Through stories told in expertly crafted prose, Daniels is able to identify "with a live oak twisted by wild winds as well as with a person traumatized by loss." In doing so, she invites readers to make their own personal connections with the relationship between the unforgiving forces of nature and the struggles of the human predicament.
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By Lucy Daniels
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Lucy Daniels
All rights reserved.
Scared was how I felt that first time at the beach. Because it was so desolate. Nothing there but ocean, sand, and woods. Not a single person besides us. No other car. Not one house. We went there to swim, because in Morehead City, where we vacationed each summer, there was no ocean. Only the sound.
To get to the beach we had to drive over this long narrow bridge where cars passing in opposite directions almost scraped each other. Mommy breathed in loud when another car approached; Father just glowered at the drivers.
But by the end of that first summer, I'd come to love both the ocean and what they called its "maritime" forest. The awesome isolated peace there, despite or even enhanced by the thundering waves, felt like the crowning power of our down-to-earth vacations, which were so different from our life in Raleigh. In our big house back home, proper appearances and maintaining our family's importance in the "right" circles was all that mattered. Highlights of this included listening to President Roosevelt talk on the radio about strange things like the "Depression" and "the Nazi party in Germany," staying clean in my dotted Swiss pinafore so that the ladies who came to tea in their big hats could kiss me, and not complaining on the bus when our cook Baba or our nurse, Alice, whoever was taking me, had to sit in the far back because she was black. Morehead City had no buses, and on our trips to get there, I rode in the backseat of Mommy's car between Alice and Baba while Paula sat up front.
There on the beach, even more than in the cottage we rented at Morehead, we seemed wonderfully simple and ordinary, like everybody else. On those vacations I sometimes felt like Mommy did love me, whereas most places I knew she couldn't. And when Father was eating the eel Baba caught in the sound and fried for him or showing me and Paula how to ride the waves with a spare tire, he was so happy and so much fun that we forgot about his bellowing anger.
Yes, after that first summer, that deserted beach didn't scare me anymore. Instead I looked forward to our Morehead City time as hopeful and the safest, most wonderful weeks of the year. And Paula, who was nine, five years older than me, and who knew a lot more than me about the secrets and the dangers, loved those beach times too. "The beach makes everything better," she said more than once.
There were still arguments at Morehead with Mommy calling Father a "shit" before she turned away in tears and Father calling her a "goddamn martyr" as he poured himself Bourbon. But those fights and explosions didn't last as long or get as vicious as in Raleigh, and on vacation even the bad times were offset by games of Parcheesi and Monopoly as well as swimming at the beach. Father didn't stay there as much as we did. During our month-long vacation, he only came down weekends and one full week at the end. And things were not as much fun without him. Mommy wouldn't play Monopoly with us alone, and she insisted Baba or Alice accompany us to the beach, where Paula and I mostly swam alone with them watching. The reason for Father's absence, we knew, was that he had to make all the money that kept our family rich and able to have our big house in Raleigh with Baba and Alice as well as these Morehead City vacations.
By Father's week with us in August 1938, Paula and I were primed for the time of our lives. We had the Monopoly board spread open on the porch table with the money all doled out before he came, and Father had promised to bring two blow-up rafts to use along with the spare tire. So when he did drive up that Thursday night, we were too excited to go to sleep and Mommy was in such a good mood about no longer having to "manage you girls on my own" that she let us get up long enough to ask him, while he poured his drink, about going to the beach in the morning.
As we drove to the beach the next day, the sky was as blue as I'd ever seen it. Paula said you could call that "heavenly blue." And since Father had brought the rafts and driven by the gas station to fill them with air, our swimming time was sure to be better than ever. Besides that, Mommy and Father brought lounge chairs so that while Paula and I played, they would be able to sunbathe and read in their dark glasses and big hats. For once, too, they were both happy at the same time. Yes, a beautiful day — in the sky and in our life. Probably what Baba meant when she described somebody feeling "like they's died and gone to heaven."
The water was like that too. You could hardly call them waves, the way they swelled up just a little before they smoothed out again to lap the beach. Our rafts were great! And Paula showed me how to get up and lie down on mine so that I could look up at the blue, blue sky and watch the seagulls fly or talk to God. I'll always remember that day as the happiest one in my childhood — because besides me and Paula having fun, Mommy and Father seemed as peaceful and happy and in love as that cloudless sky and the gently swaying sea oats.
That afternoon, too, we did play Monopoly, with three teams — Father, Paula, and me and Mommy together. Counting the money was too hard for me to do alone. Baba and Alice were off that afternoon, "going to town" I'd heard them say. But I think it was that afternoon, too — probably on the radio or maybe some news they brought back from town — that we began to hear about the hurricane. "In the gulf of Mexico," Father told Mommy. "So, we need to keep an ear out."
The next day was wonderful, too, with the Monopoly game continued from the night before. There was more breeze when we drove to the beach, though, and the ocean had waves with white caps. That made it harder to get on our rafts and stay there, but I did some. And at that time there were fluffy white clouds puffing along in the blue sky. Headed home, the car radio said, "Hurricane Dora is now headed for the Eastern Seaboard."
