of a beautiful Beacon Hill brick building, then moved to Providence, Rhode Island for Nick to attend RISD, where we lived on the first floor of a classic three-family home. We moved to the Island four years ago.
Our first son, Dylan, was born in Providence. He is obsessed with chocolate, wild animals, and building things. Our second son, Gray, was born on Martha’s Vineyard and is obsessed with farm animals, pears, and swings.
Nick is an architectural designer who works with a local architectural group and makes a lot of stuff on the side — furniture, objects, surfboards, art — and surfs a lot. Even when the water is only 34 degrees! I am a stay at home mom who blogs healthy family recipes and writes cookbooks while my kids are at pre-K or asleep upstairs. My first book Little Bites:100 Healthy, Kid-Friendly Snacks came out last year and my second book Feeding a Family: A Year of Simple and Healthy Family Dinners comes out next year.
Our house is in Vineyard Haven, on a dead-end street a short walk from the center of town and the main ferry dock. We can hear the ferry horn from inside! Our neighborhood has many year-round families which is really nice. Often, island houses are deserted after Labor Day and you find yourself surrounded by empty buildings without any life to them, which is kinda depressing.
There are many cottages in our neighborhood that originally looked exactly like ours but have slowly been neglected or renovated in different ways. I heard a rumor these cottages were built in 1924 to house Wampanoag families who were being moved from their land. I don’t know if this is true but I would love to find out. Our neighbors are all down-to-earth, hard-working people. Our street has a police officer, many carpenters, a grocery store employee, a barber, and a gardener.
As you can imagine, home prices on Martha’s Vineyard are SHOCKING! The average home is $1.1 million!
Full disclosure: we bought our cottage for $375,000. It kinda looked like a dump and many people didn’t see the potential in it. We have a small guest house in our backyard that we rent out year-round to a lovely young woman who wakes up early to bake bread at a local farm. This rental income going directly to our mortgage is the only way we can afford living here.
Despite the insane home costs, people love living here and get very creative in finding realistic ways to make it happen. Obviously, there is a huge summer market for rental housing so many of our friends move out of their homes in the summer and rent them out to vacationers. With their homes rented, our friends camp, live on boats, stay out of state with family, or live in shacks.
In relation, in the summer you will find seasonal employees, from all over the world, living in tents, campers, or in dilapidated homes with dozens to a room. Of course, this isn’t always the case but I think it is important to realize the reality of island life. There is — and has been for a long time — a big push to build more affordable housing on the island, which is something we desperately need.
We feel very lucky to have been able to buy this house considering all of the housing challenges. We love living here and don’t take our luck for granted. Here are some of our favorite things about living on Martha’s Vineyard…
Children lead very innocent childhoods immersed in nature. The kids in Dylan’s school grab big sticks and head out into the woods after school, or comb the beach for sharks’ teeth, or go to the docks to catch crabs if the weather is warm.
The Island is removed from many aspects of modern America — there are no chain stores, for example — and you can see how the simple, relaxed way of life is embraced by the kids. I feel like the childhood years here are longer and less complicated.
The public schools are great. Next year, Dylan will be entering Kindergarten with a whopping total of five kids in his GRADE. There are five elementary schools on the island, but he happens to be attending the smallest. The schools offer plenty of time to play, be outside, and take field trips. As a food lover, I am especially impressed by the relationship between the schools and local farms who work together to teach and feed island children a variety of local produce, seafood, and meat.
The Island community is extremely tight-knit and supportive. At first, it was hard to break into the community as almost everyone here has grown up with each other or is related somehow! That said, I now feel completely a part of it. If a family has a new baby, needs help with medical expenses, or suffers a house fire, there will literally be hundreds of people helping in a variety of ways. It’s truly unique and comforting. Everywhere we go whether it’s the library or grocery store, the employees know the boys and welcome them with open arms.
The Island’s natural beauty is so impressive. We drive 20 minutes to pre-K each afternoon and pass farms, stone walls, the ocean, animals grazing — it never gets old. When I see the boys in the pond chasing frogs, climbing rocks in the woods, or building forts in the beach dunes, I have to pinch myself. We get to live here and the land is their playground.
But, the Island isn’t perfect. Here are some of the biggest challenges we’ve found…
Housing prices are crazy. For families, buying is often out of the question and finding an affordable year-round rental is really tough.
As Martha’s Vineyard is an island, and in many ways disconnected, career choices are slim. Many of our friends have traditional blue-collar jobs, work multiple seasonal jobs, work for themselves, or travel a lot to make a career work.
Things are expensive! Groceries, gas, regular goods, everything is expensive! It makes sense when you remember everything has to take a plane or boat to get here but still! When I see strawberries for $11, I want to cry.
