10 Great Romances from 31 Days of Oscar

All I want to do these days is stay home and watch Turner Classic Movies – it’s 31 Days of Oscar month! As you could probably guess even if I didn’t talk about it all the time, I am an absolute sucker for old movies. And looking over this year’s schedule, I’m realizing just how much influence and inspiration I’ve taken from them in writing my own versions of romance.

The whole month is stuffed with great films (and not so great films that were overrated in their day), but I can draw a straight line from any of these to my own ideas about relationships and the stories I’ve written about them. (All aired or will air on TCM at some point in March 2022; some are streaming on HBOMax.)

Cabaret (1972): I saw this the first time on pay cable in the middle of the night when I was about 12 years old, and if you hold a gun to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite movie of all time, I might very well say this one. It is a classic example of a big ideas, big concept epic that is held together and made real by the love story at its center, scary and swooney and sad. It was the first romantic story I ever really engaged that wasn’t about two cis straight people; it introduced me to ideas like the potential beauty of decadence in squalor and art as the whole universe and sex as both a game and an expression of the soul. And Liza Minelli literally sings her heart out. I recently introduced my teen-age niece (a goth theater kid after my own heart in every way) to it, and she fell completely in love just like I did. Streaming on HBOMax

Dr. Zhivago (1965): My grandmother, who I adored, absolutely adored this movie, and the first time it came on network TV, we all gathered at her house to watch it. And Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin were all impossibly beautiful and tragic and yearning, and I got completely caught up in the story. But later, thinking about it, I realized that as a love interest Yuri Zhivago was not, to use the time-honored Southern expression, worth the dynamite it would take to blow him up. Weak and indecisive, he half-heartedly tries to do the right thing with no conviction and ends up making everything worse for everybody every single time. He was my first, “he’s pretty but damn” romantic hero, and I make a concentrated effort to never write a guy like him myself. Streaming on HBOMax

The Philadelphia Story (1940): One of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and a major inspiration for my own Stella Hart stories. I adore almost every little thing about this movie about a prideful but hilarious society beauty and the poor saps who just can’t help falling in love with her. Katherine Hepburn’s persona is on perfect display here and used to its best possible effect, and neither Cary Grant nor Jimmy Stewart was ever sexier. I watch it every single time it comes on and always will. Streaming on HBOMax

Sense and Sensibility (1995): If you’re only going to allow one Jane Austen movie adaptation into your life, skip the many excellent versions of Pride and Prejudice and pick this one. Alan Rickman gets to break out his perfect yearning lover face in a role where he actually survives the story AND washes his hair; Hugh Grant is the best version of his floppy-haired English heartthrob self, and Kate Winslet and Greg Wise both look good enough to eat. And when Emma Thompson as Eleanor breaks down in happy sobs at the end, she is every smart, sensible woman who ever finally got exactly what her foolish heart has always wanted, and she is glorious. Showing March 13 at 8:00 p.m.; streaming on HBOMax

Wuthering Heights (1939): This is not my favorite movie adaptation of the gothic classic; that would be the version from 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. That one hews much closer to the original story, and Fiennes and Binoche play Heathcliff and Cathy much more as written than Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon do in this film. But this is the one that turns a very twisted and complicated psychological novel into a swoon-worthy tragic romance. It omits the entire second volume of Bronte’s original, so the audience never sees just what a sadistic, controlling piece of crap Heathcliff actually becomes. And in Oberon’s portrayal, Cathy becomes less his match in cruelty and more the innocently careless seductress so popular in romances of the day (think Scarlett O’Hara or Bette Davis’s character in Jezebel–the Depression Era version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But Olivier never looked more beautiful or acted more romantic on screen. When he plunges out into the storm in pursuit of the ghost of his beloved, my heart breaks every time. Showing March 14 at 2:30 p.m.

