Text and photos by Kelley Shinn
When I moved into Conk and Micky’s a year and a half ago now, the grief over the loss of those two special people, and all of their stalwart predecessors, was still palpable in the air. Also, there was the spirit of resilience and beauty and strength that first pulled me to the house and land. I was and am aware of the gravity of my stewardship. It is an honor to be able to call this place home, and therefore, I ought honor all those who came before me, and who will come after me, in the Charlie W. Garrish Sr. Family House, circa 1913.
This house is sturdy. It has withstood 102 years of hurricanes. In 1960, hurricane Donna heavily flooded the house and a 27-year-old Mildred Garrish, also known as Mrs. Micky O’Neal would not come down from the second floor because a large black snake was swimming halfway up the stairwell. In 1973, it was raised for the first and only time, six feet above ground onto cinder blocks. It has never flooded again. (Knock on wood.)
Nonetheless, time and weather and age take their toll. There were leaks in the roof, a rotted girder, mold issues, faux-wood interior paneling, circa 1970s, that was splintered and falling from the interior walls in arches. I’d have to tackle it bit by bit.
Shortly after I moved in, and for the last year, I have more keenly understood the palpable grief of the O’Neal and Garrish families over the loss of the ones they loved, who lived here, partly because many of them have honored me by sharing their grief and stories with me, but also because I have had a year of loss and trial. I’ve written here before about the beginning of the last year—my daughter, who is currently a senior at Ocracoke school, went abroad to Germany for her junior year, and weeks later, I was traumatized by finding my nine-year-old son’s father, dead from a fall. A few months after that, my own father was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive stage IV head and neck cancer. He discovered the lump on Christmas day, here on the island. Coincidentally, my father is battling the same cancer that ended Conk’s life.
I was shipwrecked. I had leaks in the roof, a rotted girder, mold issues, a splintered heart. The hard winter went by like blurs of lights on streets at night. When I could, I fell into the house, and we grieved together, the house, my son and I. It kept us safe, and we warmed its hearth, curled together in beds.
Spring thaw came just like that—a thawing. Bits of grief melted and broke off like icicles. Or they fell off like scabs from a gaping wound that takes a long time to heal. This village helped me to heal. Working with the two-time undefeated Blue Claws on Ocracoke’s new field of dreams didn’t hurt either.
Summer poured in. I woke up one morning at the end of June, a newly splintered piece of paneling, bobbing above my head. I called a friend at 8:30 in the morning, asked her if she wanted to come over and tear some walls down. “I’ll-grab-some-coffee-and-be-right-over” turned into four women, a couple of men, crowbars and sweat, four layers of flooring, and five layers of wall. My father, finished with all the cancer treatment he could bear, was coming to visit in three weeks.
With sunlight bolting in through an exterior wall in the bedroom, I called Tyke Ely for consultation. I’ve never furred a wall. Tyke’s experience and artistic ability was simpatico with my willingness and vision. It was as if the muse herself laid her heavy hand right on top of the house until the walls came down and the floors came up. And since the bedroom was connected to the hallway, and the dining room and the kitchen, all those layers of linoleum and subflooring and paneling came off, too—revealing a bevy of bead board, heart pine and red oak floors, a cache of marbles in between floors, an old photograph of a full-bearded Ronnie O’Neal behind the bricks and mortar where the woodstove sat, all the residue of memory rising to the surface.
And as we discovered things, we shared stories. So many unique, delightful stories, forged from times of love and survival, have been told—between the working crew, visiting villagers, and the friends and members of the O’Neal and Garrish families who have given kind and encouraging regards that have deeply fueled this phase of raising this home.
When everything was gutted, including the heavy residue of grief, like the dark clouds of tar paper that Tim Fields stoically sanded off of the floors, Tyke looked at me and said, “Have you thought about a kitchen counter?” He didn’t question me when I took him to check out Conk’s old fish carving table. We caulked the cracks, scraped the rot, filled the holes with bits of driftwood, old nails from Conk’s shed, the marbles Tyke had found, plus my grandmother’s worry beads. Then, we learned how to apply a food grade, self-leveling epoxy and like liquid glass it memorialized the whole thing. Everything happened that way—it fell right into place.
My father came earlier than anticipated. He insisted the work continue, and helped when he could. One day, he helped Tyke with a floor-leveling conundrum. Later, as thick afternoon light poured in through the new windows and door, as Tyke told me the same version of the story my father had told me earlier, he added, “I bet every guy like me remembers that one old guy that taught you this valuable lesson or trick or another.”
That there exemplifies the importance of all stories.
Almost three months later, and Tyke’s trailer is now gone from the front yard. In the slow tedium of finishing work, I look around at the beauty of this space, the heavy piles of different lives that need sorted and given place, and I can’t help but to think of the shipwreck, the waters that both this house and I have survived—the spirit of resilience and beauty and strength that can come with endurance.
Endurance takes a village. I have abiding gratitude to many for their kind acts and words. They may not all be listed here:
Scott Bradley, Tyke Ely, Mark Storch, Nasho Villanueva, Sandy Yeatts, Jude Wheeler, Mickey Baker and Carmie Prete, David Senseney, Tom Payne, Debbie Wells, Tom and Susse Wright, Kim France, Celeste Brooks, Shayna and Quinten Brooks, Dirk Ely, Alexis Villanueva, Nathan Contreras, Silas Trethewey and Cecilia Carter, Tim Fields, Vince Rockel, Shirley Helms, Jim Garrish, Ben O’Neal, Joey Anders, Stephen Shinn, Jason Elicker and crew, Galen Brown, Nathan Spencer and the Coastal Gas crew, Van O’Neal, Stacey Mae O’Neal, Kathleen and Ronnie O’Neal, Trudy Austin and John Simpson.