When their family Gulf Coast vacation home was blown away by Hurricane Carla in 1961, Jennifer Vacca's grandpa had a great solution: He would move one of the buildings from the family business onto the now empty lot and they'd turn it into the new vacation house. And so, the Bayhouse was born. Six decades, multiple generations, and untold numbers of hurricanes later, it's still standing. And it's played a central role in the life of Jenny's family, and in her life in particular. Hear a story about the only funeral home we know of that's in the business of life.
It's summertime, or at least so we're told here in the Pacific Northwest. And that means A) that the living is easy. And B) that it's travel time time for road trips, family vacations, beach days, what have you. Which brings us to today's story from Jennifer Vacca. It's about a very unusual family vacation house and its history, both for a family and for one of its members. Oh, and I have to warn you, it gets a little macabre... Full disclosure, I asked Jenny to tell the story about the Bayhouse, as it's called by those of us who love it, because I'm one of the lucky people who's gotten to stay there over the years. Once you've spent time at the Bayhouse, it really sticks with you, as I think Jenny's story is going to stick with you. So, let's give it a listen.Jennifer Vacca:
My grandmother and grandfather had eight children. So, my mother is the oldest out of the eight, as anybody I'm sure can imagine. You have to have a pretty big house if you have eight kids running around. And they were all very rambunctious, or as we say in Czech, passcudas. So they had a couple of properties actually, that they used for vacations. And one of them was a house that was in Port Alto, Texas, and that is off of Karankawa Bay. I'm fairly certain that the property came to my mom's family in the 50s, maybe mid 50s. And they used that house quite a bit. There was a pier going out into the bay. And then in 1961, the house was completely like just picked clean off of it cinderblocks because of Hurricane Carla.News soundbite:
80% of the city of Port Lavaca has evacuated. The rest remain. In the words of one old timer. We've sweated these out before the old timers have stayed...Jennifer Vacca:
I think it's just part of being in South Texas. Hurricanes are a way of life. They're always out there. Everybody has a stack of plywood in their garage that they're going to use later to board up their windows for the inevitable evacuations. And if you have waterfront property, I'm sure there's a lot of people who just kind of shake their heads and like, "What are you doing? Why? It's not gonna last!" But we've had this waterfront property even before 1961. But, in '61 yeah--it was completely taken off. There was nothing left of the house, I think my grandmother found a cookie sheet. There were maybe a few pier poles left. But again, there was just nothing left of the house. So, not having a house anymore but still owning this land that is right on the Bayfront, my grandfather being the economical man that he was also had a business. So another important thing to know about my mom's family is that the family business is a funeral home. And the main funeral home the Triska Funeral Home that is in El Campo, Texas. But my grandfather's brother had actually started a second location of the business and a small Texas town called Ganado. And since that business wasn't doing as well, they were like, "Hey, let's just move this building and that will be our new vacation house!" And so that's what they did. They took this funeral home and moved it on a flatbed truck probably about 40 miles going down these back Texas roads. And they you know planted a funeral home in front of the bay to be a vacation house. The journey to the Bayhouse is its own little path. You're going down some winding Texas roads and we use landmarks when we've got friends visiting like, "You take a right at the lone palm tree," And, "Then there will be a bend in the road where you'll see the end of a cattle fence. And then it'll dead end into the bay. And you see these, you know, this row of houses, you can either go right or left" And we're actually like, right at the juncture of going left or right. It's a one story house that looks actually pretty small compared to some of the other homes that are there. And you walk up and just like you know, any vacation house, you see the screen door, which we usually leave unlocked. And it's one of my favorite things about going there, because you open the door and you immediately know you'reby the water:
there's a big tub full of water shoes, and bathing suits and floaties. And then hanging from the ceiling. There's these wire crab traps. And those ropes which have the wear and tear that really only water can create--some of them will still have some barnacles on there. The moment that you walk into this place, even with all the updates over the years, it just immediately transports you back to the 60s. We've recently changed a couple of things. But I think in my mind, it'll always be the way that it was when I was a child, you first walk in to the kitchen, and it's always had this linoleum pattern with you know, kind of like these milky squares with brown squares and some like gold glitter shot through. It just looks like vintage. It was not even vintage. It's just it was what it was and it never got changed! When you walk into the house, you know you're seeing this kitchen on the right side. But if you look to the left, a lot of my friends, they first kind of start thinking this is sort of weird because there's a Men's and an a Lady's room. And they're kind of scratching their head a little bit about that. And I'm just like, "No, don't worry about it. You know, come on, let's go pick out your bed." So that's a that's a big rite of passage. As soon as you get it and you gotta go pick out your bed--not bed room--your bed. As you walk through the house, you know, you have this great big table. And then past that is the bedroom. And there's probably like...there's got to be like four or five double beds in there plus six single beds. There's been water beds or been bunk beds, there's a lot of beds in there. And it's very important, like you've got to pick the right bed. You don't want to pick one of the beds where they used to put the coffins. When you walk into the room, I mean, it's a square. It's like you know any other room, it's got a lot of windows. But you know, one of the features, if you look to one side is there's kind of this in indentation or an alcove. And you know, and it looks like something should be presented there. And people are always drawn to it because it's pretty, you know, it's like this nice wooden trim. And they're like, "I want