My granddaddy was a grocer. He owned White’s IGA on the corner of Tennessee Street across from Leon High School in Tallahassee. By the time I was old enough to be curious, that IGA had become a coin collector’s business and my granddaddy was long gone. He died when I was 2. I’m told that I walked around to every relative who would look my direction and asked “where’s Granddaddy?” when we were back in town for his funeral. Talk about salt in a wound. I never did know when to shut up. I still don’t.
Though I have no memory of ever being in his grocery store, I’m told it was a happening place and that he was a kind and funny man. I’ve heard that from a lot of people through the years. The one thing I never heard a single person say about him was that he was a gifted builder. And yet, the place I spent the most time in my childhood outside my home was a beach cottage built 100% by him.
Beach cottage sounds so exotic. I’m just going to shoot straight here. It was a shack. A shanty. It had concrete block walls, tile flooring from the 40s, an indoor shower that never worked a day in my life, two outdoor showers that still show up in my dreams sometimes, a kitchen so narrow you could almost bump your head and your butt on either side of it if your angle wasn’t just right, two bedrooms with a Tetris combo of beds that slept 7, and a front porch that opened to eternity.
I was a shallow kid. Sometimes all I could see was the shack part. I’d ask myself why a grocery man tried to build a beach house and was that the reason the shower never worked. No cable, no AC, no heat, no telephone. We were straight out of 1905 as far as technology went. Why did we have fancy, polished pine wood ceilings with fancy beams running across the length of them but the floors looked like the inside of a boys’ locker room from the turn of the century?
My granddaddy saw in that place something it took me years to see. He saw the eternity part. He saw the waterfront. The sea oats leaning in the wind like they were looking into the neighbor’s yard. The water curling up onto the sand only 30 feet from our swinging screen door on the front porch. The twisted branches of the live oak trees that were perfect for the bare toes of a grandchild to shimmy up.
I saw outhouse showers. He saw heaven.
Somewhere along the way as that cottage evolved, my grandparents figured out that the front porch needed a twin bed. It was a rare night that someone slept out there, because the temperature needed to be just right. But on those nights when the air hung between the perfection of warm and cool, my brother and I would argue over whose turn it was to sleep on the porch. And on the nights when I won the argument, I slept deeper and purer than I’ve ever slept again anywhere. The lapping gulf water mingled with a salt-laced breeze created a lullaby that was more like medication.
I go to the beach now with my kids, once or twice a year. We stay on the 3rd floor of a condo. To get to the water, we take an elevator. I never see the same person twice, except for the mean old guy who wanted to kick me out last summer for bringing my dog. He had a face like wrinkled papyrus and an expression of perpetual bad news. But at St. Teresa, where the floors weren’t fancy and the showers weren’t indoors, I stepped out in my front yard and became immediately part of the same community each summer. Same families, same kids, same dogs, same docks, same card games, same card game cheaters. The skies would change. The curl of the creek would change. Limbs tanned and stretched from summer to summer. But the community…the friendships…stayed constant. That was the eternity part.
My granddaddy, the grocer, knew this when he picked up his hammer. He knew he was building a launching pad for childhood magic and lifelong friendships. And though we sold our slice of eternity to our next door neighbor more than 20 years ago, I’m still connected to the friends I had there. And of all the places on Earth that have molded me from then to now, that little plot of land on St. Teresa is the closest to perfection I’ve ever found.
I’m glad nobody told my granddaddy he wasn’t a builder. I’m glad nobody told him not to try. Maybe the floors were nothing special. Maybe the showers were dark and shared with critters I won’t write about today. But the rocking chairs were always occupied and the conversations always warm. And when I stepped out into the yard at night and let the screen door slap loud against the wood, I could look up and see something pretty close to glory.
I think maybe he was a builder after all.