Lizzie’s Gift

lakeworth

STILL I REMEMBER the images: the grass alongside the road blurring by outside the car window; waking alone in the motel room; the whiskey bottle silhouetted against the night.

I was 2. My father had picked me up at Big Mama’s after lunch, as usual, to take me for ice cream. But he didn’t stop. I was immediately excited because I knew something unusual was happening. We always stopped at Bunk Johnson’s gas station at the crossroads to get ice cream. But this time we kept going south on Highway 79, past Moody and Sybil Taylor’s farm

That night we must have slept somewhere in central Florida. I woke up the next morning all alone. I pulled on my little saddle shoes and wandered outside looking for him. Across the highway I found him having breakfast.

By the next night we were in Lake Worth, just south of West Palm Beach. We slept in a house on a bridge. In the night I woke to see my father with the whiskey bottle raised to his mouth.

HE HAD TAKEN ME 600 MILES SOUTH to Curtis and Lizzie’s. They were bridgetenders, and the house on the bridge came with the job. They were my father’s distant cousins, but they became important far beyond our kinship. They were his only relatives I would ever know. And they saved my life when he took me away from home on that trip, two years before he finally drank himself to death on September 2, 1959, two days after my fourth birthday.

Curtis and Lizzie had come to South Florida during the Depression, determined to do a little better than the farmers and storekeepers back home in south Georgia and south Alabama. Eventually they took over the bridge-tending job from Curtis’s father. Supposedly they alternated 12-hour shifts, raising the bridge over the intracoastal waterway when boats came by. In fact Lizzie worked the job full time, on call 24 hours a day. Curtis worked nights as a linotype operator at the Palm Beach Post.

Curtis was the living reminder of my father. He looked exactly like him. I looked forward to his annual visits in the fall when he came through Esto on his way home to Elba, Alabama. Sometimes in the summer we would visit Curtis and Lizzie in Lake Worth. Later, during college, I would stop and see them when I went south on break with friends from more glamorous parts of Florida — Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, the Keys.

Curtis died in 1976. I had just come home from a summer trip to Europe and would start law school in a couple of weeks. It was no time for another trip. But mother and I both realized at the same moment I should go. I held Lizzie as she stood at Curtis’s casket, frail and thin.

After they retired from the bridge, she and Curtis had moved into a small house just a couple of blocks away. She was determined to stay there, and she did for 25 years, just waiting to die. Worrying. Missing Curtis. Crying. Her back hurting. It’s not easy to grow old, she would tell me during my occasional visits. Spend the night, she’d say, but I can’t cook. Go get some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I would feel so sad and so sorry for her and cry myself to sleep. When I woke, she would have cooked after all — a breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits, and usually some fresh mango and limeade, which I had always found exotic on my visits as a child.

In the mid-80s I moved to San Francisco and my visits to Florida became less frequent, especially after my mother died. I drove up to see Lizzie before a meeting in Key West in 1989 and found her still on the couch in the little living room in Lake Worth. Still crying. Still throwing a peanut out the front door now and then to Curtis’s redbirds.

SHE HAD ALWAYS SENT A CARD at Christmas and Easter and on my birthday, usually with $20 inside. Eventually she wrote that this would be the last card. The connection to my family was fading more quickly now. There was an emptiness. I was alone. I came to despair. One Sunday afternoon during an especially dark period the phone rang. It was Lizzie. It was the only time she ever called me.

I found a life far from home in San Francisco. I saw Lizzie only once more, in Albany, Georgia, after she finally gave up the fight in Lake Worth and agreed to go to an assisted living home in south Georgia near one of her brother’s girls. When I called on her 96th birthday last June, the lady who answered the phone said she was no longer there. Lizzie had made the final move to a nursing home. A note at Christmas from her niece said she was going downhill fast. And so I could guess the news when I heard a soft south Georgia voice on the telephone at the end of February saying, “I have some bad news.” Lizzie was gone.