this bed." And I'm always like, "Okay, but I just want you to know, you know, full disclosure, when this was a funeral home, this would be where they actually held the services. And that's where the coffin would be laid out, you know, with all the flowers and then back here is where your guests would sit and way back here. This is where the organ would be..." I once had a friend come and I guess he didn't realize the history of the house. I mean, I don't feel like I have to warn everybody about it, but he ended up sleeping in his car for the night! He was just a very uncomfortable about being in an old funeral home. So you know, I always kind of felt like the superstition for these visitors was a little overblown, but I get it. Because there's not really anything scary about the house. It's a very warm and inviting house. The color scheme in most places is yellow. It's very sunny. But I guess if there could be one place that does genuinely scare people and look scary, that would be our concrete shower that does not have a light. And you kind of have to take like two or three steps down into this area. It's also where the water heater is. And it's big. I reassure any visitors that the shower has nothing to do with when it was a funeral home. It was actually added on because the house continues to expand the longer it's there. So that part was built on. There were no bodies that were ever washed in the shower area or stored there. That actually all happened in the area that is now the kitchen. To me, this physical place has been my only constant home. I've moved around. And about four years ago, I lost my home to Hurricane Harvey. Now, as my family is beginning to pass away, you know, so do those places, they're not accessible for me anymore. But this house is still here. I'm 42 years old, and it's always been in my life. It predates me by, you know, many years. And it's also survived, you know, so many hurricanes--like that thing should have blown over so many times by now! And I probably shouldn't say that. But you know, it's still it's standing strong. And when I was a kid that, you know, it definitely was, it was all about family. I remember being itty bitty and all of my aunts and uncles and my grandparents being there. And it was always this like, huge bustle, lots of lively chatter, there was definitely more of a focus on fishing and cooking and cleaning and staying up late putting puzzles together. There were always a handful of beers open, and there were margarita machines. But we would also take all the lawn chairs out at night. There would be like, 12, 15 people out on the lawn we'd be looking up. And you know, one of my uncles, he used to always take me out on the catamaran. And we would go to look for dolphins. Same thing if we went out on the motorboat. So it was just this really magical place. As I got older, and to adolescence, I think it kind of became like the big kid clubhouse, or summer camp, more and more of my friends would come out there. And it's now it means something to them, too. Now it's part of their story, in addition to my family. And there've even been crossover trips where I've come and cousins have been there and all of our friends meet. And it's just it's one of those places where it invites you to be with other people. It wants you to be very present in this house. And to be looking out the window waiting for sunsets and sunrises and meteor showers, to sit out on the porch and wait to see that little dolphin fin crest the brown green water. It's just a really lovely place. As a writer, I've tried to really capture that landscape. It's impossible to do that. The best way that I could even begin to express what it means to me is that it really is just this house of light that possesses the darkness I think all of us fear, which is death. And that has come very close to me, related to the house, just in that I found out that my grandfather passed away when I was there. And one of my best friends was killed on the way leaving that house. In fact, today is the 15 year anniversary of her passing and that accident. So there there are some very bleak things that are connected to it. But I don't think you have a full life without really embracing that side of it. So the fact that it is this funeral home, turned vacation home turned clubhouse turned adult summer camp is kind of glorious. You could almost think about it as a life in reverse. You know, it begins with death. And now it's constantly growing. And I hope that it continues to grow. I hope it outlives me and my family if that's possible. Because hurricanes do come and they do threaten and we've lost our pier probably like six times. There have been tornadoes that have taken house that was two down. My favorite time of year to go there is actually not when everybody else likes to go there. So most people's favorite time to go there is the summer but my favorite time to drive down to that part of Texas in general usually starts in March and then throughout May you see these beautiful wildflowers come up like in this just really rugged...some people might call it ugly. It's a little barren, just these large stretches of prairie it's completely flat. Your view is you know some barbed wire and an overgrown field. Maybe you'll get a cow. But you do get these great big skies. And then during that time of year, the weeds turn green. And then you get these like Bluebonnets and Paintbrushes. And plus the weather's better. And even though over time the house now we have air conditioners in it, I still prefer to go there and have all of the windows open. And so you feel like this wind constantly rolling in. And I guess I also have a really hard time sleeping there because I feel like if that wind is running, then the world is awake, and I kind of want to be awake with it. At night is my one of my favorite times there for sure. That's when all of the stars come out. And you can actually see them out there. And I know everybody's inside tucked in. And I can just be awake like at three o'clock in the morning. And I don't know...it's a little moment that makes me feel really big.Dacia Clay:
You know how Jenny mentioned that people are drawn to the bed in the alcove where the bodies used to be displayed? Yeah, I was one of those people. And as I recall, despite my genuine freaked-out-ness, I stuck with my choice, at least for part of the night. But now that I've heard her story, I'm not so sure I'm ever going to use that kitchen again... Many thanks to Jenny for telling her story. Jennifer Vacca, by the way, is an English professor and program director at Houston Community College, and she's one of my favorite writers. Make sure to check out an awesome photo album of the bay house over at tinyhistoriespodcast.com.