As World War I raged across Europe, a village in the Philippines gathered around a composed youngster of modest means, but one whose family had world-class education ambitions for its eldest son.
His name was José Formoso Reyes and he was my paternal grandfather. He was fourteen and he was on his way, alone, to finish high school thousands of miles away in the state of Oregon.
During high school, José won scholarships to Reed College in Portland where he met the love of his life, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Ham. The ever-loyal Betty followed him back to the East Coast where José would complete a graduate program in Education at Harvard University.
While he studied, so did she. Betty earned a nursing degree at Deaconess College of Nursing, a skill she would depend on ten years later.
The young couple married in Boston, then began an arduous journey back to Philippines where José wanted to teach social studies.
When World War II broke out in the Pacific, life went to hell. José and Betty had three children by then and all were severely tested by the war. When the United States liberated the Philippines from the Japanese in May 1945, the family was able to get on the first boat out headed for San Francisco. From there, the impoverished, bedraggled lot boarded a cross-country train bound for Boston with hopes that Betty's family would take them in.
Not only did Betty’s family refuse to take them in, rumor has it that the proper Bostonians were ashamed that their daughter had married an Asian. The homeless family was "banished" to Nantucket where they'd be out of sight, out of mind and far enough away not to make a scene.
The Nantucket of the 1940's little resembled the posh vacation spot we know today. Work was scarce - especially for someone who was clearly Asian.
Not long after the family settled into a rental house, José was called back to the Philippines under ambiguous circumstances. He remained there for two years, and lived a scandalous life that would come back to haunt the family and raise eyebrows everywhere.
Back on Nantucket, Betty struggled to care for the three young children. She worked the night shift as a nurse at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital and moved the family every season - as many people still do today – into town in the winter and out of town in the high summer season.
When José reappeared in late 1947, he faced many of the same difficulties he had dealt with two years earlier. He tried house painting and odd jobs, but nothing stuck. He couldn't teach because "there were no positions available."
Desperate to bring in income, he eyed the old lightship baskets that were common on Nantucket. He knew how to weave baskets from his childhood in the Philippines, so with the help of Mitchy Ray, José shook the kinks out his fingers and started weaving.
Most of the old Lightship Baskets were open, so José devised a lid to cover them and turned them into women's purses.
The results were instantly popular. José hung the baskets on a tree outside his rental house in 1948 and women snapped them up at prices that ranged between $15 and $25. They weren't cheap then and they aren't cheap now!
History was now made.
In the early years, the baskets were simple with copper handle pegs and plain wood tops. Betty sewed linings into many of them. As demand from both summer visitors and locals grew, José teamed up with ivory carvers Charlie Sayle and Aletha Macy. He attached their whale and seagull carvings to the tops. He also turned ivory pegs for the handles and pins for the front clasps.
And the prices went up and up and up.
José's character had plenty to do with the success of his creation.
He was engaging, educated, hard-working, social and spoke several
languages. He became a Mason,
was a regular at Rotary and sang (with perfect pitch!) in the Congregational
José worked nearly to the end of his life. In the summer of 1978, my grandfather, father (Paul Reyes) and I all worked in the Reyes Basket Shop. My dad's company, Northwest Airlines, was on strike and my dad loved working with his hands.
To let you in on a very well-kept secret, my dad, Paul Reyes, is undoubtedly the most talented craftsman of all of us. He alone has probably made a couple hundred baskets. If you are lucky enough to own one of them, you will understand what I mean when you compare his work side by side with any other’s. While his dad had the fame and glory, he had the gift.
Grandpa had a four-year waiting list at summer’s end in 1978, the last summer he worked. He died peacefully in his sleep two years later.
I went back to carry on the Reyes Basket tradition every summer after that year until I moved to New York City in 1989. I saw prices rise from $333 for the average oval to well over $1,000 in the twelve summers I worked there.
José Reyes baskets now sell for many thousands of dollars and are recognized the world over by people who've traveled to Nantucket.
If you're intrigued by this story, please contact me. There's really no end to the fascinating and scandalous rumors and half-truths out there, and I'd be happy to fill you in on some my favorites.