Beach House Bones

A few years ago, when my husband was working with a real estate investor, one of the properties he was tasked with rehabbing was a hurricane-ravaged beach house at Fort Morgan, Alabama. It was listed for sale at about a million and a half dollars. This house would have made a fabulous bed and breakfast; built on tall pilings to raise it above potential floodwaters, it had three bedrooms with private baths upstairs, two bedrooms with an adjoining bath downstairs, and a huge open kitchen, great room, and dining area with soaring cathedral ceilings. A wide, sweeping stairway graced the front of the house. At the back of the house, a wall of French doors topped with tall transom windows opened onto a wide, weathered deck overlooking Mobile Bay. With all the doors and windows open, whether the breeze was from the south off the Gulf of Mexico or from the north off Mobile Bay, there was always a sea breeze stirring.

We stayed there right after the contractors had finished replacing drywall and rehabbing bathrooms, cleaning the house thoroughly over the course of several days. The first night we all slept on air mattresses in the great room. Even when everything was closed up, we could hear the muted roar of waves crashing on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. We were on the opposite side of the narrow strip of barrier island, overlooking Mobile Bay, which was calm by comparison. We scrubbed dried salt spray from the window exteriors, polished about a mile of hardwood floors, scoured recently renovated bathrooms and swabbed the kitchen cabinets and appliances, inside and out. The pleasant scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap mingled with the fresh salt air. It felt a little like primitive camping in a luxury condo with great “bones” but no luxury accessories. If we wanted towels and toiletries in the bathrooms, we had to bring them ourselves. Ditto for mints on the pillows….and the pillows!

In the evenings we ventured out to a small market nearby to buy fresh seafood, bread, milk, and ice cream. Simple meals allowed us maximum time outside on the water or exploring the grounds. At one time the landscaping must have been beautiful, but everything had gotten overgrown while the house stood empty. Trimming back big ligustrum and azalea shrubs, we discovered stone patios, benches, and tables and chairs hidden beneath low-hanging branches. In the front bedroom, the arms of an ancient, twisted live oak tree reached up past the windows, making the room feel like a treehouse. Another bedroom, the girls’ favorite, had a cozy window seat with hidden storage cubbies underneath. The large master bedroom was warmed by a double-sided fireplace and opened directly onto the deck overlooking the bay. The master bath seemed huge and endless, with a beautifully tiled, walk-in shower that was big enough for entertaining and a bathtub the size of a hot tub.

From time to time, a great blue heron would appear at the edge of the bay, wading along the shoreline in the shallow water. My daughter Marley promptly named him “Carl.” He was alone, and seemed unable or unwilling to gather food for himself. One evening after we’d peeled a pound of shrimp, we took the uncooked trimmings outside and tossed a few in Carl’s direction. He was timid at first, but eventually came close enough to retrieve the shells and tails floating on the water. A neighbor saw us doing this, and I was concerned we were doing something wrong. She said no, it was okay, the heron had been injured at some point years before and he had trouble finding his own food. She, too, fed him on a daily basis, and he seemed to expect it now.

What I remember best about that time is the simple, unstructured way the days and nights fell into place. We had no real agenda or schedule, other than getting the house clean and minimally furnished. We ate when we were hungry, worked while we had energy and tasks ahead of us, slept when we were tired, and it was enough. Restorative. Satisfying.

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