Guest Essay: The Queen of Mermaid Toenails

We were born two weeks apart, and back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when we were on the cusp of serious womanhood, my cousin Lucia enthralled and enchanted all who met her. Disco was at its height of glitzy popularity and Le Mans on Highway 27, where Pier 1 now stands, provided a backdrop for Lucia’s foray into a sizzling club scene. Le Mans had a giant dance floor and was the place for everyone to see and be seen—those who aspired and those who had already arrived.

Affectionately known as “luscious Lucia,” her piercing cheekbones, jet-black hair and feminine curves spoke of Mediterranean ancestors lolling in lavender fields and scampering on rock-strewn beaches. Her smile seemed bleached by the sun and I remember her saying that “everyone is born with different physical gifts…mine are my teeth.” Like a vestal virgin, Lucia’s earthy yet elegant sensuality graced the entrance of Le Mans for years, and each night her outfits would seem more glamorous than the next. A particular favorite of hers was a clinging white one-shouldered gown, one that a Greek goddess might wear to seduce adolescent mortals. Open-shirted gigolos, teenage day-trippers from Queens and tax-shelter promoters would flirt with her outrageously and vie for a smile or glimmer of recognition. But any dreams of seduction quickly eroded when Lucia’s boyfriend, the main bartender, a Le Mans favorite and part-time lifeguard, flexed his muscles. Blessed with a massive physique and stunning looks, he, too, seemed destined for fame and fortune.

Fast forward a few years and Lucia started managing Barrister’s in Southampton. She rented a house in Sagaponack, graduated from FIT and thrilled her friends with classic recipes with a sophisticated twist. During the late summer harvest, she would stop at the farm stand by the flashing light and bring bagfuls of vine-ripened tomatoes and freshly picked corn to our grandmother. Lucia was named for her, and the year we were born our grandfather built a small seaside bungalow where our large extended family would gather every Sunday to swim, eat macaroni and put on shows to entertain the adults. Summer seemed eternal and we loved collecting the rare iridescent orange and yellow shells that we believed were mermaids’ toenails.

Lucia eventually married an upstate boy and remained forever in love with the East End.

Her wedding was held in Bridgehampton and she wore her mother’s 1950s wedding dress. She wore no makeup other than thick black eyeliner—the guests all gasped at her beauty.

It wasn’t long after the honeymoon that a flaxen-haired baby arrived who loved the ocean like she did. The boy was soon followed by a tiny girl and the family counted its blessings of many friends, family and festivities. She used to invite me to barbecues that she hosted at Flying Point Beach, but I never attended. In raising our children, we lost everyday familiarity but tried to gather for Christmas and holidays. When my family experienced a life-altering financial loss, she was the only friend or relative who took my teenage daughter aside to comfort and to hear the story.

Our grandmother believed in the Maloik, or the “Evil Eye,” and although as young girls we laughed at her old-world superstitions, all legends contain an element of divine truth. Otherwise, the tales would not survive the passage of time. In Lucia’s case, the Maloik swept in soon after her daughter arrived—in the form of an aggressive breast cancer that caught her and didn’t let go.

Four years of chemo, radiation, healing Masses, Reiki massages, prayers and petitions didn’t save Lucia from the Maloik, but Lucia’s lifetime of daily kindnesses enveloped her in a state of grace and softened any hard edges that remained.

Lucia is buried “out east” with a simple stone that betrays her complex life. Her close friends established Lucia’s Angels, a foundation committed to helping women with late-stage cancers. And at Southampton Hospital, they donated funds to create a special patient room in her memory. I believe we will meet again, but in my dreams, we walk on our childhood beach to collect mermaids’ toenails and wood for a 4th of July bonfire while the Sunday sauce continues to simmer.

Lucia calls my name and we embrace like the long lost friends and cousins we once were, back when we were girls.

Ann Mathisen

Ann Mathisen

Ann Mathisen can’t believe her 55th birthday was last month. She lives in Port Washington with three children and has been married to Mark Bevilacque for 28 years. Both fondly recall the “East End” days of youth—long, wine-soaked afternoons catching the rays and short sizzling evenings dancing at the clubs.

“The Queen of Mermaid Toenails” is one of many essays entered in the 2013 Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction competition. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.

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