Camelot (1967): Beautiful Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere can’t sing a lick, and Guinevere as a character is kind of a twerp. Handsome Franco Nero’s Lancelot struck me as bombastic and over the top and anything but romantically appealing even the first time I saw this when I was about nine. But Richard Harris as Arthur is pure delight–that Guinevere breaks his heart to be with Lancelot just proves what a nincompoop she is. And this movie was my gateway drug not just to the Matter of Britain but all medieval fantasy, aka the absolute best thing ever. If I hadn’t sat up half the night watching this on TV in my grandmother’s living room with my Aunt Kathy all those years ago, I might have missed out on Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and about half of my own fiction catalog. Showing March 18 at 1:30 a.m.; streaming on HBOMax

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): This not-quite-a-Monty-Python comedy makes me laugh until tears run down my face every time I see it. I would love it even if it had no romantic subplot to speak of. But the love connection between Jamie Lee Curtis’s sexy jewel thief Wanda and John Cleese’s repressed barrister Archie Leach is one of my all time favorites in any movie ever. Like every femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs in a towel and an anklet, Wanda goes after Archie boobs hiked and guns blazing in the beginning to take something he has. Her pretending to be smitten with him starts out as one of the jokes. Why would a girl like Wanda ever go for a guy like Archie? (His name is a clue, though–Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.) But of course the great twist is, she falls for him for real. She chooses him over the prettier but abysmally stupid Otto (played by a very pretty Kevin Kline) not just because Archie really can speak Italian and Russian but because he’s smart and kind and sees her even when she’s faking. Repressed or not, he tells her with absolute sincerity and no hesitation that she is “the sexiest girl [he has] ever seen.” Who could resist that? Showing March 20 at 3:00 a.m.

The Gay Divorcee (1934): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and another major inspiration for Stella Hart. It’s all snappy dialogue and impossible settings and frothy costumes on Ginger Rogers that swirl like seafoam when she dances and a plot that even if you manage to follow it makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s a sanitized version of a much more sophisticated musical play, The Gay Divorce, with songs by Cole Porter. Astaire and Rogers would play a much more coherent version of a slightly naughty mistaken identity plot the next year in Top Hat, also a favorite. But this is the one with that heavenly dance number set to Porter’s “Night and Day.” Showing March 22 at 12:15 a.m.

Casablanca (1942): If you don’t know why this one made the list, I can’t help you. And if you’ve never actually seen it before, I’m jealous. Play it, Sam. Showing March 26 at 11:00 a.m.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Far and away the most heartbreaking story on this list. And this list has Cabaret, Wuthering Heights AND Dr. Zhivago. Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, and Uma Thurman are all insanely good, and Keanu Reeves is very, very beautiful to look at. The story is sexy and chilling and impossibly sad, and Malkovich makes a perfect dark romantic anti-hero. (Yes, John Malkovich! I know, right?) The cruellest kiss off ever uttered is apparently, “It is beyond my control.” And yeah, Cruel Intentions is based on the same book–if you like that, please watch this. And bring a tissue. Showing March 27 at 2:00 a.m., streaming on HBOMax.

The Paperback Rack at the Big Star

Every writer has a touching story about their favorite bookstore or library as a child, the place where they discovered the ineffable delights of literature. I can go on at great length about my love for Miss Daisy at the Chester County Library or my swoon of ecstasy the first time I walked into the original strip mall location of The Bookworm in Rock Hill or my nostalgia for The Intimate Bookshop at the chichi-poopoo mall in Charlotte. But if I’m honest, the repository of fiction that influenced me most strongly in the years I was becoming the writer I am was the paperback rack at the Big Star grocery store. It was right inside the doors, just past the buggies, across from the produce section, and I hit it up every single week. And if I didn’t hit it up myself, my sweet mama hit it up for me. She’d be on her way out the door, and I would emerge from my headphones full of Alice Cooper or the Bay City Rollers and holler, “Mama, find me something to reeeeeeead!!!!” And bless her precious soul, she always did.

