Historically, it’s been vitally important to a native Mainer to be able to make a clear distinction between himself and others, particularly those others who live here in Maine but haven’t always and, when push comes to shove—as it often does—to acknowledge the more subtle distinctions that mark the difference between that native and those pretenders who may have lived here all their lives but whose ancestors snuck in from elsewhere.

On Maine’s coastal islands, however, those distinctions have been more finely drawn. Each surrounded by ocean it could hardly be otherwise and it isn’t. A proprietary regard is absorbed like our accent—Maineliness on steroids.

I live on Vinalhaven, went to school and grew up here but had the bad form to have been born in Massachusetts, a crippling stigma I’ve borne all my life. My ancestors settled here in the 1700s and their descendants stayed right here for the next 150 years but my mother married a Massachusetts man and lived there in Boston for a few years while he was fighting overseas. I, and then a brother, were born there.

When my dad returned from the war, we all moved back to Mom’s ancestral island, but I’d spent four formative years in purgatory, enough to seal, in perpetuity, any claim to nativity.

I entered first grade just shy of my fifth birthday, a little too early as it turned out but my folks, my native mother in particular, knew how my birthplace would haunt me and was eager to get a jump on the inevitable hierarchical prejudice. I think she thought that if I got in ahead of everyone else, I could by sheer force of personality overwhelm my peers and succeed in steering the discussion away from my questionable origins whenever that ugly subject threatened to fill the sails.

Accordingly, I bellowed “I’m from here” at every opportunity but by the end of the first week, each member of the first grade had learned and understood perfectly where each of us stood on the ladder of ascendancy. Not because all my five- or six-year-old classmates had made the requisite calculations, but because their parents had. When, for example, little Roland came home from school that first day to report on my relentless claim of pedigree, his parents, whose memories of who’s who and under what circumstances would put Ancestor.com to shame, set him straight.

The first blemish, of course, was my birthplace. The second, however, was that my mother went so far afield in search of a mate to begin with. Those of us—Roland Brown for instance, whose parents had been born here and never left, save only an occasional trip to the mainland for goods or services not readily available on island, and who had each found in the other a suitable mate without having to go searching elsewhere—advanced quickly up the chain of command.

Shirley Tupper was born on the island but not before her mother had ill-advisedly eloped with a summer boy from Worcester, landed an assembly line position down at Pratt & Whitney, and remained there with him for three years, long enough to be tarnished but not so sullied as I. More damage can be done in four years than in three.

While most babies back then were born at home or in one of the island’s two maternity homes, now and then a glitch required a laboring mom to be taken to the mainland, often in a tossing lobster boat in the middle of the night to deliver in the hospital. Wendy McFadden was one such.  Her mom, mindful of the long term consequences of her infant’s prolonged exposure to the mainland, tried unsuccessfully to get herself discharged the next day so she could hurry home before word got out, but her condition and that of the baby were a little fragile and she and Wendy didn’t manage to get back on the island for three days—long enough for a shadow to be cast over Wendy’s legitimacy. It was a short shadow, but those distinctions must be noted and they are.

Things are changing though. There are some who, within the last two or three generations, have successfully established themselves by simply ignoring the quantifying assessments of others. It’s a relatively new tactic and it’s been surprisingly successful, even allowing for the delicate but satisfactory integration into the lobstering and fishing community, an achievement that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago. Others have simply moved here from elsewhere, retired perhaps, and, by a more persuasive force of personality than my own and by sheer determination have vanquished the old stigmas and it’s making a difference.

The old prejudices haven’t entirely faded but they’re shifting that way.

Phil Crossman lives on his not-quite-native-island of Vinalhaven where he operates the Tidewater Motel.