Secrets in the Sun
by Kathryn Lubahn
Our dark-green, nondescript, FBI Chevy, full of my family having crossed the ocean, pulled off the two-lane, A1A highway into the sandy lane to my Grandmother’s tree house. Exhausted from the heat and boredom of the six-hour drive in the Florida summer, we were wild little Indians waiting to be released. Seashells crunched under the tires as our car came to rest next to my Grandmother’s coral pink, convertible Cadillac with white, leather interior, and those 1950’s shark fins angling out the back.
We had survived the trip all the way from Ft. Lauderdale through old Miami across the seven-mile bridge that spanned the open ocean to Plantation Key. I never knew why they called it Plantation Key—only three houses on the little island that was less than a quarter mile wide. Slash pines and red mangroves hiding the grey squirrels and burrowing Owls were not tourist attractions. All those people zooming by didn’t even know about our black panthers that screamed at night. Most people raced past on their way to Key West. There were no stores, restaurants, or gas stations to slow them down. After all, they came to eat our turtles in a soup and I would not consider talking to anyone who did that. The heat and the desire for Mojitos pushed them right past us.
I was happy with our privacy and couldn’t care less about meeting new people. I was eight years old, impatient to be free of my parents, and off on an adventure with my grandmother, Lady Lubahn.
There she was, standing tall, regal, and fierce. My Iroquois-Viking beachcomber, the Lady who had turned her back on society. I never asked why. I stared up at her, suspended above me in her tree house among the birds and squirrels. I never thought it odd that this woman, raised on Lake Erie, the daughter of the second son of Baron Von Lubahn, an Engineer, had suddenly moved to Plantation Key to live in a small wooden house built on stilts towering over the ocean and safe from the hurricanes that would sweep the sea across the entire island and then retreat. Life was full of mysteries and I grew up in a need-to-know family. Questions about life were impolite and not worth the risk of dangerous consequences.
There, Lady Frances Amelia Lubahn Hanni stood waiting for me. Eyes, the color of ice on the Baltic Sea, stared down at me. Only a Prussian granddaughter would find them inviting and warm, filled with sudden moments of laughter. Her sterling silver Buddha earrings dangling from under her white terry cloth turban almost to her shoulders glinted with the too bright afternoon. They say she was not pretty, but rather, a handsome woman. Simple khaki shorts covered now sagging knees while her skin, wrinkled by the sun, was exposed to more erosion around her bathing suit.
Dover cliffs, jutting out under her eyes, swept down towards us, revealing a history that spanned her life as a flapper-with-wealth married into the Virginia Mowery Clan through the great 1928 crash where everything was lost except the two Ming vases given as a wedding present to her husband who almost drank himself to death like so many and her two sons with their children, and of course her books. She was grand and beautiful to me.
Running from the deep shadows underneath the house into the startling brightness of the Florida sun, up the cedar stairs grey from the salt air, I was filled with the joy of simply living. Her house was like a giant piece of driftwood she found washed up on the beach. Its bones were bleached from years of sheltering her from the relentless storms, wind, and sun. Sunlight so hard and bright that shadows were chiseled in the sand and everything was cast in black and white. What was in shadow was truly hidden. My brother and I ran across cochina-shell gravel, alive with palm frond shadows of flickering light like black flames. We ran on into the intense light. We ran blind. There was no in-between. I was with my grandmother, she who understood my difference and my need for freedom. We called her “The Lady”: she who had the power over my father to set me free on the beach to hunt hermit crabs with my brother and bring them home in a box only to be solemnly liberated in the morning after they had scuttled all night in their cardboard prison. We ran along the edges of the ocean filled with sharks and barracudas. Picking up horseshoe crabs by their tails and screaming at the top of our lungs about dinosaurs, we would drop them back into their tidal pools, splashing salt water into sunlight. No one was there to tell us to quiet down. This was a time in a world where no one thought we needed supervision. Our only agreement: come home if lightning came with thunder or it was time for dinner. Freedom from the world of societal rules. We were in my grandmother’s house.