So I read the top of the paperback bestseller charts, about six months behind, for the entirety of my adolescence. (A book had to be a pretty safe sales bet to make it all the way to the Big Star.) And y’all, those books were awesome. I grieve deeply for the variety and insanity of the Big Star book rack. It taught me story, crowd-pleasing, popular story, the stuff that’s kept us author types in business since we were buying our place at the fire with our fresh new take on Beowulf. I read some great literary novels–back then, literary novels came out in pulpy paperback all the time. But it’s the genre fiction, the “trashy novels” I devoured like popcorn that really branded themselves on my brain. I can see their influence now in every book I write.

salems lotSalem’s Lot by Stephen King: I still stand in awe at Mama’s perception in picking this out for me. This was the first King book I ever read and my first contemporary, grown-up horror book, and it came to me at the bottom of a bag full of frozen fish sticks and tater tots when I was about 13. I stayed up all night reading it, loved every single syllable of it. As soon as I finished it the first time, I flipped back to the beginning and started reading it again. If I had to pick one writer who has influenced my style and my focus and my beliefs about writing as an art and a job the most, King would be it. And that all started with this book. There’s an element of horror in almost everything I write, no matter how sweet or romantic it might be, and that came from here, too. And oh yeah, vampires … mine evolved to be very, very different (thanks, Anne Rice and Frank Langella!), but Uncle Stevie also introduced me to vampires. My bestselling book series so far has been about vampires, and I’ve got a WIP going about them right this very now.

lonesome doveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: This is one of those literary novels I was talking about–I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize–but it’s also a gloriously pulpy, down and dirty western. I’ve blogged before about how I grew up watching western movies with my dad and how that influenced my writing. But with all appropriate apologies to Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, this is the first western novel I ever read that really spoke to me. For one thing, the women are just as layered and interesting and just as important to the story as the men–there’s a lot of the actual lonesome dove, Lorena Wood, in Daisy, the protagonist of my own weird western stories. McMurtry’s book and its sequels and outgrowths gave me a clearer, more realistic picture of the real world behind the western myth, and I hope that comes through in my work.

laceLace by Shirley Conran: Holy Moses on the Nile, y’all, have you read this book? Forget Judith Krantz; forget Danielle Steele. This is the ultimate trashy women’s novel, the ultimate guilty pleasure, the ultimate lurid potboiler. I plowed through it in less than a day, exclaiming in delighted shock at regular intervals, and when I finished, I gave it to Mama who did the same. She gave it to one of my aunts, who gave it to one of her friends, and so on and so on and so on. The premise is Einstein-level genius: a beautiful and notorious movie star invites four fabulously wealthy and successful women from four very different worlds to tea and says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” And of course we find out that these four women were all roommates at boarding school, and we flashback to each one’s story in turn to discover the answer to the question. And every plot twist is more outrageous and deliciously awful than the one before it. American Starlet and its upcoming sequels are very much my hopefully-fresh take on this kind of book. They are my Lace; any time I get stuck on my plotting, I think, “what would Shirley do?” and go as wild and wooly as my imagination will allow. I can only pray I am doing her legacy justice.

He’s never been anything but kind and encouraging, but I suspect I drive my publisher batshit crazy with this stuff. Standard wisdom in the book writing business right now is pick a series and stick with it. Or if not a series, at least a genre. I try, y’all. I really, really do. And there are definite, discernible connections between all of my books. They all have strong relationship plots; they all feature smart people; most of them are pretty sexy, even–especially–if they have vampires. (Sorry, Uncle Steve.) But in the ways that make them easy to tag for the Amazon search engine, I’m afraid they’re all over the place. For better or worse, I write for that paperback rack. So I really hope y’all keep wanting to read it.

demon's kissbury me notamerican starlet

How to Cook Supper on a Tuesday Night (Hamburger steaks & gravy)

My mama worked a nine-to-five clerical job pretty much my whole life. So I learned from her at an early age how to get to the grocery store, get home, and get supper on the table fast before collapsing from exhaustion in front of the TV set. This was one of my father’s favorite dinners, so we had it all the time. Whenever I think about cooking supper, this is still the first thing that springs to mind–the smell of it cooking takes me straight back to 1982. It feels like a real meal, but it’s cheap and fast and by this point, I could make it in my sleep. And bless him, my hubs loves it, too.

