She was taken with a massive coronary on my seventh birthday. "I can’t breathe," she’d said. It killed her, and more’s the pity. If I’d been older, I would’ve asked her why she ignored the rules that bound most Southern women from birth, if she saw herself excused on account of her charm, or if she doubted the wages of sin. Later, I figured she was an exception and knew it.
"Don’t call me Grandma, honey," she said to me on the beach house steps when I was four. Then, according to my mother, her witty but cautious daughter-in-law, she’d said, "It’s a tiresome word, Margaret. It hangs thick in the air like Sunday dinner waiting for company to come eat. It smells like collard greens cooking to gray mush in fatback. It gets in the draperies. You can’t get rid of it. Like company that outstays their welcome."
Then she looked down at me. "Call me Beulah."
I called her LuLu.
It was said that on an otherwise pleasant spring afternoon, LuLu was doing some shopping before leaving Greenville for the beach house. She stepped out of Blount-Harvey and spied an acquaintance—a woman from the church she’d abandoned—walk across Five Points against the light to avoid speaking to her. That same woman showed up on the steps of the beach house that summer, smiling and fawning, with her husband and two children in tow. Just-a-place-for-the-children-to-change extended to cocktail hour—LuLu did like her whisky highballs and unfiltered Camels—then to a supper of soft-shelled crabs, then to bedrooms when the children fell asleep on the sofas, then breakfast and another day at the beach for the children.
Built decades before cottages on the Outer Banks perched like shore birds on jointed legs, the beach house sat low. Dunes lapped and pulled at the white shingles, and winds wet from the south eddied around it. Sand climbed one side and exposed another down to a cinder block foundation, breaking over the porch steps and blowing up onto the sills of windows so generous they had to be covered at night during the war to confuse German submarines lurking offshore. Fronted by deep porches and covered with green awnings upstairs and down, the house hunkered to earth in a thicket of water oak bent to leeward where crickets throbbed day and night. To please herself, LuLu brought into the beach house an eccentric scramble of marble, wicker and leather, brocade, glass and straw, shells, rocks, and dead seaweed, and in the late ‘40s when Atlantic Beach was a new, hopeful development, one of the few telephones on the beach.
"I can breathe in this place," she was known to say.
So could everybody else. On Fridays, two kinds of houseguests arrived from Greenville: flat out interlopers, like Five-Points-Woman, who stacked themselves into six bedrooms, stayed past the weekend, lay around on the porch steps in their undershirts, and, as LuLu would have it, began to smell like boiling fatback caught up in the drapery; and welcomed, well-meaning friends who stayed the weekend, drank the likker, and used the phone for long distance without reversing the charges. Mama said LuLu was all grace and charm, laying it on like Southern social grease.
It was a Tuesday in mid-summer, the day Five-Points-Woman and her brood waved good-bye, again. LuLu ripped the sheets off the guest room beds and left for Morehead City where she found a plaque in a junk shop that spelled out her thinking.
The guest that I consider fun arrives on Fri and leaves on Sun.
The guest to whom I award no praise arrives on Fri and stays and stays.
She hung it in the living room in plain sight. She was good at drawing lines nobody else could see. When she observed no drop in the number of near-strangers at suppertime, she took steps.
Published in 2013 by "Prick of the Spindle," this true story is a family favorite, often told and enjoyed. It's long, so I'll make it a serial here. More in a few days ...