"Why does it go after trains?" I asked.
"Not trains, Gabrielle," Paula corrected me. "The beaches."
"But he said 'seaboard.'"
"Yeah. And that is the name for some trains. But it's also a name for the beach."
"Our beach?" I asked.
"Is the hurricane coming here?" I asked louder over the seat back close to Father's ear.
"It might," he answered. "That's why we have to keep listening."
"What exactly is a hurricane?" I asked then. "Is it really a lady?"
"No," Father answered. "They just give it a lady's name. It's a big storm with heavy rain and strong winds."
"How do they know where it's going?"
"They don't exactly. If it comes ashore one place, its wind will get weaker and it won't go other places."
"So, instead of coming here," Paula put in, "it might go to Savannah or Charleston."
"Right." Father nodded.
From listening to that and thinking about our fun over the last two days, I decided we were safe. Father could listen all he wanted to, but I knew that no harm could come to us here. Morehead City with the dense historic forest and beach and ocean on the other side of the narrow bridge was a "God-given" haven for the Webb family. Heaven on earth, like the blue sky, a paradise place where even bad things turned better. That afternoon when Mommy and I won the game of Monopoly after making first Paula and then Father go bankrupt, I was even more convinced of our blessedness.
But the next morning the sky was gray and Mommy said it was too rough to go to the ocean. The radio in the living room said that Dora was working her way northward from Florida but that landfall was still uncertain in terms of both place and time. Mommy wanted to go back to Raleigh.
"Why waste our best time here," Father countered. "We can always leave if it gets close enough to be a problem. Meanwhile we're all here together for vacation."
Mommy agreed without seeming mad. So, that morning we listened to stories after breakfast, then worked on jigsaw puzzles. After lunch we played two games of Parcheesi, and Mommy agreed to play Monopoly again.
By then, though, it was raining, and Baba was saying that when a hurricane got this close it was time to leave. Still, Father said no; it would be stupid to be scaredy-cats before there was definite danger. I knew he was right. It even seemed like a big rainstorm in this place could be good for our family — a condition like that of the beach walled off by the forest that could keep us peaceful together. Mommy was willing to do what Father said as she never was in Raleigh. So we played Monopoly, this time with Paula being the shoe, Father the top hat, and me and Mommy the motorcar.
"Dora will be coming ashore near Wilmington," the radio said. "Or within a 100-mile radius of that town some time this evening or early Tuesday morning." The rain sounded heavier against the house.
"Gilbert, I'm worried," Mommy said. "I'd hate for us to be trapped here."
"It's only a class three hurricane. We might lose power but still be perfectly safe."
"What about tornadoes?"
"Mommy, it's your and Gabrielle's turn," Paula prodded.
"What about snakes or ants or stingrays!?" Father's voice was loud and sneering.
"Don't ridicule me!" Mommy shrieked.
"Then stop acting like a ninny!" he shouted back.
That was where the game ended. As the fight took over, Mommy stomped off to "pack things up." The only difference between that fight and the scary ones in Raleigh was that Father didn't pour himself Bourbon. Instead, he and Paula started putting away the Monopoly game. The wind was whining around the house by then and rain swooshed hard against the windowpanes.
Baba and Alice walked to the front door with suitcases. After plunking them down, they went back upstairs to help Mommy and get more. Then she came down, too, and shrieked at Father, "Are you just going to sit here until the floods block us!?"
After that there were several terrible minutes of their screaming at each other before Father went out on the porch and looked at the rising water. I went with him, to see what a hurricane really was. High water! Climbing up the tires of the cars in the driveway. "Okay," he called up to her, less angry sounding than before. "You're right. We need to leave." Then he started carrying the bags and suitcases to the car — while Alice and Baba reminded me and Paula to go use the toilet and bring anything we especially needed to have.
Once we were all out on the porch, there was more fuming and screaming back and forth as Mommy and Father reached the agreement for Baba and Alice to ride with Mommy, and me and Paula to ride with Father. They also made the plan to watch out for each other on the way and to both stop in Kinston. Paula took off her shoes and ran out to Father's car, but he carried me — through swirling rain coming down in bucketfuls.
As we drove onto the highway headed toward Raleigh, there were lots of other cars, both in front and in back of us. That crowd and the heavy rain made the driving very slow. Father scowled and sighed over this. Paula was reading a Li'l Abner comic book. But I just leaned against the window and watched the storm. "Dora," I guessed. Pouring out rain, really blinding waterfalls of it, and swirling even huge trees for dear life. Almost ripping them apart. And somehow that struggle reminded me of Mommy's and Father's fighting. Mommy closing her eyes and gasping, "Gilbert, enough is enough!" While he shouts back, "Not with you, Carol, when you and only you can have it your way!" As he walks to speak closer, she slams the door in his face. "Okay, be a bitch!" he yells. On and on, louder and angrier, echoing through the pouring rain. That's when this awful LOST scaredness fell over me — cold, trembling terror because, despite our blessing, nothing had turned out the way it was supposed to.
