Edith Dillon Ray of Nantucket passed away on December 27, 2023 at the age of 69, following a courageous fight with an extended illness.
She was the daughter of Harold and Miriam Dillon of Pennsylvania and Nantucket. Born in Pennsylvania, her family spent their summers on-island in Monomoy where she could usually be found roaming the marshes and tidal flats in the area. She graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English. Edith moved permanently to Nantucket in the late seventies where she met her husband Richard through their shared activities as EMTs with the local fire department. It soon became evident that her true love was the natural environment. Edith was instrumental in the formation of the marine mammal stranding team, a volunteer with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the Tuckernuck Land Trust, and many Christmas Bird Counts. She spent many days and hours on one of her most favorite spots, Tuckernuck, where she assisted in the training of the island's land stewards. Edith, never without her binoculars, was a shorebird person, delighting in the activities of piping plovers, oystercatchers, sea ducks and all manner of avian wildlife. As an educator of local history and the island's environment, Edith was a fierce supporter and defender of conservation efforts island-wide.
As a “Mom” she and Richard raised her children in a caring and compassionate environment, with the occasional seal in the living room, goose in the bathtub, and birds in the freezer. She is survived by her husband Richard and their children, Travis and Adam of Nantucket, her daughter Hillary of Holliston, MA, and her stepdaughter Heather Lowe of South Yarmouth MA, her brother of Kennesaw, Georgia, and her grandchildren William, Avalynn, Emily, Sara Sears and Lewis.
A private family service will be held in the spring of 2024. In lieu of flowers, friends are invited to contribute in her name to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation or the Tuckernuck Land Trust. Or simply pick up some trash, rocks, or seashells on your next island nature walk and “keep your eyes peeled” for some beautiful island birds.
We also read a poignant remembrance of Edie from Amanda Keenan (Nicholas) who graciously allowed us to share her words:
My second mom, Edie, Edith Ray, passed away a few days ago. I was honored to be able to visit her and even more honored to be a part of the Ray Family. In a way to process some of my grief I wrote about her and a bit about the impact she's had on my life.
The Girl Who Cried Whale
More accurately, Edie was the woman who cried about a whale, which has been immortalized in a video shown on loop at the Nantucket Whaling Museum about the stranding of a sperm whale in 1998. (Spoiler: the whale doesn’t make it). When the movie first debuted the summer the new Whaling Museum opened, Hillary worked at Young’s Bicycle Shop and was so embarrassed when people talked about “the woman who cried about the whale.” In the film Edie is very upset at the death of the whale and the futile efforts to save it. This is also immortalized in Nat Philbrick’s book, In the Heart of the Sea where she is even listed in the index.
Edie loved animals and collected them in both formats: living and dead. Her house had at minimum one dog, three cats, two birds filled with various levels of Satan (looking at you, Chainsaw), and a backyard full of ducks. Over the years Travis, Adam, and Hillary added hamsters, bunnies, turtles, and an iguana.
If she found a dearly departed bird that “looked neat” it too would come home and be added to the avian necromancy freezer in the cellar. This is a far cry better then when my mom just put them in baggies in the regular fridge, so sometimes you were greeted with a bird leg sticking out at you when you just wanted frozen peas.
This love of nature expanded to rocks, feathers, shells, and skulls. Sometimes these were for educational programs, other times just epic home décor. As I sit here writing this I feel that I should add that “the girl with a crow skull in her craft room shouldn’t throw stones at the woman who inspired her to collect said skull, rocks, feathers, etc.”
Edie loved plants and my husband Barry described her house as, “if someone was losing a game of Jumanji.” It inspired him to collect plants of his own and while we are a far cry from having a palm tree in the dining room, we are getting frighteningly close.
I am just waiting for someone to say the normal platitude you hear after a tremendous loss. Something like, “She lit up a room.” If Edie lit up a room, I did NOT want to be on the lighting up end of it. Edie told you exactly what was on her mind. She also told you what was on your mind and what you should do about it. Sometimes this was the kick in the butt you needed.
