THE PERNICKETY PENGUIN (A GRANDPA AND TOM BOOK Book 5)

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The full force of the salty air washed my face and, in an instant, I was a young girl again. I was hurrying home to my momma and Livvie, my heart already there. The sweet steam of Livvie's simmering okra soup beckoned in a long finger all the way from the back porch.

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In my mind I heard the voices of my brothers and my sister as we converged on the supper table, all of us bickering in Gullah over the largest piece of cornbread. Livvie ran interference, telling us to hush, warning us that Daddy was coming. It was odd what I remembered about growing up. My first associations were tied into the smells of the marsh and the aromas of the kitchen. Maybe I should have done fragrance research instead of planning literacy programs at the county library, but I was always more inclined toward saving the world.

One thing was for sure, I needed a job that would let me offer my opinions because, according to everybody I knew, that was one area where I excelled. God, not a day passed that I didn't remember her. Here was an old Gullah woman who put her own five children through college working as a housekeeper. Just when she should have been thinking retirement, she took on the notorious clan of Hamilton hardheaded ignoramuses.

She was the captain of our destiny, redirecting our course as often as needed. With every snap of her fingers we woke up to the truths of life and our own potential a little more. It was because of her that we all loved to read. She'd shake her head and lecture. Life's short.

Who was I kidding? It was because of her that we were not all in some treatment program. She'd probably have had plenty to say if she could have seen Beth and me right now, playing instead of working. I'd told my boss I had a doctor's appointment. A tiny lie. But I had an excellent excuse for playing hooky on this particular weekday afternoon.

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Over one hundred degrees every day since last week. We were having a heat wave, Lowcountry style. It felt as if old-fashioned southern cooks were deep-frying us in bubbling oil like a bunch of breaded chickens. One flip of the wrist and the whole of Charleston and its barrier islands sizzled in a cast-iron skillet.

We're talking hot, Bubba. Take it from an old Geechee girl. That would be someone born in the Lowcountry, which extends from the Ogeechee River down in Georgia clear up to Georgetown, South Carolina. I was raised in the downy bosom of the Gullah culture, as opposed to a Charlestonian reared in the strictures of the Episcopal Church.

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Big difference. Gullah culture? Ah, Gullah. It's Lowcountry magic. That's all. I was willingly becoming re-addicted. As we arrived on the Island, I pointed out the signs of summer's early arrival to Beth, my fourteen-year-old certified volcano. There's Mrs. I mean, like, who cares, Mom? She's an old goat! Look at her, poor old thing with that wet rag, trying to cool her neck.

Good Lord. What a life. Dawg life better, iffin you ask me! Beth's Gullah wasn't great, but we were working on it.

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It was a small but important blessing how the Gullah language of my youth had become a communication link to her. A budding teenager was a terrible curse for a single parent, especially given the exotic possibilities of our family's gene pool. But speaking Gullah had become a swift ramp to her soul.

Gullah was the Creole language developed by West Africans when they were brought to the Lowcountry as slaves. While it mostly used English words in our lifetime, it had a structure and cadence all its own and most especially it had many unforgettable idiomatic expressions. It was spoken by Livvie, taught to us, and we passed on the tradition to our own children.


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We used it to speak endearing words to each other, to end a small disagreement or to ignite memories of the tender time we spent with Livvie. When I was Beth's age every kid on the Island spoke Gullah to some extent, at least those lucky enough to have someone like Livvie. I stopped at the corner for some gas at Buddy's Gulf Station, the Island institution renowned for price gouging on everything from gasoline to cigarettes.

We got out of the car, I to perform the elegant task of pumping the gas and Beth to get a cold Coke. A group of old Island salts were ogling the thermometer in front of Buddy's store. One of the old men called out to Buddy.


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  5. If it's this hot in June, what's August gone be like? They sounded the same as Islanders had sounded for generations, same accent, same lilt in their speech. Traces of Gullah phrasing. It was my favorite music. As we drove down the Island I decided to take Atlantic Avenue to check the horizon, watch the shrimp boats and container ships. Today's slow ride did not disappoint us. Boats were everywhere. I pointed them out to Beth. It was the whole world, these container ships, coming and going from our busy port as they had done for centuries.

    She nodded with me in agreement. First, that it was beautiful, second, that we were lucky to be there. Along our drive by the water, we passed ten or so young mothers pulling their offspring home in wagons from the sweltering beaches, hopping from one bare foot to the other on the blistering asphalt roads.

    God, they must be dying! Don't use the Lord's name, unless you're in prayer. It's a hundred years in purgatory. This child got the cream of our genetic smorgasbord. She inherited the Asalit blue eyes, a shade of chestnut hair with more red and wave than mine, my brains and grapefruits bosoms , Maggie's tiny waist and when she finally stops growing she could be five feet, nine inches.

    She was a colt, all legs and a shiny coat, looking for a place to run. She was really beautiful to watch and she worked it too, pulling all her poor momma's chains. I'm dying to go to the beach! It's so hot I could scream!

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    The Island had changed so much from when I was a child, but thankfully all the attempts to make it slick like Hilton Head or Kiawah had failed. Part of me depended on that. If it stayed the same I still owned it, even though my sister, Maggie, got the Island Gamble. Maggie had laid claim to our ancestral home when our mother closed her eyes for the last time. I got the haunted mirror and that seemed like a fair trade to me.

    The rest of us had always known Maggie would walk those floors in adulthood. She would raise her children within the same rooms. Tradition was as much a part of her makeup as rebellion was of ours.

    Digging roots off the Island had been essential to my sanity. I would have tied that house up in a bow and given it to her rather than live there. There were too many ghosts in the paneling, too many tears in the pipes. I had too much energy to stay, and back then I had no desire to reconcile the issues. No, there was no argument from me on who should get the house. I had run an entire seven miles away from home to Charleston.