The Lady was a beachcomber. We would walk along the tidal edge of the ocean collecting shells. She knew them all by name and we would line them up at night along the window sill as she told us about the creatures that had lived in them and the ominous storms that washed their empty homes up onto the beach.
She had stories for a few, chosen shells. The monkey paw was the most frightening shell we had. Up on the window sill, illuminated by the lamp, she told us the most terrifying story of all. The shell looked just like an old monkey paw cut off from a creature in India. I thought she had been told the story by a trader or a pirate. Monkey-paw shells were a classification of seashells. She spoke words in the night with her face expressing fear and horror, surprise and amazement. I had no idea she was telling us stories she had read all her life. She was a beachcomber and knew mysterious people, people who did not go to church. People who wrote novels and artists who painted in uncommon ways moved on the edges of our time with her. We never went to church when we visited. Anyway, I was very relieved when I was taught the candle magic that protected one from the monkey paw curse. I learned to pay attention to details in requesting from the universe.
Mother and father never interfered with her dramas, games, and adventures with us. My parents would fade into the darkness of the house as happy to be rid of us as we were of them. Now the weekend was ours. Kissing my silent grandfather in his contemplation, I would run back into life and grandmother past the smell of books decaying in the humidity. Rows and rows of books in so many different languages, all read by her. I had heard she’d used her degree in literature to become a literary critic after the great crash in ’28 and that she used her social connections to become a real estate agent to support herself and her family. I never questioned where she found the money to live in the Florida Keys, or how she paid for her car. After all, I was eight years old and so well trained I never even asked these questions in the privacy of my own head. I was very well brought up.
Instead, at sunrise, I learned to stand on my head and make the face of the lion with her. When the storms came, and they did every afternoon, she spoke of eastern philosophy and Hatha Yoga. Sometimes the clouds were so heavy and deep that we lit the hurricane lamps while looking out the window wondering if this would become a storm we would have to flee. This was the perfect weather for her to tell us stories of pirates and how they still stalked the waters here. Pirates were still as common as rum runners back then.
She had different kinds of stories for different times of day, different times of year, and different types of weather. I thought everyone had a grandmother who taught the art of storytelling.
When the sun burnt down on us, we fled to the house where I practiced reading Shakespeare out loud with her. She taught me scandalous poetry by Ogden Nash that made me laugh and told me stories of my uncle and e.e. cummings while we played crazy-eights and double-canasta during the heat of the sun. I never questioned why she left in the dark before dawn to go deep sea fishing, nor whom she was fishing with, nor why she moved to the Florida Keys in the first place. And later, I never asked why she cried when Ernest Hemingway died, or why she suddenly left her life as a beachcomber and moved to Pompano Beach near us. I never questioned why my father had the big blue marlin he caught stuffed and placed on the wall at home. I never questioned waking up to the smell of potatoes and fish frying in the sound of hot oil with her humming under her breath. She was a private and independent woman.
I never questioned how the piano got up the stairs into the tree house, or where it came from. I was content to sit on the big stuffed chair beside her in the darkness while the hurricane lantern spilled light across her large hands as she played barrel-house ragtime and sonatas. I wondered how her hands could be big enough to stretch an octave and two keys while mine were so small. I loved watching water bead and slowly drizzle down the outside of her glass filled with whisky and ice catching the light from the lamp and puddle on the cork coaster. Time stood down as I was hypnotized by her, the tree house, and the secrets that filled the night. I never thought life was meant to be understood, just lived.
This was the weekend where she looked at me with her fiercest gaze, softened by humor, and said, “If you are rich, my dear, they will call you eccentric, and if you are poor, they will call you crazy.”
Kathryn Lubahn is a continuing student in business at SBCC with a BA in English from Stetson University and Multimedia and Professional Creative Writing Certificates from SBCC. She, an astrologer and writer, is currently developing an Astrological Feng Shui Blog for her family business—Islands of Infinity Feng Shui Fine Arts.