Lessons of the Lagoon: Remembering a Southern Matriarch

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

By Hanlon Walsh

At the Lagoon, all roads lead to the kitchen counter. It’s where we enjoy our favorite indoor hobbies — snacking, eating, drinking — often in a continuous cycle. It’s where we peer out the window to check on the family fishermen moving from one fishing hole to the next. It’s where we watch afternoon storms roll in quickly across Little Lagoon. It’s where we have early morning chats and late-night laughs.

If you know, you know — it’s white and L-shaped with stools lining both sides and an endless assembly line of snacks, drinks, and desserts. There aren’t enough zeros in the numeric system to estimate the calories consumed on that counter over the last 43 years since the house was rebuilt after Hurricane Frederick. If whenever our Lagoon house has its final chapter, the counter ought to be placed in a museum somewhere for its contributions to Gulf culture. 

If I could describe the counter in one word, it might be “LAWD,” in honor of my late grandmother, Sally O’Neill. If you knew her, you can probably imagine this phrase echoing in your mind, pronounced in her classic drawl that we all knew and loved. Actually, it sounded more like “LA-W-W-D-D-D.

It’s the first word I hear as I reflect on the legacy she left behind. And whenever I think about my time with “Sa” at the Lagoon, I go back to the kitchen counter. 

Our Matriarch 

Known as Sally to most, but forever “Sa” to her tribe of 17 grandchildren, she was the loyal and loving wife of Ricky, my late grandfather and fishing extraordinaire who I featured in a previous CURRENTS edition

LAWD! She deserves a lifetime achievement award of resiliency for putting up with Ricky for that long. A mother to five children and the oldest of six siblings, Sa embodied the quintessential family matriarch — sweet, selfless, steady, stern, and strong as ever. 

She was only 12 years old when her father, Yancy Davis (“Y.D.”) Lott, built the original Lagoon house in 1948. So, in many ways, Sa grew up with the Lagoon. And while doing so, she imparted a passion to younger generations of family members over the next 60 years. 

Here I am, back at the kitchen counter with a glass of wine in hand while listening to my mom, Shannon, and Aunt Erin recall a lifetime of cherished Lagoon memories with Sa. With a plethora of stories, history lessons, and guest Rolodex spanning the last 75 years, I’m confident I could craft a substantial Lagoon novel at this point. Never say never.

I began writing this story on October 26, the day that would’ve marked Sa’s 86th birthday. I was only 19 when she unexpectedly passed away 14 years ago at age 71. Like many who lose a loved one too soon, part of me feels robbed — of memories with her during my twenties, a decade’s worth of Lagoon time together, and the chance for Sa to witness her grandchildren grow up, graduate, move away, return home, pursue careers, get married, and start families. 

Yet, the other part of me feels incredibly grateful. Thanks to Sa, I built countless cherished memories during my childhood that endure today. It’s all because of her. 

Sa at the Lagoon. Photo courtesy Hanlon Walsh

Back-Scratches and Stargazing 

A quick text to my cousins revealed two consistent themes about their favorite Lagoon memories with Sa: back-scratches and star- gazing. 

In our younger days, we lined the kitchen counter for meals, and Sa, one by one, would sneak up behind us and let her long nails gently traverse our backs. There was nothing quite like a back scratch from Sa — the perfect blend of sharp fingernails and warm grandmother energy. Step out of line once, though, and you might find yourself on the punishing end of her long nails. 

After dinner, Sa led us to the porch to look up at the stars. For every star we identified, she rewarded us with a dime. It’s no wonder she and Ricky always kept large jars of change ready for these special occasions. 

Beyond back-scratches and stargazing, the best part of arriving at the Lagoon was Sa’s wide grin and warm welcome every time we rolled down the driveway. A grandmother at only 47, she was the hippest one around who was adored by all 17 grandkids and loved nothing more than bringing family together. 

It’s remarkable how, under Sa and Ricky’s watch, four or five families — Walshes, Meachams, Robertsons, Coopers, and O’Neills — regularly squeezed into a 4-bedroom, 2-bath house at the Lagoon without any qualms. I guess we have the camp-style bunkroom and a more-the-merrier motto instilled by Sa and Ricky to thank for this. 

At the Lagoon, Sa was constantly hands-on with her grandchildren. She showed us how to build drip sandcastles on the beach; we searched for conchs and hermit crabs on many walks to the creek; she taught us card games like Fan-tan that we played on the porch nearly every night; we went blackberry picking around the front yard and transformed our labor into delicious cobblers; she taught us how to swim in the Lagoon’s shallow end while donning her timeless green and white two-piece swimsuit. 

“Hold your breath and go under the bridge” was her go-to line for getting us comfortable in the water. Just like Ricky’s fishing boot camp, swimming lessons with Sa were sink or swim. In their unique way, Sa and Ricky uncovered the Lagoon’s many quirks, hidden gems, and natural beauty with their grandchildren at every opportunity. 

Sa’s Legacy 

As our family orchestrator, glue, and backbone, Sa held it all together behind the scenes. She was the origin of our Lagoon roots and the bridge between generations of memories and milestones. 

After growing up and growing old with the Lagoon, it was only fitting that she spent her last day there. On March 18, 2009, Sa passed away peacefully at the Lagoon surrounded by Daily Devotions, library books, and a grocery list on her bedside table. She followed in her father’s footsteps, Y.D., the initial Lagoon visionary, who also spent his last day of life at the Lagoon on July 8, 1981, sipping a Dewar’s on the rocks in his Adirondack chair. 

As the current generation of family Lagoon owners has gradually begun to leave us during my lifetime, their distinct legacies make an imprint with each visit. I think of Ricky every time I see our favorite Great Blue Heron, “Mr. Richard,” soar above the Lagoon and swoop down to the landing. I think of my Aunt Lillis during the many hours and days spent relaxing on the landing without a to-do list in sight. 

And I think about Sa when I pull up the driveway and remember her warm welcome; when I walk to the creek and spot hermit crabs inching along the water; when I sit on the porch at night looking up at the stars; and when I’m at the kitchen counter daydreaming about those epic back-scratches. LAWD

A Mobile native, Hanlon Walsh lives in Birmingham where he works at Peritus Public Relations. He is the former communications director at Mobile Baykeeper. 


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