The Daily Prompt rolled through my inbox this morning and stated: “A place from your past or childhood, one that you’re fond of, is destroyed. Write it a memorial.”
Nothing stood out as I pondered this prompt, and then I remembered my Aunt Lulu’s stately home on 668 East Beach, Gulfport, Mississippi, USA. Gulfport was a long drive from the alluvial cotton fields of my Mississippi Delta childhood, and my father made that journey about once a year to see his sister Lulu Williams Anderson. Daddy was born in 1913, and I don’t remember how much older she was than he. I do remember that she sometimes seemed – (to me, the baby child of Aunt Lulu’s baby brother) – as old as God!
Adored and respected by her younger siblings and their offspring, our vibrant matriarch presided over the Williams and Anderson clan. I remember an 80-something Aunt Lulu recalling a trip to see her dentist.
She asked, ‘Doctor, aren’t I too old to be having cavities?’ and he replied, “Miss Lulu, you’re too old to be having teeth!”
Aunt Lulu loved a good joke, loved to write poetry, and I always treasured her little booklet of limericks she called, “Jingles and Junk.”
Being a child of the Mississippi River flood plain, I loved those sultry summer trips to Gulfport where massive oak trees guarded the front entrance to her property, and a white spread-eagled ceramic cat (or was that a squirrel?) guarded one of those trees. The front drive passed beneath a side portico and stretched clear past the garage to the next street! In my eyes, Aunt Lulu was a baroness!
Although her home dripped with a relaxed well-bred comfort, the gardens captivated me! While the adults escaped the heat in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms, I explored the stately grounds. Always-running sprinkler systems spurt spurt spurted droplets of water across thirsty lawns and ancient azaleas. Multi-colored roses and elegant gardenias permeated the air with sweet fragrance. The gnarled oak trees stretched their limbs to the skies before gravity pulled the lower branches back toward the ground.
Blow-up floats. badminton sets and crab traps were carefully stored for her guests’ amusement, and at times she’d scoop us up and take us to the Yacht Club for lunch. Even as a child, I was always happier in the little oasis of her gardens than rubbing elbows with the affluent! I suspect that her attempts at domesticating that youngest Williams girl fell short!
Across the four-lane highway was that giant pool of water known as the Gulf of Mexico. I never particularly liked crossing that busy highway or exploring the beach. At times I endured walks with my sisters or cousins, but I was happiest when we crossed back through the sand burs and rinsed off beneath the sprinklers. I basked beneath the canopy of that shaded oasis where pink and blue hydrangeas glowed from the shadows and complimented the forever-smiling daylilies that thrived in the sunshine.
My favorite quiet spot inside the house was the cozy library, complete with a butler’s closet/wet bar – what a novelty for this farm girl! Aunt Lulu referred to it as the club room; my interest focused on the design of the bar, cleverly tucked behind French doors when not in use. A side door opened onto a garden room filled with ferns and tropical plants. Visiting with grownups on that side porch always made me itchy to venture into the gardens instead of sitting pretty behind the screens and glass. I often retreated to the library and perused those volumes of books. My dear aunt surely read and treasured each one, and she even authored my most favorite one!
My sleeping quarters often changed; sometimes Aunt Lulu shared her bedroom suite, complete with two high-rise beds, a sitting area, and a pink-tiled powder room fit for a Hollywood movie star! We often read for an hour or so as the air conditioning fogged the windows and sent me burrowing beneath the covers for warmth! I usually drifted to sleep while the ten p.m news programs kept Aunt Lulu informed on world and local events.
I sometimes slept like a princess in the guest room’s canopied bed! Other times I was the only soul sleeping upstairs in a house built for society. I didn’t particularly like sleeping up there, though to my now-distant memory, I never whined or complained.
In August 1969, Hurricane Camille roared ashore and left her swath of destruction, The storm surge moved the front porch to the back yard, although Aunt Lulu’s fortress held strong. One neighbor’s house was demolished and the other’s boat made a new nest in Aunt Lulu’s stately oak tree!
Camille, that grande dame of modern storms, set the bar for hurricanes that followed. Toddy-time talk in my parent’s circle of friends often rolled ’round to Remembering Camille, who hurled a tornado so strong that it rolled like a bowling ball north from the Yazoo River and left miles of trees, homes and power lines in its wake. The destruction left behind by that tornado seemed to equal that of Camille through my wide thirteen-year-old eyes.
36 years rolled by; my sisters and I replaced Aunt Lulu and Daddy as the oldest generation on the Charlie Boy Williams branch of the family tree. Cousin Ann Anderson continued Aunt Lulu’s legacy on the Gulf Coast. Then along came Katrina.
Katrina – that’s all one has to say. I was living in Costa Rica and watched via internet as Katrina’s swollen mass slowly trekked toward the Louisiana-Mississippi coast line. I knew that many would evacuate, and feared that many would also stay put. Internet images and reports were bleak; Katrina stepped up to bat and claimed the new title for the mother of all hurricanes. Family members wrote to say that the house on 668 East Beach was destroyed. ”Ann has been on the national news programs each day,” my sisters reported.
Several days passed before I saw live coverage of Katrina’s wrath. Tired and sweaty after shoveling gravel all morning, I stopped my truck in front of the tiny all-in-one store/restaurant/bar in town. My friend Olman anchored his normal place at the end of the bar, and sweet Denise chattered happily from behind the bar.
I ordered a cold cervesa and was standing near the television when the noon news flashed to live coverage of Karina’s wrath. I endured the images for about thirty seconds before bursting into tears. Dennis dashed to the kitchen and retrieved a bowl of hot soup, while Olman quickly ordered a second cervesa, I declined both; the soup was too hot for my overheated thermostat, and I needed no additional depressant to affect my grief. Between sobs, I asked if they’d turn off the television, and I wept. Aware that Denise and Olman loved me, and that my despair for my homeland was a normal reaction, I purged my grief and eventually managed to find my smile.
Photos had not prepared me for the visual shock of a destroyed landscape that stretched its fingers across many of my childhood haunts.
One of those casualties, of course, was Aunt Lulu’s home at 668 East Beach.
(Since the Daily Prompt’s deadline is quite short, I retrieved information from old dormant memories that are now quite foggy and dreamlike in certain details. All mistakes are mine! Z )