As the days get shorter and the nights colder, many of our summer visitors leave. As fall progresses into deep winter, even more abandon us. What is left is a solid core of year-rounders, people who stay here for a range of reasons. Some, frankly, have no other option. But for the vast majority, it is a fierce attachment, like a barnacle on a rock, and an unshakable love.
The best example of this is Hilde Oleson.
There has already been an excellent obituary in this paper (July 7, 2022) of Hilde, who died on June 19 at the age of 99, and I do not intend to write another one. But I have just returned from an extremely moving memorial for her at the Provincetown Theater, and I am thinking about her. I will try not to write so much about the woman — although that will be difficult — as about the town that took her in, changing her and, in turn, being changed by her.
She came here to die in 2010 but did not get around to doing so until this year. She left one life (mother of four, wife of 60 years turned widow, various careers) and began an entirely new one. In her 80s she completely redefined herself. Her message to anyone who would listen: “Put yourself out there.”
That is just what she did, with dazzling determination and fearlessness. One day she marched into Chris Hottle’s office at the Council on Aging and said, “I have an idea.” And so began a series of poetry-writing workshops that were as much therapy sessions as writing exercises. She became an institution. She was a blend of mystic and stand-up comedian. She was an explorer, courageous even when no longer mobile. She found an unexplored niche in town and filled it. She created a persona and a person.
And what allowed her to do so was Provincetown — what she called in one poem “my beautiful crazy town.” No one here defined her as an old woman, a retiree, or any other category. She was allowed to define herself. Her spirit was not male or female, gay or straight, young or old. Certainly not old: she defied the myth of aging. This is important for a town and a region with a high percentage of elders (I among them). She was herself: Hilde.
She said that love saved her. That love was the composite of all those in town who knew her. It is likely that someone with Hilde’s spirit could have done this anywhere, but the fact is that Provincetown is especially open to people forging new selves of all sorts. Most of us would never limit another’s image or dignity or sense of self. We are more than tolerant, beyond accepting: we are welcoming.
Living here can be transformative. Yes, there is the famous Cape light, the expanse of ocean and dunes that surround us, and the end-of-the-line aspect of being here. But ultimately it is the people who have been attracted to this place, their sense of freedom and possibility, and especially their enjoyment in the happiness of others. Hilde Oleson exemplified this quality most of all. Her message is that no matter the obstacles, an individual can find a way to live here, to prosper, to define oneself, to leave one life behind and start another. But no one can do it alone.
We need each other.