The blue, blue sky, the calm lapping ocean, Mommy and Father happily sunbathing and reading, surrounded by the sea oats. That heavenliness had promised us glorious peace like was never possible in Raleigh. And it had been supposed to last at least until the end of Father's week. So why hadn't it? What gave this Dora the right ... or the strength to wreck our heaven? Not that afternoon or for years afterward could I answer that question. But later, as the wind weakened so that all I was watching was sheets of rain, I felt sad ... No, despairing that the heaven we'd been meant to have hadn't lasted. Paula went on reading her comic book, and Father kept driving. But I knew that the best part of our lives had ended and that we'd never be that happy again.
The Teach Toilet
The Teach toilet was clogged. And for Leah that provided the crowning blow of a bleak morning. The one extra problem she would rather collapse than have to take care of. Nevertheless, she did try the plunger. A lot! And when that failed, she telephoned the plumber.
"Hello, Mr. Willis. This is Leah Warner at the Hammock House. We have a stopped-up commode. And we need it fixed before guests come tonight."
"Have you tried to plunge it?"
"Yes. It didn't help."
"Okay. I'll get somebody over there before lunch."
"Thanks." That should have been a relief that raised her spirits. But it didn't. Nothing did now. Somehow things had gotten to where each new day was worse than the one before. More dark and hopeless. More pressure to read those directives from the Society for the Right to Die. Or at least to go to bed for the day. And, worse still, Leah didn't get the reason for feeling so bad. Sure she missed her mother. She'd always been wonderful and willing for Leah to do her own thing. But last year when Mom was so sick, Leah had dreaded missing her; whereas today, she knew that even though Mom was gone, she would have loved what Leah was doing. Why so grim then? Was it somehow connected to Josh or to David's last visit? His being here certainly hadn't helped.
It never had before either. Even when Mom was at her sickest, in terrible pain and having trouble breathing, David had refused to see the tragedy ahead. Like always, you could say. Because he has to be the winner. Even when Mom's brown eyes pleaded with him directly, he'd seen the love and squeezed her hand, but squelched any mention of death or how to deal with it. The same ignoring as with Leah's wish to become a maritime scientist.
"You know, Leah," he'd said more than once, "life is not just a beach trip. After college people need to buckle down and make money in as high-powered a field as possible."
"What about wanting to do work you believe in?"
"That's well and good as long as your beliefs are sensible."
"Well, I'm very interested in plant and animal life around the ocean. And I already have expertise."
"David, Leah does well at whatever she makes up her mind to do," Mom intervened, smiling despite the way the pain meds drained her face. "I'm sure she'll be a star at this too." Not unlike her insistence years earlier that their life would be "even better" when Daddy left them for the woman he'd met in Charlotte.
So after the funeral and her own graduation, Leah had had no ambivalence about spending this, her first summer alone, at the beach collecting data for her maritime paper. She knew that Mom would have delighted in her "spunk" in doing so despite both David and Josh howling about her "cold-hearted selfishness" in abandoning them in Raleigh. It seemed incredible at first — so bizarre as to be almost funny — that the two of them, as different and separate as they were, could have such similar reactions. Though, for different reasons. Still, as bad as their disapproval felt, it didn't daunt Leah. As her stepfather, David was a grown man who needed to take care of himself. As a steady boyfriend, Josh should be able to come to the beach weekends as easily as she could drive back to Raleigh. And now, after her great experience here with Kevin Akin as both master study advisor and Hammock House owner, Leah felt even less reason for concern about those men in Raleigh.
Somehow though, she has recently come to feel miserable here at the beach. Perhaps connected to David's visit two weeks ago? Maybe just because his presence makes her miss Mom more? Or the way his attitude has changed? His no longer pressing her to give up this "crazy maritime forest study and come back to Raleigh" somehow has the strange effect of making Leah feel "lost." In fact, when he refers to her like he's begun to, as the "queen de la resistance" who brought him to Bogue Banks as the "entrepreneurial opportunity of the moment," Leah wants to scream. And this last time when he added, "You'll see me soon again as I take advantage of this overlooked opportunity," she had wanted to dissolve and vanish on the spot. Something about his pompous airs, his haughty way of having to be grander than everybody else and make the world take notice, drove her up the wall. And it feels even worse when, like now, he includes her in his superiority instead of looking down his nose at who and how she is. This way she can't bear herself. So escaping him feels more urgent these days than even completing this treasured maritime project. And if escape is impossible, everything else will be ruined as well.
Excerpted from Maritime Magistery by Lucy Daniels. Copyright © 2016 Lucy Daniels. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
The Teach Toilet, 11,
White Lightning, 23,
Maritime Magistery, 39,
Passionate Pursuits, 61,
Scaring to Squash, 75,
Memory's Jar, 115,
Flaming Cactus, 129,
Color Blind, 147,
Terror Retreat, 157,
Into the Wild Blue Yonder, 171,
After the Storm, 191,
About the Author, 201,