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The Mermaid’s Inn

The beckoning coast of South Carolina summoned my family every summer. The call was urgent and decisive. The green-marbled Samsonite, circa the 1950s, heeded the command and prepared a place for swimsuits and books alongside last year’s sand and the evocative waft of Coppertone.

We never missed a summer at the oceanfront, red-brick Colonial Revival Inn established in 1946. Its gable roof lent protection against merciless hurricanes and covered the back porch that housed the sun-bleached rocking chairs and the Palmetto tree’s wind-clapping fronds.

The salty breeze ushered guests through the Inn’s squeaky screen door onto weathered hardwood floors. Time remained undisturbed and content in the sun-filled Inn. Patinated antique tables excited over the next game of Bridge. Sofas and chairs, once chic now a bit shabby, held their regal demeanor. Ships, shores, and dunes painted in colors of violet, vermillion, pearl, and mauve freckled the walls. Books and more books whispered their stories to seashells, board games, and framed sepia photos resting on shelves.

Mrs. Somerset owned the Inn. With radiant charm and graciousness, she hugged my neck and welcomed us with her soft, lyrical Southern drawl and sea-glass blue eyes. She moved with effortless grace to care for our every need and presented the key to our usual room along with a reminder of supper in the downstairs dining room with Marvin, our usual waiter. In my child’s mind, I sincerely believed Mrs. Somerset was a mermaid.

Mouth-watering aromas climbed the stairs from the elegant dining room. Anne Worsham Richardson and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner prints dotted the dining room walls and gazed appreciatively through the opened French doors to breathe the sunset dunes. Starched linens and starched waiters with bow ties recited the day’s entrees in a sing-song cadence. Fresh filet of flounder, snappy deviled crab cakes, creamy shrimp and grits, and tender prime rib alongside a melody of salads and vegetables cooked with a touch of ham for seasoning. And, lastly, the heavenly biscuits raised from Mrs. Somerset’s sacred family recipe.

As dreams of yellow sun and glistening water filled the night, the compelling moon and agreeable waves unfurled countless treasures for early morning beachcombers. Black shark’s teeth scattered and feisty, chipped whelks enchanted by their internal serenade, and legendary sand dollars coveted their fragile doves. Scallop and olive shells tossed here and there by the ebb and flow, and rare sea glass; the lost jewels from Poseidon’s crown. And, at last, a spectacular Carolina sunrise gifted a backdrop for the blushing ethereal clouds and a silhouette for the brown pelican “whose beak will hold more than his bellican.”

The nautical-striped beach bag overflowed with essentials for a glorious, subtropical day. Faded, soft beach towels, floppy sun hats, and crisp packs of Nabs. The red cooler, with the bottle opener on the side, volunteered chilled, green-glass bottles of Coke paired with salty peanuts to pour into the sugary bubbles. Dedicated sand pails and shovels readied for intense sandcastle construction and brave canvas floats stood at attention; my ocean vessel to perilous adventures in the curling breakers and beyond.

The briny, unquiet ocean welcomed all to its metallic waters. Tiny, wet footprints interrupted a nation of tinier surf fish on retreat from hungry seagulls and wading sandpipers. Trickster seaweed mimicked jellyfish hugging innocent arms and legs while a stoic loggerhead sea turtle navigated its course to nest and lay a multitude of precious eggs. Driftwood wandered aimlessly looking for a new purpose, and the bottlenose dolphins urged, with squeaks and whistles, the way to the mermaids.

Nighttime fire, ignited by sunburned skin, was soothed and cooled by a concoction of white vinegar and layers of Noxzema. Overnight, the garnet heat turned golden leaving a trail of freckles from nose to toes. The long summer days reluctantly turned golden, too, and with it, time to bid our farewells and return home to the city.

The grand coast of South Carolina continues to beckon my family every summer. The faithful green Samsonite was replaced by a newer model, just as dedicated and sand filled. A few itty-bitty toddling footprints joined our family while several dearly loved footprints faded; their memories now carried on the mighty wings of the great blue heron.

The Inn, still content and sun-filled, graciously hosts this new generation of Sandlappers, equally awestruck over the ocean’s majesty and rapturous over the dolphin’s invitation to follow-the-leader. Mrs. Somerall, agelessly beautiful, hugged my neck and asked in her sweet Southern drawl, “See y’all next summer?” Yes, ma’am, always.

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