Ingredients:

2 pounds of hamburger

2 small white onions or one really big one

2 green bell peppers

2 tablespoons of butter

¼ cup of flour

2 cans of beef consommé

1-2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

1 ½ cups of uncooked white rice

1 can of peas

How to Make It: 

Put 3 cups of water on to boil, liberally salted, with a lid. At some point while you’re doing the next few steps, the water will start to boil. When it does, add the rice, stir, bring back to a boil then reduce heat to low so the water just simmers. Leave it to simmer, covered and untouched, while you cook everything else.

Pat the hamburger into 6-8 patties, depending on how many people are eating. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear on both sides in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, about a minute and a half per side. You’ll probably have to do them in batches; I do mine as I make them out and remove the seared ones to a plate. You aren’t trying to cook them through at this point, just browning the outside.

While your patties are cooking, peel the onions and slice them in half lengthwise, then slice in half-rings, then seed and slice the bell peppers lengthwise. (Cut them big this way so the non-veggie-eaters can pick’em out without whining.) Once the patties are done and out of the pan, add the butter to the pan drippings and let it melt, then add the onions and peppers and sauté them until they’re soft. Add the flour, stirring constantly, and cook for about a minute so the flour doesn’t taste raw. Then add the consommé and stir to make a gravy. Add the Worcestershire sauce. Taste the gravy and adjust with more Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper as needed. Add the patties back into the gravy, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the meat is cooked through and your rice and peas are done.

Open the can of peas, pour it in a pot over medium heat, heat through.

Serve the gravy over the rice and beef patties with peas on the side.

Serves 6-8

 

 

John Lennon

So when I was three years old, my absolute favorite show on TV was the Beatles cartoon:

Note, please, the vampire theme.

abbey-roadWhen I was six, my aunt showed me the cover of her Abbey Road album and explained that some people thought it proved that my favorite Beatle, Paul, was dead because the picture was obviously a funeral procession: John in white was the minister, Ringo in black was the undertaker, Paul in bare feet (a lookalike, obviously) was the corpse, and George in denim with his scruffy beard was the gravedigger. I cried for hours.

 

sgt-pepper-movieWhen I was eleven, I met my best friend.  In addition to many other charms and attractions, she had a whole big crate of 45 rpm records that had belonged to her aunt, including all the Beatles’ early singles. We’d stack’em up seven at a time (the limit of my stereo’s spindle) and listen to them over and over and over for weekends at a time, even though by then the Beatles had been broken up for years. We bought every record Wings put out; we even dragged her poor mom to the movies to see this:

So sorry, Alice . . .

Over the course of the next few years, as I acquired most of the Beatles’ catalog on vinyl for myself (including outright stealing that copy of Abbey Road that belonged to my aunt), I slowly realized that while Paul was “the cute one,” John’s songs were more me. My adolescent yearnings were far more stirred by “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and that sexy sigh on “Girl” than by “Martha My Dear” or the hideous “Michelle,” which I loathe to this day. I even tried to like John’s solo stuff, though my first listen to “Cold Turkey” sent me scurrying, and even at my most pretentious, I couldn’t pretend to have listened to “Revolution Number 9” all the way through.

On the morning of December 10, 1980, when I was sixteen, my mom woke me up to tell me to come watch the news and try not to be too upset–John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. At first I told her she was crazy, that this was obviously another hoax, another “Paul is dead.” But it wasn’t a rumor spread by kids and DJs; it was an ugly truth on the morning news. I was inconsolable. I called my bestie, and we cried together. I’m not even sure I made it to school that day; I know I was at least late. My dad came home that night with a brand new, high fidelity stereo radio for me so I could listen to all the tributes, and slowly over the next few days, I pulled it together. But I grieved like I’d lost someone close to me, someone I really knew, and the world was never quite the same.

