Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

She can’t remember the last time they met, though it was only three years ago this third of July, a hot, moonless summer night, when she’d spent the final moments holding his hand, alternately speaking to him in hushed tones and singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” ever so softly into his ear, her cheek meeting his where it lay on the stiff hospital pillow.

She can tell you how they met, in vivid technicolor detail; about the pouring rain that day some seventy years ago when her big brother brought him to the house, a drowned rat by all appearances. But even so, she couldn’t take her eyes off of his; they way they twinkled and danced! Just one look, and before she knew it she was following him down the yellow brick road of his dreams, into happily ever after.

She can’t remember the name of the nice lady who fed her lunch yesterday and breakfast this morning; the one who cajoles her into taking “just one more bite”; the one who brings the styrofoam cup of too sweet lemonade to her lips to wash it down; the one who is a mere child herself, but inevitably crows about what a “good girl” she’s been to eat so much of the tepid, pureed gruel that passes for a meal these days.

She will ask you, though, about your babies, and even about Ms. Stinky-son, her great grandson’s not-so-favorite kindergarten teacher. Did “that woman” ever give him back his truck? she’ll ask, recalling an incident long forgotten by the parties involved, a glint in her voice as she stands ready to defend the shaggy haired five year-old with the tear stained face of a decade or more ago, standing in living color before her mind’s eye, in its own twisted version of the here and now.

She can’t remember why she doesn’t see you everyday, or, perhaps more aptly put, that she doesn’t. Where has everybody gone? Why is she in this awful god forsaken place? She hates it here, she says, without saying a word, but still, you can read the indictment on her face. She wants to go home. Can’t you take her there? Sit on the big flagstone back porch and gaze across the river, have a glass of tea and talk about remember when? The pleading that goes unsaid is enough to break a soul in two, jagged edges still piercing and pinching long after the visit is over.

She won’t remember that you’ve been here, almost as quickly as you go. Tomorrow, today will be just yesterday, those short term memories the first attacked by the cruel, unforgiving scourge that wipes the surface of her mind clean each night.

But you’ll remember.

“I have to go, Grandma. I’ll be back soon.”

Her face turns, seeking yours.

“I love you,” you say, nearly choking on the swirl of emotion you feel welling up from the depths of your suddenly fragile heart.

Her cloudy eyes find yours, and lock there in a long, present moment.

“I love you, sweetie,” she states with all the authority of the grandmother you’ve always known. “And don’t you ever forget it.”

Jennifer Waggener says, “I discovered the world of blogging in February of 2004 and have been addicted ever since. I’ve met the most amazing people through this little hobby of mine. The entire journey has proven more rewarding, more time consuming, more thought provoking, more immensely pleasurable than I ever dreamed it would.”

Fade to Black first appeared on Jennifer’s blog on June 27, 2006. 

Image creditCover art from Twelve Below Zeroby Anthony Bukoski. Painting by Gaylord Schanilec.

Memory and Loss: A New Kind of Essay

At the end of September I celebrated the Alzheimer’s Day of Action by pledging to use memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease to guide the 2013 Essays on Childhood project. You can read some of the ideas I had on this post, “How Esse Diem Purples.”

Within an hour of posting my musings, I had three complete essays from writers for the project.

These essays are not drafts, or ideas for essays; they arrived in my in-box as fully formed works. Each them moved me to tears, and continue to do so on every subsequent reading. At first I was concerned that I can’t use them in the Essays on Childhood project because they break a defining rule of EOC: All essays must be written about experiences before age 18. The essays I received are written about adult experiences, but with an interesting twist. The writing illuminates the unique pain an adult feels when caring for an older relative whose mental capacity is ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. The unnatural degree to which the adult caregiver much switch roles with a parent or grandparent is striking. I feel as if I’ve seen something intimate and private that maybe I did not have the right to see.

And yet . . .

