The one-story white frame house sat near the lighthouse on St. Simons Island for
decades. My guess is that it was built in the 1940s, though I don’t know that for sure. The house had a screened porch running across the front and, though it wasn’t actually on the beach, a clear view of the ocean.
Miss Mattie Lee lived in that house.
I don’t know if Lee was her middle name or her last. I just know that we called her “Miss Mattie Lee” because we were instructed to do so by George’s aunts, Margaret and Sara, who were Mattie Lee’s friends and who introduced us to her way back in the 1970s.
The little white house wasn’t Miss Mattie Lee’s beach cottage. It was her year-round home. It had a low-ceilinged living room with a fireplace and two small bedrooms that shared a hall bathroom. The eat-in kitchen had a gas cookstove that was lit with a match, a deep enamel sink with separate spigots for hot and cold water, and an old-timey bow-front refrigerator. In the tiny back yard, just beyond the stoop where the string mop was hung out to dry, was a clothesline.
For the next twenty years, our family vacationed for one week every summer in a rental cottage just across the dirt road from Miss Mattie Lee’s house. She was always there. As were Margaret and Sara, who lived only a few miles away. But they grew old and moved to a retirement community inland. After a while, we noticed that Miss Mattie Lee was never at home when we visited St. Simons Island.
Her house fell into disrepair. Weeds took over the yard. In 2010, a FOR SALE sign went up. And George and I began to play the “If We Win the Lottery” game in earnest. What would we do with a $30,000 house sitting on a million dollar piece of land?
Just for grins, we decided to see if the house was unlocked. Yes! Somewhat hesitantly, we walked in. It was dark and dusty and musty. But the inside was in better shape than we’d feared, though mice and spiders and trespassing beer-drinkers had left plenty of souvenirs.
“If we win the lottery, I’m going to fix this house up just like it used to be,” I told
George. “Except I might buy a new refrigerator.”
He shook his head. “This place is a knock-down. Wait and see.”
He was right, of course. We didn’t win the lottery and three years passed before we made our way back to St. Simons Island. When we turned onto the road that leads to our rental cottage, I gasped in horror. Miss Mattie Lee’s house was gone. In its place was a gorgeous three-story home with porches galore, a swimming pool, and a guest cottage. The landscaping alone must have cost a hundred thousand dollars.
It was all I could do not to weep.
Especially when I learned from a neighbor that Miss Mattie Lee had died at her son’s house in Atlanta only a few weeks before we arrived. Did she know what had happened to her house, I asked. The neighbor wasn’t sure.
Here’s hoping she never found out. I like to believe that Miss Mattie Lee’s last memories of St. Simons Island were of summer evenings on the porch of that little white house, with the sounds of high tide beating against the rocks and the creak of the porch swing and the murmur of the soft Georgia accents of her many friends who’d stopped by just to say hey.
(October 20, 2013)