The Grand Hotel – December 2021
Point Clear, Alabama. I drive down I-65 this week, renewing my annual holiday trip to the Grand Hotel, the venerable resort at Point Clear, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. It’s my first attempt at a vacation in two years.
On the drive down, somebody on the radio plays an audio clip from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the first and best of the animated specials based on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon strip. You know the scene: Charlie Brown, in frustration, asks if anybody knows the true meaning of Christmas. This is Linus’s cue to step into the spotlight and recite the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.
What strikes me in this listening is the simple, forthright performance of the script by the child actors. Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) asks, “Doesn’t anybody / know / what Christmas / is all about?” and the line has a haiku-like cadence that captures the wistful innocence of youth.
At Point Clear, the massive live oaks seem untouched by pandemic and recent hurricanes; Christmas lights around the lagoon are as profusely tasteful and satisfying as ever and the Civil War cannon is fired in the distance, maintaining a daily ritual. Ancient branches of live oaks drape over the pathways, belighted as natural arches for the season.
This trip – after a longer than usual absence and the factors that delayed it – is more reflective. A CD of George Winston’s classic album, December, found under a stack of CDs in the car, becomes the soundtrack for the trip. In the room, I stream podcasts by my friend, Lily Miceli, who hosts “InBetween the Music” for Wisconsin Public Radio. She recently shared two Christmas-themed programs:
Libby Rich, who ran an amazing garden shop called Plant Odyssey in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood for years, now shares her expertise on Libbyrich’s Blog https://libbyrich.wordpress.com/2021/12/13/a-roll-of-quarters. My gardening inspiration growing up was my Granddaddy Harbison, but it was in Libby’s Lakeview shop that I honed my knowledge of plants and gardens. She is a formidable presence with a kind heart and voluminous knowledge of growing things. Libby’s Christmas-themed essay, “A Roll of Quarters,” is about a customer who always bought his Christmas poinsettias at Plant Odyssey, leaving a roll of quarters for her to treat her staff. My dad collected coins, mainly quarters, in his retirement and often gifted special people with a roll. Libby’s post, read on my balcony overlooking the lagoon and Mobile Bay beyond, is especially poignant in this season of remembrance.
Along for the ride, also, are a well-worn copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a brand-new copy of the first novel by artist Julyan Davis, whom I have known for many years. Davis’s A History of Saints is a jaunty satire set in Asheville, North Carolina. It reminds me, in ways, of the Alabama author Eugene Walter, who thought parenthetically and found the joy in eccentricity all around him. I won’t quite finish Julyan’s book on this trip, but I’m enjoying the ride https://smpbooks.com/product/a-history-of-saints.
On the first full day here, I go out in search of old churches I haven’t yet photographed in the area. After photographing a promising prospect near the town of Foley, I have car trouble in Summerdale and call AAA for a tow. The first AAA dispatcher I talk to (who I later learned was talking to me from California) is rude when I tell her I am in an unfamiliar place and don’t know where my car should be towed. She tells me that she can’t assist me until I tell her where I want my car to be towed; I respond, “I don’t know – isn’t that your job?” and she disconnects me.
“… a promising prospect near Foley”
On the next try, I reach a more helpful AAA dispatcher who connects me with a local towing company and auto mechanics in Foley who couldn’t be nicer. The unexpected adventure turns out fine in the end and introduces me to a helpful cab driver, a charming hotel shuttle driver, concerned workers at the Summerdale Civic Complex, and Gelato Joe’s Italian Restaurant and Tiki Bar (www.gelato-joes.com).
My car spent the night in Foley but I can’t be unhappy to be “stranded” at the Grand and enjoy catching up with familiar and new faces among the resort staff, while noting that some favorite faces have moved on in the two years since I was last here.
I usually make the trip alone and enjoy it; occasionally, I am able to rendezvous with old friends, and that is pleasant, too. This trip has been a solo experience, so I have had plenty of opportunity to observe and chat with new people.
On the first night here, while dining at Southern Roots at the resort, I notice a party of four. A couple of nights later, at a restaurant in downtown Fairhope, I spot the same foursome at a table across the room. Back at the hotel, waiting for the elevator, one of the women of the group emerges with a motorized scooter. “Were you just at Camellia Café?” I ask.
“Are you the guy who was eating at the end of the bar?” she responds. “We were talking about you.”
“Why?” I ask. She says that I was an interesting looking person dining alone at the bar and they wondered what my story was.
“My story was that I was having dinner.”
I explain that this trip is my annual pre-Christmas escape and that I usually travel solo. This leads to an interesting conversation and I ask my new acquaintance (who is now on my Christmas card list) if that’s her mother waiting for her at the car. Indeed, the second lady of the foursome, my new acquaintance’s mother, stands patiently in the parking lot, waiting for her transport.
I may have seemed alone to the party of four, but I feel surrounded by friends down here. I have been to the Grand so many times that it feels like a kind of “home” to me (I even manage to stay in the same room each visit). I have caught up with people I see on every trip, had my annual massage in the spa, and grabbed a meal at some favorite places.
The Hope Farm
I have felt the presence of friends – Lily, Libby, Julyan, and others – as I relax in my room. It’s my final night and I try a place that’s new, that wasn’t here on my last trip, before the world shifted in March 2020. The Hope Farm (www.thehopefarm.com) is a sprawling urban farm complex off Fairhope’s main drag with a restaurant and wine bar and a steadfast commitment to local, fresh, and sustainable nourishment. After failing to find fresh oysters on the half-shell in my first few meals down here, I am pleased to find fresh Murder Point oysters, my favorite from Bayou La Batre across the bay, at The Hope Farm restaurant, which instantly becomes another of my favorite places to eat in Fairhope. I make a note to return often on regular sojourns to Baldwin County.
In the morning, I will drive back home to Birmingham after stopping for relishes at Punta Clara Kitchen, a bag of satsumas at Harrison Farms roadside stand, and pecans for Christmas and New Year’s dinners. I will pick up a Po’Boy at Market by the Bay in Daphne to eat along the way. I have a list of historic churches for photos on detours heading north. Like Charlie Brown and Linus, I will continue to find poetry in the season and remain hopeful for better days in the year ahead.
Sunset at the Grand