Not long after that, I discovered Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and the Smiths and my heart’s new beloved, Sting and the Police. But I never stopped listening to the Beatles. When I went away to school for the first time, one of the five albums I took with me was that same copy of Abbey Road. Years later when CDs became the thing, the first disc I bought was Revolver. I read Philip Norman’s Shout and The Love You Make by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines. (I did NOT read the Goldman biography of Lennon.) I watched The Beatles Compleat and The Beatles Anthology, and when iTunes finally got the rights to the Beatles catalog, I busted my bank account downloading pretty much everything. But I figured I was a late model baby boomer, one of the masses of nostalgia buffs, that for younger people, the Beatles weren’t really a thing. Just last month I read another, much more recent book about the break-up of the band and their finances and lawsuits, and it read like ancient history, a cautionary tale from days of yore.

Then last week, thinking about Christmas prezzies, I asked my freshly-eleven-year-old niece, Katie, who her favorite singer was, expecting to hear some name I wouldn’t recognize but that Amazon might. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “The Beatles.” Her mom, my baby sister, is as big a fan as I am, and the music has been in the background of Katie’s life as long as she’s been alive. But just recently, as adolescence steals over her, she’s “really gotten into it.” I’m trying not to make too big a deal of it, of course. But I got her this for Christmas: beatles-one

On this thirty-sixth anniversary of your death, rest in peace, Mr. Lennon. We still can’t thank you enough.

The Best Beach Trip Ever

The family and I just got back from our annual pilgrimage to the ocean.  I’ve been going to North Myrtle Beach on vacation nearly every summer since I was eight years old –  more years than I care to share in a public forum.  This year in a four-bedroom house, oceanfront, we had my dad; me and my Max; my sister, Sarah; her husband, Derek; and their 5-year-old daughter, Katie; my youngest sister, Rachel; and her husband, Tally, all week long.  Then for the juicy center of the week, we had my best friend Petey and her mom, Alice.  My friend Tammy and her family live down there, but we didn’t get a chance to see them this trip.  My aunt and uncle were staying in a condo right down the beach with my cousin’s child and her best friend, a pair of 13-year-old girls having their first Ocean Drive experience – we totally forgive them for not getting in touch; they were busy.  My boss and his family stayed in a house right up the beach from ours the week before we were there.  And when I got back and posted on Facebook where I’d been, I found out that a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, Matt, was there the same time we were at the other end of the Grand Strand – if we’d known, we definitely would have all hooked up.

I suppose the point is, folks in South Carolina love the beach. 

Like I said, I was eight the first time I went.  My immediate family had spent the weekend before the Fourth of July at my mother’s parents’ house in Colonial Heights, Virginia.   My Grandmama and Pawpaw Wylie (my dad’s parents who, incidentally, lived right next door to us) had just started their yearly week at the beach with my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley and their kids, and they suggested that we come down on Sunday, spend the night Sunday night and the day on Monday, then head back to Chester so my parents could be back at work on Tuesday after the holiday.  I was beside myself with excitement.  I had been to the Isle of Palms near Charleston lots of times, but my cousins had assured me that I knew nothing of the ocean, that the Grand Strand was another name for paradise.  For twelve hours as my dad drove steadily southeast, Sarah and I bounced in the back seat, watching the signs for South of the Border go by and planning all the glorious adventures we would have at the beach the next day.  (For my darling kittens who’ve never driven south through North Carolina on I-85, let me explain.  South of the Border in Dillon, SC, is the world’s most elaborate truck stop, complete with amusement park, but I promise you, the billboards beat the destination by a mile.)  We finally got there close to midnight, and the house was literally bursting at the seams – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my Aunt Miriam, who was still just a teen-ager, at least two of Miriam’s friends, and my cousins, Andy and Richard.  The house in question belonged to my Uncle Ainsley’s Aunt Pearlie, a woman I never met in my life and never heard tell of beyond the mention of “Aunt Pearlie’s house at Windy Hill,” and I believe it may have had three bedrooms.  I slept in a reclining lawn chair at the foot of my grandparents’ bed; I have no idea where my parents and sister slept that night.  I know Miriam and her friends all slept on a huge pallet on the living room floor. 