And sometimes, things just are not available. Recently, I went to the grocery store for dill to test a cookbook recipe and they didn’t have any. I would have to wait until the following Friday for the next delivery.
Also, you need to take a ferry to get here. Sometimes relying on a ferry is really annoying. You have to pay to take your car on, and in the summer car reservations are hard to make on short notice. This makes it difficult to be spontaneous and escape when we feel like it. If you are coming home and miss the last boat of the day, you are out of luck. And when it costs $100 round-trip to leave, which is the summer cost for a car, you think twice about it. During a hurricane or snow storm, the ferry stops running and the airport closes. Then we are literally stranded on an island which is very strange to really sit and think about.
Finally, there is little diversity here, in terms of people, places, food, culture, everything. I worry about this.
My mom started coming to the Vineyard as a teenager in the 1970s. Soon after, my grandparents bought a house here, then my parents. The Vineyard always felt like home to me and I knew I wanted to end up here.
When Nick and I first moved to MV, we lived in my parent’s house to try it out for a year. After a year, we knew we wanted to stay and have our kids grow up here. I think we got totally lucky on our house as sometimes there are no real estate listings under $500,000. I saw it for sale in the paper, called, we looked at it, and put in an offer right away. We knew we wanted — and could only afford! — a house that needed a lot of work and had a rental unit.
We bought it in March and immediately Nick and my dad got to work tearing down walls and building the kitchen addition. I was due with our second baby on September 14th so I insisted we move in before that. We finally moved in on September 9th and luckily he was eight days late so we had some time to unpack.
My sister, mom, and brother-in-law helped us paint and clean up the yard. I have to say, looking back at the pictures of the house when we bought it I can’t believe we did it! The walls were bright purple, yellow, and teal green. The windows were chippy and drafty, the kitchen was an old sink built halfway up a window.
I don’t know what made us think we could do it but I am so glad we did.
Nick did all the design work himself and the building too, with the help of my dad and a few friends. He really made this house ours. Everything from the complete kitchen addition, living room side tables, our headboard, our computer desk — he made it all himself in our basement or yard. He is really good at using leftover or inexpensive materials like plywood to make the projects affordable.
Those are the pretty projects, but there is so much he did that we don’t notice as much from putting in new windows to replacing our bedroom ceiling with white-washed wood. There were months that Nick worked on our house every night after work, weekend, and vacation day he had. We didn’t get any family time and sometimes it was really rough. Over the years, we have saved our extra money for house projects by forgoing cable TV, gym memberships, vacations, and kids extracurricular activities.
I think the hardest part of owning an old house is that it is a never-ending project, although in New England, 1924 is honestly not that old. We started our first winter with plastic over our old drafty windows but still, four year later, don’t use the upstairs bathroom in the winter because it is too poorly insulated and freezing! It is the only window we haven’t replaced yet. The new one is sitting in the basement waiting for a free weekend. That is the bathroom where our only bathtub is, so the boys have gotten used to the shower!
As much as we have done, there are still so many parts of our house that look awful, from missing shingles to a torn-up bathroom wall, broken base heaters, ugly tile, and a weedy yard. Besides those practical projects, Nick always has a creative idea for something else to do. Last year it was an outdoor shower, and this spring we hope to put in a patio.
In terms of decorating the space, we painted, replaced the light fixtures, and filled it up with our stuff. Almost all the furniture was either homemade or purchased at yard sales then repainted. Most of the art is by Nick and friends. Dylan’s dresser is from my childhood friend’s bedroom, my mom sewed Gray’s crib bumper, and my Dad made our dining room table. Dylan’s bed was mine was a kid — my Dad made that, too — and the Surfer Magazine poster on his wall has been Nick’s since childhood. My mom found Gray’s crib on the side of the road. Score!
In 2009, while pregnant with Dylan, I went back to school at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition because I knew I wanted food to be my work and I wanted a career that would allow me to be home with my kids. At that same time, I started writing my blog.
In 2012 when we moved to MV, a friend from Providence asked if I wanted to propose a cookbook together, which became Little Bites. We both had young kids at home and wanted an exciting project to balance out our work as parents. In 2015, I proposed a second book on my own, Feeding a Family: A Year of Simple and Healthy Family Dinners, which hits shelves in 2017, published by Roost Books.
The focus of my work is to help busy families find ways to cook more at home and to get a variety of whole foods into their diets. I love the freedom to make my own schedule and work when I can. I often work and cook when Dylan is at pre-K and Gray is napping upstairs. Elizabeth Cecil photographed all the recipes for Feeding a Family at my house. That’s her stunning ocean print in our living room!
