“Chambermaids Wanted on Nantucket Island” was the newspaper advertisement that drew Sharlene Rudd to Nantucket in 1992. In those days, H2B visas, which allow foreign workers to come to the United States to work non-agricultural jobs for temporary periods, had only existed for a few years. Rudd got one, with seven other girls living in London, and worked at four different inns on Nantucket that summer.
Originally from New Zealand, Rudd was living and working in London at the time where she found a community of other young Kiwis, Aussies, and South Africans taking advantage of a reciprocal work agreement between Great Britain and its former colonies.
Until then, Rudd was accustomed to a seasonal lifestyle. She had left her native New Zealand at age 20 to embark on an OE, or Overseas Experience, which is a sort of extended period of travel that most young Kiwis take before enrolling in college. During the dreary winter months she worked and saved money living in London, so that she could travel during the summers. She hopped islands in Greece and Turkey, toured Europe via a camper van, and spent a summer traversing the coast of California during the warmer months of the year.
But for some reason, when Rudd’s summer on Nantucket began to turn into fall, she decided to stay the winter.
“I was so used to being a seasonal worker, but I wanted to see what it was like here during the quieter months,” said Rudd. Not to mention the novelty of experiencing a winter with snow.
After that winter, Rudd’s visa ran out and she returned to New Zealand with a guy named Edwin she had met at the Chicken Box five months earlier. Over the next 11 years, Sharlene went to college and got her degree, married Edwin, and had a son named Ben. The Rudds pursued careers in Auckland, Edwin as an artist and Sharlene as the production manager at a high-end womenswear label. During those days, Sharlene’s job was the important one for the family and she notes that at this time it was trendy to be a career woman.
“But I realized I didn’t want to be superwoman,” said Rudd “I was spending money on childcare to sit in traffic for two hours during my commute every day.”
After being rear-ended in said traffic, the Rudds determined it was time for a change.
Sharlene wanted to live in a place where Ed could pursue his art, and she could have a flexible work schedule that would allow her to prioritize raising her son Ben. Nantucket beckoned.
“I don’t know what it is about Nantucket, but I always knew I would come back.” Said Rudd. “1992 was the best summer of my life, I have always said that. I can’t put my finger on why, but Nantucket is a place that people return to.”
In 2004, the Rudds landed on Nantucket and worked at the Anchor Inn. Seventeen years later the Rudds are still here, living in a Habitat for Humanity house they were selected for in 2011. Their son Ben grew up going through the Nantucket Public School system, which exposed him to the supportive, diverse community of the island.
“Nantucket is such a unique place because of how multicultural it is,” said Rudd. “I remember once there was a new kid from Brazil in Ben’s class who spoke no English. When he came I said ‘Ben, make sure he feels included, look out for him,’ and Ben said to me, ‘Mum, half of the kids in my class speak his language.’”
Rudd remarks that this diversity has encouraged her son to maintain his identity and a sense of pride about being from New Zealand. She feels grateful that Nantucket is a place that accepts and celebrates cultural differences.
“I think one of the most formative experiences Ben had as a kid was being in a classroom where the teacher taught him to celebrate his differences,” said Rudd. “He was never corrected or made fun of when he said ‘mum’ instead of ‘mom.’ His first teacher instead explained to the class where New Zealand was and why he had a bit of an accent.”
The concentration of wealth on Nantucket was the only thing that worried Rudd about raising her son here.
“The amount of wealth here is not normal,” said Rudd. “I made sure to explain that to Ben from a young age. It is not possible for everyone to have the enormous boats that he would see by the docks.”
Ultimately, however, it is the year-round community and flexibility of work here that has caused Rudd to return and put down roots.
After working in fashion in a big city, Rudd has translated her love of design and production to being a self-styled “Sewing lady.” She has done costumes for local theater productions such as Our Town and Peter Pan, as well as worked with individual clients regularly as a seamstress. Nowadays, however, she has the privilege of being selective about her clients. She keeps her schedule fresh by doing “mix-up work,” a prom dress alteration here, and repairs for clothing stores there, but her main focus is keeping her clientele local.
“Nantucket has given us a lifestyle that we wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else,” Said Rudd, “It is so safe here, and there is a flexibility within work culture that allows you to raise a family.”
“Everything is so close, you can run to pick up your kid from school, but also allow them to ride their bike by themselves or walk into town to get ice cream alone from a very young age,” said Rudd. “In those ways, I think we are freer here.”