I hadn’t thought I would go to Lizzie’s funeral. But when the call came it seemed clear, as with Curtis, that I should. She would be taken back to Lake Worth to be buried beside Curtis. I called my pal Judson, one of my closest continuing Florida connections. Maybe I could drive up to Tallahassee for a visit after the funeral, and then go on over to Esto. Better yet, he said, he would drive down to pick me up and we’d take a road trip up the coast.

THE DOUBLE RED-EYE FLIGHT required new planes in Dallas and Atlanta before I finally got to West Palm Beach about 10 o’clock Sunday morning. Judson and I had agreed that I’d get a hotel room and try to nap while he was driving down. Downstairs near baggage claim, I found the lit-up display of Hiltons and Comfort Inns. One caught my eye. It was a jazzed-up Holiday Inn, right in Lake Worth in an old Spanish ’20s building.

It was the grand old Gulfstream Hotel, just at the foot of Curtis and Lizzie’s bridge. Mostly I remembered it as a faded retirement home long past its prime when we visited Lake Worth in the ’60s and ’70s. But it had been reborn. I asked for a room with a view of the bridge and felt a little less tired and sad as I hung my dark suit in the closet. Maybe I would walk by Curtis and Lizzie’s house, just a few blocks away, before I took a nap. I knew Curtis’s realtor friend Joe Fearnley had sold the little house on the big corner lot. The fruit trees and lush shrubs I remembered were gone and a construction project was underway. But it was the same place. I walked all around the corner at 502 North Palmway and then I walked around again. It was the same place I had known — with such a range of conflicting emotions — since my father took me there when I was 2.

Then I saw someone standing in the doorway where Curtis used to feed the redbirds. She waved. I introduced myself. Her name was Ten — like the number — and she invited me in and introduced her partner Joanne, who owned the house. Joanne and Ten had done a lot of work inside, but it was the same place. They knew of Lizzie. She had written a note after they moved in. They were coming to the funeral home that night. I gave them a picture of Lizzie. Maybe we could keep in touch. Maybe there could still be a connection with this place that holds such powerful resonance for me.

AFTER DARK WE DROVE UP LAKE AVENUE, past the old post office where Lizzie kept Box 449 long after she could walk there, refusing to have mail delivered to her street address for fear her checks would get lost. We turned right onto the old Dixie Highway and drove up a few blocks to E. Earl Smith & Sons Funeral Home, the same place I had held Lizzie as we said goodbye to Curtis.

Inside one of the chapels was the casket, surrounded by flowers and long faces. There in black were Betty and Louise, Lizzie’s nieces who had taken her back to Georgia when she could no longer live alone. But as the night wore on, the sadness gave way to stories and some smiles and even laughter. There were a few neighbors I remembered, including Terry from next door and Mrs. Hecker, still with those dancing eyes. Everyone had stories to tell, like the time Betty and Louise came down to visit by themselves on the bus when they were little girls. We talked for nearly two hours, remembering Curtis and Lizzie and how kind they had been to us all.

As we drove away, we crossed Curtis and Lizzie’s bridge and took a ride up Ocean Boulevard, by the great Palm Beach mansions, under the full moon with the top down. Eventually we came back across the bridge to the Gulfstream and had dinner in the beautiful old wooden dining room. I was glad I had come.

And then, after dinner, I heard the most amazing sound. On the other side of the room were two women with a guitar and the purest voices. They were singing for Lizzie, and for me. Amazing Grace.

We went to the cemetery the next morning, beautiful and sunny, to say the final goodbye. There were eight of us. We carried the coffin to the grave. A preacher said a prayer. Afterward, as we walked away, I turned to hide my tears, suddenly feeling the loss of my father, and my family, all over again. Then Louise, whom I had met for the first time the night before, came over to hug and cry. We’ve got each other now, she said.

ELIZABETH HAYES YOUNG, June 27, 1902, to February 25, 1999. Rest in peace, Lizzie. And thank you.

lakeworth

THIS DRAWING of Curtis and Lizzie’s house arrived on a postcard dated January 5, 2003, and signed Ten & Jo, the new owners. It said: “Lake Worth progresses whether we like it or not. My daughter did this little drawing. She loves the house, as you did.”

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