Sometimes, as writing and recipe development is such individual, personal work, I get lonely and wish for a bustling office. I guess the grass is always greener. In general, I love what I do and feel really lucky to combine what I am passionate about with a schedule that works for my family and allows me to live where I want. It is an added bonus that I write about family food because I learn and practice so much on my own family. They also don’t mind the copious amount of recipe testing!
When our first son was little, our apartment was filled with toys. It drove me crazy but I didn’t know what to do about it and was too tired to care. This house was a clean slate for us. Our home is small and we don’t have a playroom, so all the boys’ toys are in our living space. This makes us get creative about toy storage. I use a lot of baskets, space under beds and the sofa, and Ikea storage units. Of course, we have a few scary closets, mainly this one. Now, I am really picky about what we bring into our house and always donate old toys when new toys come in. The open shelving in our kitchen has also made me pare down because you SEE everything we own. I donated many a college pint glass when we moved in!
From his work as an architectural designer, Nick has a great knowledge of products so he always knows where to look for affordable, nice looking things. He is really picky and exacting about stuff, so when he makes a design decision I know it is the right one. He would like more color in our house but I just can’t do it, not yet. I am a sucker for white walls. If we had more open space I would love to try some fun wallpaper but I am too nervous that it will look busy. In general, I try to really stick with the popular mantra “if it doesn’t give you joy, get rid of it.”
Island life can be quirky. Even though I thought I knew the island well before moving here year-round, many things have surprised me about living here. Like when I had my last midwife appointment while pregnant with Gray, she mentioned calling the hospital before coming in. I thought she just wanted us to tell the staff we were on our way, but really, families have to call so the maternity ward can be OPENED and the nurses called into work! It is often empty and closed until a laboring woman calls in. When we arrived, one other mom was there resting, having given birth the day before, but we were the only ones there for the next two days.
Last summer, Nick and I were drinking wine outside with the boys asleep upstairs. I had the baby monitor next to me and it kept getting fuzzy and making strange noises. We quickly realized it was because the Obamas were driving nearby so secret service radios interfered with our system. After that, we always knew when the President was on his way to dinner.
When we are off-island, I see the boys’ island upbringing come out — something I am not used to as I was raised on the mainland. Gray screams “GOOOOO!!!!” when we stop at red lights because there are no stop lights on the Island so he’s not used to stopping for long in the car. Similarly, I took Dylan off-island to a show in a city theater. I held his hand and started up the escalator and he started to panic! Even at five years old, he had no idea what an escalator was.
We do see celebrities a lot in the summer. They are just walking around town or at the beach like normal people. We have seen a wide range of people from Meg Ryan, Bill Clinton, Bruce Willis, the Gyllenhaals, Spike Lee, Bill Murray, and Larry David.
I hope our boys remember everyday details of their childhood here, from measuring and marking their heights in the upstairs hallway, to sitting on the big kitchen window bench watching the crazy wild turkeys in the yard. I hope they remember the birthday parties we hosted, with painted dragon murals and ice cream cakes. I hope they remember calling for me every morning from their beds and seeing my face open their doors. I hope they remember planting the daffodil bulbs randomly around the yard and the sunflower seeds in the back garden. I hope they remember making fresh pasta, pressing tortillas, and peeling carrots while sitting on the kitchen counters. I hope they remember stepping inside and feeling completely safe to be themselves.
I hope I remember the long, dark, lonely winter days we spent in this house together, trying to make the most of it but sometimes thinking we would explode. I hope I remember watching the boys naked and sandy in the outdoor shower together. I hope I remember the mixed feelings of pride and dread seeing Nick pull out his ladder and tools to work on the house…again!
I am a very emotional mother so just the idea that our kids will leave our home someday is too hard to think about. I can’t imagine life without them here.
I wish someone had told me — and I had listened! — that the old saying “The days are long but the years are short” is so true. I already forget those long newborn nights spent upstairs in the rocking chair and the winter weekend we stayed with friends because our house had no windows. Just holes. Those moments felt so huge and permanent at the time, but are now just happy memories.
P.S. — If you want to visit Martha’s Vineyard you can read all about my favorite places here!
Thank you so much, Sarah! I absolutely enjoyed learning the insider’s scoop on living on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a whole different lifestyle, especially the renting out of properties in the summer months and the creative ways of living elsewhere for a bit. Fascinating.
Island life! Are you in or does it give you heart palpitations? To consider: a hundred dollars to get your car off-island, and no chain stores…and the off-chance of spotting Bill Murray out on a stroll. (I’m in.)
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.