The next morning early while we watched Grandmama make breakfast, Richard and I listed out all the things we needed to get done that day so I would know I’d been to the beach – swimming in the ocean, fishing off the pier, crabbing at Murrell’s Inlet, putt-putt and skee ball at the arcade down the street, ice cream at the Dairy Queen, and a trip to the big Pavilion in Myrtle Beach proper to ride the rides.  Grandmama just listened, but by the time my parents were awake, she had a plan – she told them to leave me with her when they went home, to let me stay the week.  I had never been away from my mama for more than a night or two, but Grandmama and Aunt Sarah promised her that they’d keep a careful watch over me, and I begged shamelessly to stay – I suspect I may have even made an end run around Mama to appeal to Daddy, but I don’t remember.  In any case, we had a much more relaxed day that day than Richard and I had planned, and late that afternoon, my parents and Sarah drove away and left me at the beach. 

For the rest of the week, I revelled in more freedom than I’d ever had in my life.  Grandmama and Aunt Sarah were as good as their word; they took excellent care of me.  But it was a different kind of care.  Grandmama took me to the dime store and bought me a football jersey teeshirt and a pair of cut-off shorts to replace all the cute matching outfits in suitcase that could so easily get ruined, and my Aunt Sarah unbraided only one side of my pigtails every day to brush it out – two was more than she could face in a 24-hour period.  Somebody always knew where I was; somebody always made sure I was fed and washed and went to bed at a reasonable hour.  But for the first time in my life, it was assumed that I could amuse myself.  I was welcome with anybody in the house, even the teen-agers, but nobody made me go much of anywhere or do much of anything but what I felt like doing.

Grandmama was an old school beach bunny – she made breakfast every morning and dinner every night, but the day in between was her own.  She packed a picnic of pimento cheese sandwiches and iced tea in a thermos after breakfast every morning, then hauled it the three blocks to the beach along with an umbrella, a stack of towels, and any of her relatives who cared to tag along, including me.  We spent the entire day at the ocean, and I learned to adore it the same way she did.  I learned to ride my float and to survive when it flipped over and dumped me head first in the waves.  I learned to love homemade pimento cheese.  I learned that the best naps in the world are taken after lunch on an inflatable float under a slightly-damp beach towel under an umbrella.  Most important of all, I learned that my grandmother was the closest kindred spirit I might ever know.  One of my fondest memories is standing in the surf with her, jumping the breakers and laughing like loons.  And even now, whenever I think of her, the first picture that comes to mind has her standing at the edge of the water in her floral print bathing suit with the straps tied together across her back with a shoestring for extra support and her white canvas Keds with holes cut out for her corns.  These days I have her big boobs, and I have her corns, and I promise you, she was magnificent in every way. 

We did go to Murrell’s Inlet, and we ate a cubic ton of soft serve vanilla ice cream, and Richard and I played enough skee ball and putt putt to bankrupt a Third World nation.  On Friday night, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley took us kids into Myrtle Beach proper to the Pavilion, and that was a whole new world of wonderful.  Miriam and Andy and the rest of the teen-age crowd rode all the scary rides, including what surely must have been the creakiest, most terrifying wooden rollercoaster the world has ever known – Richard rode that with them and said it was the best thing ever, but I wouldn’t get on for love or money.  Andy won me a teddy bear at the arcade, shooting a high-powered water gun in a clown’s mouth, sealing his fate as one of my favorite humans ever for all time.  Richard and I played dime arcade baseball and the pinball machines, and he even deigned to ride the carousel with me so I wouldn’t have to ride it alone.  But best of all was the German Baden pipe organ – a massive, surreal thing, all cherubs and Grecian goddesses and little guys in lederhosen that came to life every hour to music that was gorgeous and layered and scary as hell.  I adored it – Aunt Sarah and I agreed it was far and away the best thing at the Pavilion. 

