Shirley Souza can’t quite remember if her father was the one renting catboats on Sesachacha Pond or if it was someone else. She remembers going for a boat ride with her family when she was a little girl and then setting off on her own cruise. She can imagine her mother cursing from the shore as she set sail by herself.
“Coming back my father pulled the boat up, my mother got out and my sister got out. And all of the sudden my father turned around and it was, ‘Shirley. Oh, she’s going across the pond in the boat!’ My father had to do some fast swimming to pull me back in. To that day it makes me think that maybe that’s why I went scalloping,” she said.
Souza is the matriarch of Souza’s Seafood. The island business she started with her husband Manuel Souza has been selling scallops, lobsters and fish for over 40 years. In hindsight it makes sense she grew up to own a fish market. But thinking back to her childhood she laughs and admits she didn’t start out with a passion for fishing.
“First, we had a scallop shanty. Then people said to us, ‘you know you ought to carry fish.’ We bought a Bertram. We iced the fish and like I say, they wanted fish. One thing led to another and we opened it as a fish market,” she said.
She makes it all seem so matter-of-fact. The people wanted fish. Back then, before the fish market, her husband worked for Walter Glowacki. She said sometimes Glowacki would give the men the day off and her husband would go fishing. He would end up making more money fishing.
“The funny thing is, I used to think I didn’t like fishing, but not only did I turn into (a fisherman), I went scalloping for a living,” she said with a laugh.
As we sat on her back patio off of Trotters Lane, she went through old family photos, some of the house she grew up in at Quidnet. She said her father had a choice between town and Quidnet. He wanted the water. He always had wanted to go fishing for a living, but her mother wouldn’t let him, she said in a hushed voice, as if her mother was still listening.
“Here on the porch were roses,” she recalled, holding up a photo of her old house. “And it was nice because I was in the front here on the couch that would pull out for my sister and I and we could see the lighthouse. And I would sleep with that lighthouse every night and I loved it.”
Although her father would never fish for a living, he did work on the waterfront, at Island Service Company.
“I’ve got the headboard in the garage. They sold coal and ice down there. You know how you have Marine Lumber? They had a place called the Island Service and it was a store in there and you could go and buy all of your things.”
“And then they had this big icehouse and people would keep their deer in the icehouse. It was really something back then. My father would go at night. He was in charge of going down to the fuel dock and gassing up boats, sometimes to eleven o’clock. And on his weekends, he did carpenter work around different houses for people,” she said.
In the winter her father would rent a house in town. It made it easier for him to get to work. He wouldn’t have to navigate through ice and snow and she was closer to school. Some nights she remembers staying over at her grandparents’ house on Orange Street while her father worked.
It is hard to imagine what the working waterfront used to look like. The photos that adorn the walls inside Souza’s Seafood are some of the last remaining memories. As we walk through the market she points to different photos, signaling for me to take one off the wall for closer inspection. Each photo gave her more excitement than the last.
“My husband never had a photo without a darn cigarette in his mouth,” she said, looking at a black and white photo of Manny pulling a lobster out of an old wooden trap.
There are no days off when you run a small business, especially if that business is fishing. She recalls waiting in the car in Madaket, in the dead of winter, during her early days of scalloping.
They would sit in the family’s car and wait for scallopers like Peter Giles and Oscar Bunting to decide whether it was too cold to scallop.
“We would watch for him. ‘Now, if they open their door we’re going to go out. But if they don’t open their door we’re not going to go.’ I’d go ‘please don’t go, please don’t go, it’s cold today.’ One of them would weaken and we would all go.”
Back then everything was counted out, every penny accounted for and needed to make things work.
“My cousin and my brother-in-law now, came out one day and we decided we wanted something good. So, we took the bottles out of the shed and took them and got it. We went and got creampuffs and all this fancy stuff.”
“My husband came out and said, ‘where are the bottles?’ and I said, we took them to the store. He said, ‘you know that’s what I use to buy gas for my car?’ I didn’t give it a thought. But then down the road we put quarters in the bank for bread, you know? Everything was counted out. We learned a lot pretty quick.”
Life centered around fish and family. Her sons’ friends would come by the house for suppers of eels, or fried chicken, or herring.
The herring was caught in a sein net by Manny and he would salt them in the back yard. Souza whispered that the neighbors didn’t really like those salted herring set up there. But Nantucket was small-town USA and it seemed that everyone looked out for one another.
Souza grew up in an entirely different Nantucket than the one we live in today. The wharves were dotted with scallop shanties, coal sheds and an icehouse. Her family history and her family today are a glimpse into life on that island.
People wanted fish so she opened a fish market. Everything so matter-of-fact in the same way a fish isn’t impressed with how well it can swim. It was simply a way of island life.
She just celebrated her 86th birthday. People ask her when she is going to retire. Her response is always the same.
“There’s still fish out there, aren’t there?”