Directly up the hill from our guest house at Lillie Maho, lived a woman named Ethel McCully. She was a legend in her own mind, someone who acted as if she had been on the island longer than any other white person. This of course was hardly true. She built her home in the early '50s whereas my grandparents had been on St. John since the 1920s. None the less, Ethel made herself out to be quite the character, which wasn't difficult since she'd been an ambulance driver during World War I and was the author of three mystery novels. She was a tiny little old woman, rather wrinkly and wizened, who clung too long to trying to look young. The hibiscus she wore in her wig was an idea she stole from my grandmother. (Grammy's hair was all her own.) Her bright red lipstick tended to bleed around the edges of her lips and her heavily rouged cheeks made her look somewhat clownish.
Photo by Peter Ernst
These eccentricities were not annoying, but her peacocks were. She had anywhere from six to twelve of the birds. Large males, with magnificent tails, strutted around accompanied by an entourage of peahens. She let them wander in and out of her house where they left presents on her tiled floors. But worse, they often flew down the hill and landed our roofs where they pooped and were a general nuisance. And one must remember we collected rainwater off our roofs for drinking, cooking and bathing. Equally, if not more, annoying was the noise they made. Often times in movies that have a tropical setting, or ladies in long dresses are strolling through an English garden, one can hear a peacock yelling in the distant background. I suppose someone thinks it's romantic, shades of India and Rudyard Kipling don't you know. But let me tell you, when they live right next to you, their yelling is anything but romantic. It is a loud, ugly noise that sounds like a woman screaming, "HELP!"
When asked if I can imitate an animal, I say yes, I can scream just like a peacock! (It's true.)
We had a touchy relationship with Ethel. She came down quite often to have cocktails at our open bar and would insinuate herself among our guests, playing the hostess, acting like the queen bee, and generally stomping all over our territory. She was a nosy busybody we put up with and didn't particularly like.
Every Thanksgiving Ethel held a big dinner party to which she invited all the local color. We, of course were never invited. But that didn't bother us because we had guests for whom we put on a big lovely spread.
Then, in 1969 a few days before the Big Day, it rained, and it rained, and it rained some more and we had a flood.
Come back tomorrow for part two!