"I am, and always will be, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. I had the good fortune to be born to a very different kind of childhood. I didn’t recognize this fact back when I was small. I thought that everybody lived like we did on our little island of Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, which in
itself was a life apart."
These are the opening lines from an unpublished book by Seamond Ponsart Roberts, a transplanted New Englander now living in Louisiana. Seamond is a gifted storyteller, and she’s always more than happy to share tales of her childhood.
Her parents, she says, were “wonderful lighthouse keepers and just the best Mom and Dad any child could have.”
Seamond’s father, Octave Jules Ponsart, the son of Belgian immigrants, became a lighthouse keeper in 1933, after some years as a lightship machinist and engineer. After a few years as an assistant keeper at Great Point Light at the northern tip of Nantucket, Ponsart became the principal keeper at Dumpling Rock Light near Dartmouth. It was while Ponsart and his wife, Emma, lived at this bleak and tiny station that their daughter, Seamond, was born in 1940. “My father said he knew I was going to be a good lighthouse keeper’s daughter because when the seawater splashed on me during the trip home in a dory,
I giggled each time,” writes Seamond.
Hurricanes have figured heavily in Seamond’s life, during her lighthouse years and more recently. In fact, a hurricane in 1938 nearly wiped out Dumpling Rock Lighthouse and her family before she was born. Seamond’s parents, her older sister, Bette, and her cousin, Connie, barely survived the storm along with an assistant keeper and his wife. Their home was badly damaged and would probably have been swept away if it wasn’t miraculously saved by the intervention of a large boulder that wedged itself in the first floor and anchored the structure. According to Seamond, “Mom said later when she sang the hymn, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, it had a new and much more personal meaning.”
Octave Ponsart became keeper at Cuttyhunk Lighthouse, at
the western end of the Elizabeth Islands in Buzzards Bay in 1943. This was a homecoming for his Seamond’s mother, Emma, who came from a family of Cuttyhunk islanders. For young Seamond, the isolated light station was an endlessly fascinating playground. “For me as a kid, it was magic on Cuttyhunk,” she writes. “It was really something to live there and to know that where I walked, Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the first explorers of the New World, had walked there, too, incredible as it sounded.”
Seamond and her dog, Rex, would “play Gosnold” as they explored every bit of the shore near the lighthouse: “Dad made me a little play sword — with a blunt end on it, as Mom insisted — and a hat out of newspaper that to me looked more like what a sailor would use, but Dad assured me that Gosnold could have worn one of those. And if Dad told me something solemn like that, I really figured it was the gospel truth.”
The Ponsarts’ little paradise at Cuttyhunk was interrupted by a brutal hurricane in September 1944. Seamond wasn’t quite five, but she helped by doing “lighthouse duty” with her father through the night of the hurricane. She ran up and down the lighthouse stairs, fetching rags, coffee and various pieces of equipment for her father as he struggled to keep the light going. As the wind reached its highest point, at about 2:00 a.m., there was a crash in the keeper’s house — a chimney had crashed through the roof. It landed on Seamond’s bed, where she would have been sleeping if she hadn’t been with her father.
Every night, the Ponsarts could see the lights of the
Vineyard Sound lightship, offshore from Cuttyhunk. The family knew the lightship sailors well. They often stayed at the lighthouse when they were unable to get transportation to the lightship, often due to bad weather. The young men — regarded as uncles by Seamond — would enjoy seafood dinners and storytelling sessions with the keeper and his family. On the night of the hurricane in 1944, Seamond and her father watched as the gleam of the lightship vanished from sight in the surging seas. Octave knew what had happened. “The iron men in the iron ship, gone to the bottom,” he told his daughter.
The lightship was lost with all hands, 12 men in all. Seamond attended the dedication, on September 15, 1999, of a lightship memorial in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “I am so thankful,” she writes, “that the memorial was created for them and for all the lightship men who over the years, have served in peril, but particularly for my uncles who back then in 1944, gave their all.”
The light station at Cuttyhunk was badly damaged by the hurricane, and the house and tower were torn down a few years later. The Ponsarts moved on to West Chop Light on Martha’s Vineyard. In some ways, their new home was a vast improvement over the primitive conditions at Cuttyhunk —
they now had electricity, running water and a “real” telephone
(one you didn’t have to crank up).
“I spent my first minutes there running up and down the stairs pushing the light switch buttons,” Seamond recalls. “There was one at the bottom and one at the top that turned on and off the same hallway light. I couldn’t figure out how this could work. Then I spent plenty of time flushing the toilet. Like a hick from the sticks! Other marvels awaited me as I turned on faucets and looked all over the cellar.”
Seamond spent some of her teen years at West Chop in the 1950s. “I was quite happy that I had the best echo chamber in which to play my Elvis records on my little portable record player,” she remembers. “At least, I enjoyed it until Mr. Fuller [the assistant keeper] decided that not only did he not like to hear Elvis Presley, he definitely didn’t like hearing it at top volume in the tower.”
Octave Ponsart retired in 1957, and the family moved briefly to California. Seamond eventually became a military court reporter in the Coast Guard. “I got a few medals pinned on me by admirals,” she writes, “and I was hoping each time Dad could feel the pride I felt — not for myself really, but because I had done something that the Coast Guard appreciated that much.
It was this adherence to duty and love of the Coast Guard I found in myself that I think was from my father’s same feelings that I saw all during our times at the lighthouses.”
Her travels eventually took Seamond to Louisiana, where she lived with her husband, David Roberts, in the Algiers section of New Orleans. They were forced to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina last year. Their home was substantially damaged, and
at this writing, they’re living in another part of the state. But Seamond and David are glad to be alive. “We see each sunrise with renewed vigor and hope,” she says. “We are so happy to
be able to have the privilege of being able to start over again. God’s been very good to us and I’ll tell the world that.”
Seamond’s early life at lighthouses taught her many things. Asked what the most important lessons were, she says, “Lighthouse life taught me nothing is too impossible to try to do. As all lighthouse people knew, the government expected us to be frugal, so we had to do more with less and less. I saw my father and other lighthouse keepers do just that — and some of what they did was close to impossible. It also taught me that people who might be considered eccentric or different are, after all,
just regular people anyway who act a little differently. How
come I saw this? Because being a lighthouse kid, you sure got
to meet a bunch of them, either as visitors or government employees. Heck, being a lighthouse kid, you were kind of eccentric yourself.”
“Finally, it taught me to look out for others, because that is what lighthouse keepers do. Was it fun? Wonderful? Worth it all? Definitely so.”
This story appeared in the
March 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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