The Past Is a Watery Grave

St. Augustine, Florida evokes a haunting reflection on memory, place, and family.

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Great is this power of memory, excessively great, contained in a vast and boundless chamber! Who ever sounded the bottom of it?

— St. Augustine, from Confessions

I was born in a populated ghost town, and it has haunted me ever since. Our histories are myths built on top of legends and then sprinkled with a healthy dose of falsehood.

In a tourist town, no one tells the truth.

St. Augustine, Florida calls itself, proudly, the oldest city under five flags. First the Timucuans gathered there, spreading over the island, across the intracoastal waterway and onto the mainland. Then Ponce de Leon landed in search of the Fountain of Youth. Then the French; Menendez and his Spanish missionaries; the Jesuits; the English; the Franciscans; and on and on it goes.

It is a coastal city with an international past, not unlike New Orleans. Our buildings are the same two-story, balconied Spanish affairs. But in place of trading vessels, we had pirates; in place of jazz and Creole culture, we had Henry Flagler and hotels full of the passionless elite.

Now our ghosts hover thickly. They dampen the night air like so many thunderstorms just out of reach. From the dead Native Americans in the Castillo de San Marcos to the yellow fever victims buried in the Huguenot Cemetery, every path and point in the city has a deathly history. Even the Ghost Hunters team will tell you our lighthouse has a shadow person — they caught it on camera.

I grew up on an island teeming with history, in a family that denies the past ever existed. In the absence of family photographs and stories, I have invented them.

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My grandmother’s house sat slightly to the left of center on two long, skinny lots stretching from Palmetto Avenue towards the northeastern edge of the island. To the right of the house, the vegetation rioted in a way I now know is uniquely Floridian; the enveloping shade of our live oak tree couldn’t choke the elephant ears, the ivy, or any of the dozens of other, unnameable plants we never planted. Towards the back, an old piece of plywood covered a well full to the brim with swampy black water. I remember telling the neighbor kids about a little girl our age, plucked from the edge by an invisible hand, but I don’t remember where I got the idea from.

So many of my memories are like this. To hear me tell it at age eight, our neighborhood was occupied by hermits and witches who’d eat you if they caught you; more houses than not had some hidden, violent history. I know I made up the stories, but did I make up the houses too? The powder blue octagon-shaped house, three stories and surrounded by a thick stone fence, seems particularly unlikely now.

But not everything unlikely has turned out to be untrue. For years I thought I had imagined the giant metal cross sitting sentinel on the western bank of the Mantanzas River. I found it again in late 2006, nestled at the edge of the grass between the Shrine to Our Lady de la Leche and the water. Though it was his first time in our little tourist town, my traveling companion couldn’t understand why I stood, transfixed, my head tipped back to take in all 208 feet of it. How could I explain the feeling? It was as though I had singlehandedly manifested the mirages of my childhood. What else in my lonely preadolescent world could be real?

Like the painting and the baroque mirror I inherited when my grandmother died, I carried the inventions of my childhood north with me, and they have set up shop in my tiny Philadelphia apartment. Winter in the city has been colder than usual this year; I have spent it dreaming of falling off imaginary docks that stretch from roads I can’t remember ever walking, on the northern tip of the island. The area, my map tells me, is named Davis Shores. In my dreams the ocean slams against sheer rock walls. I swim and swim, unable to pull myself ashore, unable to recognize the island I can’t reach.

Why not ask my mother about all these things I may or may not have created in my head? Well, to be honest, I’m too scared to bring them up. We don’t talk about the past. Her father died when she was 16; I can’t remember learning his first name until I asked, heart racing, over beer and oysters in another southern city. I was 23. Even as I write this, I have to concentrate to produce the name: George. George? Our past fades and falls away. I know my mother prefers this.

The South is brimming with stories of family disintegration, and in my more melodramatic moments, I am afraid that our family is just one more. My grandfather’s family were Polish-landed aristocracy. My grandmother’s family owned an apartment building somewhere in the Midwest, Minneapolis or Chicago, during the Depression, and they never wanted for much of anything. We have fallen to a lower rung of the middle class; just last year, my mother foreclosed on her Florida condo and declared bankruptcy.

Back home, my cousin frequents the drunk tank. The cops have written him off, a bad seed, another alcoholic townie to be periodically scraped off the streets.

I left because I wanted better than that. But I can’t seem to let go.

St. Augustine calls itself the City That Was Never Conquered. Sir Francis Drake tried to take her in 1586. Governor James Moore of South Carolina laid siege in 1702; Governor James Oglethorpe of Georgia tried again in 1740. No one has been successful. As with any pocket of paradise, peace is hard won and never lasts long.

I become obsessed with the cross, the shrine, the moment in which a mirage becomes solid. I want to creep closer, until none of them hover on the horizon line any longer. I sit down on a Wednesday, in front of my computer at work, and I find it: the octagonal house and its stone fence. Google Maps Street View has never been more useful or more magical. Millions of pictures, taken from the sides of some van, and on some sunny day they captured it. It sits at the corner of Busam Street and Lighthouse Avenue. Two stories, not three, but exactly the color I remember. I click around to the side, and the fence is there too.

My memory contains far fewer inventions than I’d originally thought.

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But it is not just the magic, the mirages, that I am learning are real. Another story I thought I had invented: a woman sits on the front stoop of her large, luxurious, waterfront home. An intruder leaps the fence, makes his way silently through the house, and attacks her where she sits. His machete severs her head almost completely from her body.

My childhood imagination has painted the scene in reds and whites: the gleaming front porch in true southern style, spotless until it is splashed with her blood.

The house, its porch and its pillars, are tucked up a side street, away from the fort and the center of downtown, away from the main road that leads me out. It is not an area I went to often. By now I have convinced myself that, while the street may be real, the house and its murder most certainly are not.

I find the news story one day while researching some other piece of town trivia. It was 1974 and her name was Athalia Lindsley. My mind may have invented the images, but the details are all too real. They never found her killer.

In Philadelphia, someone abandons a van on our street. Someone else lights it on fire. My boots crunch broken glass and charred wreckage, but the city in my head scares me more.

Back home the world is falling apart.

My cousin leaves a tourist bar one night and is attacked. They take his wallet, his shirt and his shoes, and they leave him bleeding from the head on a sidewalk near the water. The cop who finds him in the morning knows his reputation around town; he drives my cousin home and drops him off. There is no police report, and no thought of medical attention.

By the time his roommate returns home, my cousin has lost 36 hours and begun seizing violently. At the hospital they induce a coma so the bruising on his brain can begin to heal.

When he wakes up, my aunt reports, he is a different man.

A thousand miles from the island of my hometown, I am haunted still by memories I know are no longer explained away as mere inventions. There are more: too many to list, no matter how long I would stretch this.

Real and unreal have little meaning now. I could pack a bag, plan a trip, and I would indeed like to see my cousin soon, because the hours are still gone and the seizures are still happening. But I’m scared of what would greet me as I drove that main road back into town.

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In the summer, my aunt cleans house and finds a file stuffed with photos, all the family memories no one could ever show me. She mails an envelope, full to bursting with black and whites, scraps of the family I love but never knew.


Illustrations by María Luque for The Bygone Bureau.

Alexandra Edwards is a writer and Emmy Award-winning transmedia storyteller. She likes being on the internet.