We went home the next day, and my mama barely recognized me.  And I think in a lot of ways, I really was a brand new child – tanned and confident, reeking of sunscreen and ocean water.  I loved being that girl, and I’ve tried to be her again for at least a week every year since.  By the time I was a teen-ager, my dad was out of the Army Reserves and able to take a week’s vacation every summer, and we started renting houses of our own.  My sisters and Petey and I have tracked our path into womanhood by these weeks at the beach – the year we all slept in one bedroom with a creaky AC unit and the world’s noisiest cricket; the first year we went out drinking together on our last Friday night; the boys we met in the arcade. 

Myrtle and North Myrtle Beach have changed a lot over all those years and not, to my mind, for the better.  What used to be a charmingly seedy resort for South Carolina families has grown up to be a sleek, well-programmed, garishly marketed golf and ‘attraction’ playground for rich Yankees.  Ocean Drive, the birthplace of the Shag, is now shadowed by South Beach-style condo towers.  And Dolly Parton has pirates doing battle three shows a night for tourists who need that sort of thing to enjoy overpaying for their dinner – like my daddy says, I just don’t know that I could eat $40 worth of corn on the cob.  There’s an awful lot of Vegas in Myrtle Beach these days. 

But it was the craziest thing.  One cloudy afternoon this past week, we decided to take in one of the most Vegas Yankee ‘attractions’ you can see for free – Broadway at the Beach, a shopping and dining complex with a Hard Rock Cafe and no sign of either the ocean or Broadway in sight.  We bought some overpriced penny candy at a store that made a fetish of gummy bears and walked around in the stifling heat and had just about decided we were done with the whole concept when we rounded a corner and saw it.  The old Pavilion closed down in 2006, but the Broadway at the Beach people saved some of the rides – Katie rode the old carousel last year.  But this year, they’d added something even better.  The old German Baden pipe organ is there, restored to all its creepy glory.  We didn’t get to hear it play this time – I suspect they only crank it up at night.  But I love that they have it there.  I love that Katie got to see it, and next year, we’ll go back at night so she can hear it play, and I bet she’ll love it, too. 

The beach has changed a lot for me in ways a lot more profound than losing the Pavilion.  Standing in the kitchen of the beach house making breakfast last week, I missed my mama so much it hurt.  And I can’t stand in the surf without missing Grandmama Wylie, promising myself that she’s somewhere in the universe doing the same thing and hating that she’s not there doing it with me even so.  But there’s still an awful lot to love.  The old Grand Strand is still there if you look for it.  I got to stayed in a ramshackle duplex on the water with gray cedar shingle siding on the outside and dark pine paneling on the inside with an army of my nearest and dearest around me.  We sunned on the sand surrounded by families just like us.  We ate sandwiches and drank iced tea and went out for ice cream.  My niece had an absolute ball – someday she’ll remember what it was like to wake up to the smell of bacon, tingling with the knowledge of the Atlantic right outside her bedroom window and uncles ready and eager to carry her into the waves.  My dad spent days sunning on the deck overlooking the ocean – I like to think God is kind of like that, having a ball watching us have fun and making sure none of us gets hurt.  My sisters and Petey and I fell back into that same old closeness, talking and laughing and playing contract rummy.  And this year, I had my Max, my husband, and that was it’s own special kind of amazing.  No year at the beach is just like any other, but in its own way, each is the best vacation I ever had.