Yet, she loved just as fiercely as she shared her opinions. I am forever grateful to her for becoming my second mom. My mom died in 2008 and in the whirlwind of funeral services I remember Edie taking me by the shoulders, looking me right in the eyes, and saying, “You’re a Ray child now.” In typical Edie fashion I was not given a choice in the matter.
After my mom died no one remembered my birthday. Edie did. I didn’t get Christmas presents from my family. Edie sent me some. I didn’t have a safe clean place to stay when I came home. Edie always found me a bed at her home. (Or her kids’, sorry guys).
Edie helped me through three funerals, a wedding, and becoming a mom. She called to check in on me and made sure to send me, and later my daughter, Maggie, cards for every holiday.
Edie is the reason my mom got into birding and why all us kids know how to spot a merganser, tufted titmouse, or a snowy egret.
She is the reason I love history, especially Nantucket history. In 1994 when the Nantucket Historical Association celebrated its 100th Anniversary all the historic sites were open for free. Edie brought us to every single one and that day still sticks with me. I went on to get my first job at NHA when I turned 14 and I’ve gone on to work in the history field. This includes sailing aboard tallships, learning open hearth cooking, and operating the Old Mill. Most recently Edie helped me fill-in missing gaps in my Nantucket book collection, as long as she had doubles.
A treasure hunter extraordinaire, she sought second-hand riches at every available yardsale, the take-it-or-leave-it-pile, and at holy pilgrimages to Brimfield. She gave the most insane and beloved gifts as a result of these quests. Best gift I ever got was a 100 lbs. anvil. Yes, I am a blacksmith and I do use it. Sorry to Travis and Jared who had to transport the thing.
It will take a village to carry on a fraction of Edie’s legacy. She did so much for her family, her community, and the natural world and continuing her work will be tough. Kayla is holding up her end on the animal adoption front. She currently sits at two outdoor cats, one indoor kitten, three dogs, and “fostering” other dogs. Hillary and I will do our best at “Flea Market Flipping” at Brimfield and trying to answer the question, “Why the heck do they keep turning perfectly nice things into bar carts?!” Hillary and Barry will be doing the plant hoarding and I’ll keep up with my shell, rock, and animal parts collection.
I think Edie would come back to visit us as a hawk or an owl, but if there is a spike in piping plover attacks this summer you can bet that’s her. If you’re on the beach or on a hike, please pick up some trash along your travels. (Bonus if you cuss out loud about the idiots who thoughtlessly left it there). On the beach, look for rocks with white stripes around them because they are lucky. In her honor, put up a bird feeder and always remember to throw your pennies.
From the Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket:
The island is deeply saddened by the passing of Edie Ray. She devoted her boundless energy to giving back to Nantucket in so many ways: as a volunteer firefighter, a nature guide, intrepid birder and so much more all while working and raising a family.
Edie gladly shared her knowledge and love of the nature around her and most know her as a phenomenal birder. But another of her passions was marine mammal rescue and for many years she volunteered with and guided the marine mammal stranding team from its early days through the time under New England Aquarium. Whales, dolphins and seals were protected from harm, disentangled from marine debris or captured and transferred to rehab on the Cape when necessary. And again, Edie eagerly imparted her knowledge, giving talks to all and sundry and sharing an appreciation of the marine mammals who dwell among us.
In a quote to Mary Miles in Yesterday’s Island many years ago, Edie said the trick to her incredibly vibrant and busy life was to “never sit down, never stop moving.”
Edie advocated for others to get involved and give back to the island she loved through helping others. “It’s not fair for us to just take and not give!” she said with great emotion. Mary’s final quote was “She sat down for just a bit, but hardly stopped moving. If you count the pulsing of the heart and mind, expressing an impassioned and finely articulated interest in living and doing. People like Edie ARE Nantucket. Thanks Edie.”
In her honor, let’s all take a page from Edie’s book of life and give more, care more. There is a huge void to fill now. Our sympathy and gratitude goes out to her family.