A stuffed giraffe named Melvin, completely swathed in toilet paper, stood by the window of Mary Kanarvogel’s office in the Shelter Island School on Halloween as a stream of students came to see him.
But the students, from every grade, shy and soft-voiced, bold and booming, dropped by ostensibly to see Melvin’s costume (the hypochondriacal giraffe went as a mummy) but really to check in with Nurse Mary.
She’s a multi-tasker. While dispensing a mint to a sixth-grader for a sour tummy — “Maybe you had some candy today?” — she tallied the carbohydrates in a high school student’s lunch so he could adjust his dose of insulin accordingly.
Mary Fikslin grew up in Kearny, N.J., a Scots/Irish town with a view across the Meadowlands of the New York City skyline. She and her identical twin Jane were the youngest of six children. Jane, born an hour after Mary, was a complete surprise to everyone except, perhaps, infant Mary.
Mary’s mother worked as a secretary and her father was chief of maintenance for a chemical company. At 4 feet, 10 inches, Mary was “the eighth tallest cheerleader” in the high school squad. “Kearny is still my favorite place,” she said. “I have strong ties.”
Mary’s older sisters and brothers all went to college, but with resources running low by the time Mary and Jane graduated from high school, Mary took a full scholarship at Upsala College, a place she might not otherwise have gone. After two years at Upsala, she changed course, starting over at Rutgers in a nursing program.
In 1981, after six years of college, she had her nursing degree and went to work at Columbia Presbyterian, where she excelled, handling a large and needy patient population, and starting an orthopedic nurse practitioner program. One day, she caught the eye of an HVAC-installer named Mark Kanarvogel, who was renovating rooms in her ward.
Soon he came to her with a splinter in his finger. One of Mary’s colleagues pointed out that he always wore the same shirt. “Just find out if he’s actually wearing the same shirt every day,” she was told. “If so, you can’t go out with him, but if he’s wearing the same style, different shirt every day, then it’s O.K.”
That test, Mark passed.
He told her he lived in Centerport and asked where Mary was from. “I said New Jersey, and he said, ‘On purpose?’” They married in 1985.
Their first child Ian was born in 1986 and Hope came along in 1991. Ian is recently married, and working as a teacher in Oysterponds, and Hope, who is also married, lives in Rutland, Vt.
When Mary met Mark, she had never heard of Shelter Island. “I thought Long Island was a place where rich people went on vacation,” she said. But Mark had spent time at Camp Quinipet as a child, and dreamed of coming back with his own family. “Mark said to me, ‘You get on the ferry and you lose all your bones, you just relax.’”
They found a non-winterized trailer in the Center, and began spending weekends and summers with their growing family. Mary worked as the Camp Nurse at Quinipet in the late 1980s through the early 1990s, and Ian and Hope were campers. In 1997, the family left Centerport for Shelter Island.
“I always thought it was a nice place, I just didn’t want to move here,” she said. “But it turned out to be fabulous.”
On Memorial Day weekend 1998, Pat and Steve Lenox opened a diner that today is known as The Islander. Mary, who had recently moved to the Island, and was working at Eastern Long Island Hospital, went to work there, and loved it, staying until 2001. The stress of nursing had been getting to her. “Waiting tables is serving people, but you can’t kill anyone,” she said.
She also started a business in 1999 called Friendship Quilting, providing machine quilting services to the quilting community, which was vast and growing. Her business was so successful that she found herself with a two-year waiting list, and nervous customers in line to have their quilt finished in time for a birth or wedding.
Working long hours in her basement alone, she realized that her passion for quilting was partly her love of the society of other quilters, and decided to start quilting with friends only.
In 2001, Ruth Mattson was the school nurse for Shelter Island, and when an episode of head lice broke out, Ruth called on Mary, who was working at Eastern Long Island Hospital, to lend a hand. When Ruth decided to leave the position, Mary stepped up, and has been known as Nurse Mary ever since.
Like any community, Shelter Island has problems, and those problems show up in the health and well-being of children. “Some kids here have no health insurance,” Mary said. “In the dead of winter, it gets rough. I do a lot of field work with the Lions Club to distribute IGA food cards, to help families with heat and coats, or help kids who don’t have money for a school trip.”
Mary is not a fan of short-term rentals, which she believes have reduced the number of year-round rentals, and put more pressure on Island families. “I’ve seen so many families have to leave the Island because of the rising cost of living here,” she said.
“There used to be a very small number of reasonable rentals. Now there are none. People can make more money renting weekends. The school enrollments tell the story. People have come to me desperate that their housing is going to short-term rental and they have no place to live. I know a family living on a boat. It affects young people, families that probably shouldn’t live together anymore, have to stay together.”
Though she loves her work, Nurse Mary said there may come a time when she will be ready to see the country. “My sister is already retired, and when I’m ready,” she said, “when it’s not fun anymore, I’m going to rent a drivable Airstream and we’ll go — Women on Wheels.”
Lightning round — Mary Kanarvogel
What do you always have with you? My twin sister and I have gold baseball charms from our dad. He played baseball in the Navy when he was in Okinawa.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Daniel Lord Road.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Kearny, N.J.
What exasperates you? Inefficiency.
When was the last time you were afraid? Yesterday. I heard a BAM! at 6 a.m., and thought the wind blew a tree on the house. It was the pole in my walk-in closet — fell right off the wall.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The Snapper Derby.
Favorite movie or book? ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand.
Favorite food? Coffee.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Jack Monaghan. A kind and gentle soul.
Favorite elected official? Jimmy Carter.