Lessons of the Lagoon, Part II: Learning the “Lillis” Way

This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Hanlon Walsh

My aunt Lillis and I always had a special connection. Lillis just got me. She was an open book and could talk to anyone about anything. 

I, on the other hand, can be a closed book at first and require many layers to be peeled back. Lillis knew exactly how to peel back my layers. Growing up, her daughter Mary Shannon and I were the same age and pretty much inseparable, so Lillis always felt like a second mom to me. 

In conversations with Lillis, no question was ever off limits. If anyone was going to address an “elephant in the room” at a family gathering, it was Lillis — she was never afraid to rip off the Band-Aid. She was just as likely to be the first one to crack a beer at the Christmas party as she was to be the first to greet a stranger with a big smile and make them feel right at home. 

Our interactions never once felt stale or scripted. Lillis was genuinely interested in who I was and whatever adventures I was up to in life. Even if she straddled the border between curious and a bit nosy at times, it always came from a good place. But then again, whose family members aren’t a little nosy? She was simply the best. 

Lagoon Time with Lillis 

Some of my fondest memories with Lillis come from our family’s home on Little Lagoon. Like many of my family members, Lillis’ happy place was the Lagoon. And because of her warm hospitality, it also became a happy place for many others who enjoyed the Lagoon at her invitation. 

In the first issue of CURRENTS, I wrote about my forced entry into fishing alongside my late grandfather, Rock O’Neill (“Ricky”). Ricky was Lillis’ oldest brother-in-law, and together they made up two of four family owners who split time at the Lagoon throughout the year. My late grandmother, Sally O’Neill, was Ricky’s wife and Lillis’ older sister who passed away far too soon in March 2009. 

When reflecting on my Lagoon memories with Lillis versus Ricky, the two experiences couldn’t have been more black and white. Going to the Lagoon under Ricky’s watch felt like tip-toeing on eggshells with the school principal lurking and critiquing your every move. 

Lagoon time with Lillis, on the other hand, felt more like attending Field Day with the substitute teacher. You could sleep all day, eat all day, drink all day, fish all day, swim all day; it didn’t matter one bit. But Lillis was gonna do Lillis.

Morning started with a hot cup of coffee on the upstairs deck overlooking the Lagoon. By mid-morning, she had suited up in her infamous khaki shorts and tennis shoes to begin her daily walk on the pathways along Fort Morgan Road. When she returned, Lillis wasted little time before changing into her swimsuit and assuming her waterfront post on the landing with a book and beach chair. Oh, the landing. 

Lillis’ Landing 

Everyone has their own favorite ritual or activity at the Lagoon. Ricky was most in his element while fishing in his boat (and barking orders to anyone who dared to join him). Lillis, on the other hand, ruled the roost when it came to the landing. Some say wharf; others say pier or dock; but for us, it’s always been the landing. And a resilient landing it has proved to be through the years. 

Destroyed and rebuilt many times in the wake of Frederick, Camille, Ivan, Katrina, Sandy, and too many other storms to count, the landing is a small platform sitting over the Lagoon’s shallow waters at the end of the boardwalk. No, it’s not a typical pier you might see lining Mobile Bay, Dog River, or Fowl River with tall pilings, a boat-lift, an expansive roof, and custom outdoor furniture. 

It’s neither long nor glamorous, just a simple platform with plywood boards and a strict BYOCC policy (bring your own chairs and coolers). In fact, nothing about the Lagoon is ever glamorous. And that’s just the way we like it. 

If Lillis had ever authored a “Lagoon Guidebook for Dummies,” I’d like to think these would have been the chapter titles of her book: Sit. Lay. Chat. Read. Snack. Pick. Drink. Float. Swim. Relax. Repeat. 

This was her tried-and-true Lagoon process in a nutshell. It’s no wonder we all loved coming to the Lagoon when it was her turn. 

During Lillis’ weeks at the Lagoon, the house was often a revolving door between her children, extended family, close friends, colleagues, or acquaintances who would come and go as they pleased. In between visitor stints, Lillis enjoyed the peace and solitude of the Lagoon alone. She was just as happy with a packed house of 15 to 20 people as she was with an empty house all to herself. 

One day she might be curled up in a beach chair with a good book and talking to friends on the phone for hours (and I mean hours), while the next day she could be splashing in the water with one her grandchildren and entertaining a full house of guests. Whatever poison you picked at the Lagoon, you could always find Lillis on the landing. 

The Lagoon Night Shift 

If Lillis was queen of the landing by day, she was queen of the kitchen counter by night. When the sun went down, Lagoon nights often started by huddling around an endless array of snacks and appetizers lining the counter. Who needs proper meals when you’re on Lagoon time and have unlimited snacks? 

Once we got our snack fill, evenings were usually spent on the up- stairs deck looking up at the stars or playing games on the screened porch listening to the wind and the waves. 

When I was younger, Lillis taught me how to play many card games and board games. But the one game that stands out is Rummikub, a brain-hurting tile game that requires full concentration to become a true master. Lillis, Mary Shannon, and I would stay up for hours maneuvering tile after tile in what developed into a fierce Rummikub rivalry. 

In my adult years, I later learned that Rummikub and alcohol don’t mix too well. As a result, we eventually traded in Rummikub for red wine and our Lagoon nights were often spent enjoying wine on the porch. Some nights I remember laughing so hard until our stomachs hurt, while other nights were spent simply listening to the sounds of the Lagoon. 

I remember the last weekend I spent with Lillis at the Lagoon like it was yesterday. It was May 2020 in the heart of the pandemic, and more so than ever, the Lagoon proved to be a safe haven away from COVID-19 stressors. 

As she always did, Lillis welcomed us to the Lagoon during part of her stay before it was our immediate family’s turn to have the house. I arrived a night early before the rest of our family and it was just Lillis and me that night. Like clockwork, we stayed up late while enjoying wine on the porch, catching up on life and listening to the Lagoon sounds on full display in the background. It was a quintessential last Lagoon night with Lillis.  

Photo: Lillis (pictured right)

Lagoon Like Lillis 

Water has an uncanny way of bringing people together. Those fortunate enough to live near the water or grow up at a family waterfront home can easily recall our favorite memories spent on the water — swimming, floating, fishing, tubing, paddling, or skiing. But often our best memories from these special places can also be formed away from the water itself. 

For me, it’s the early morning cup of coffee on the porch; it’s the standing-room only snack-fest around the kitchen counter; it’s the late nights filled with Rummikub, red wine, and a whole lot of laughs; it’s the long, sunny hours laying on the landing without a single care in the world. These are my best Lagoon memories with my aunt Lillis. 

In April 2021, Lillis passed away unexpectedly in a tragic accident. Months later, many family members gathered at the Lagoon to celebrate Lillis on the waters where she spent some of her best moments in life. Today a sign proudly hangs in our kitchen that reads “Lagoon Like Lillis” to honor her memory and encourage all Lagoon visitors to take a page out of Lillis’ Lagoon motto: 

Lay on the Landing. “Just Pick” around the kitchen counter. Float the day away. Bring your walking shoes. Laugh. Talk. Enjoy the company. Lagoon Like Lillis. 

May we all channel our inner-Lillis the next time we find our- selves on the water or wherever our own happy place might be. Cheers to you, Lillis.


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