And yet, these writers ask us to see it. They need us to see it. Their words reflect that people they love are slowly slipping away. These are parents and grandparents to whom a debt of gratitude can never be repaid, but the desire to repay it increases exponentially as the writers witness their loved ones’ suffering. A grieving process begins before death, and one senses that even death cannot close the wounds from this kind of protracted loss.

These essays are challenging because they ask us to share something we may not want to share. In the end, I believe what they really do is give us an opportunity as members of the human family to open our hearts and minds to one another. We have a chance to better understand how families everywhere are facing a complicated situation with no easy answers.

This week, my posts will feature the follow writers:

Tuesday: Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

Wednesday: The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

Thursday: Committed to Memory by Katy Brown

I hope you will read and share these stories, and perhaps consider writing your own essay. I have created a special essay category called Essays on Memory and Loss, and ideally a collection of these kinds of stories will become valuable education and advocacy tools for organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association.

Thank you!

Image credit: The Epoch Times

In a Man’s Voice: Life and Love, the Inseparable by Robert S. Boone

Rob Boone

After a stint in the Navy, Rob began a nearly decade-long career in sales. Since relocating to St. Albans, West Virginia, from Tampa, he’s turned his sights to more creative pursuits: writing, acting, and designing.

When he’s not doting on his seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, he spends his time reading, writing, learning, and generally questioning the norms of the world at large. You can find him at RBoone.com.

Blogger’s note: This essay deals with first love, but it is not that simple. It takes you on a journey over many years, and asks you to live and then relive with the writer one of the most agonizing events and its aftermath that a young life can know. I believe this essay allows a unique view into the way young men can internalize their emotional world to such an extent that it causes them harm. I am awed by Rob’s courage, both in sharing this story and in the way he lives his life today. I am reminded that we so rarely get a glimpse into the private pain and triumphs of our fellow human beings…thank you, Rob, for sharing yourself with us.

Life and Love, the Inseparable | by Robert S. Boone

What follows is a story as yet untold to the blank page, and yet in the narrative of my life, is perhaps the only story deserving of being penned.

I was twelve when I first met her, standing on my front porch with Justin, debating a potential trade between Andre Dawson and Ken Griffey baseball cards.

Engrossed as we were in the possible trade, we didn’t hear the two girls walking towards us on the pavement, finishing a walk around the neighborhood block. When I looked up, I saw an amber-haired girl of about my age with a mischievous smile ask Justin if he wanted to climb trees later that day. He confirmed as I stood, mute. Soon they walked around the corner and disappeared. I asked Justin the name of the tall girl, and Justin replied, “Jess.” I kept repeating it. It rolled off of my tongue.

I spent much of the rest of that day in anticipation of seeing her again. Annoyed by my constant questions about her, Justin finally packed up his baseball card collection and led me to Nikki’s house.

There was a lone tree in her backyard, majestic if a bit weary, and a group of five bright-eyed conquerors  would spend the next five summers abusing its branches in our race to the top. The finishing order was always the same: Nikki at the bottom, egging us on, Jess midway up the tree, Justin a smidge above her, Heather weaving her way from top to bottom and back, unable to maintain one position- and I perched on the top, heaving back and forth with all my might, begging the tree sway to my command, a combination of childish exhilaration and the adolescent urge to impress the girls.

Inside of me, something was happening, the significance of which no twelve-year-old boy will ever understand. I wanted to be around her, to be with her. That much I knew. I didn’t realize until much later that I was falling in love.

This love overtook me. At first, I resisted a bit, eventually succumbing completely on a cool spring day. I led her on a walk to the Front Street bridge, just a mile or so from home. We talked, though all the while I was desperately trying to summon the courage to kiss her. After what seemed like hundreds of attempts, I finally concocted a plan.

“I have to tell you something.”

“Okay. What?”

“It’s a secret…”

She shot me a puzzled look, and I told her to lean closer, as if, though no one was around, secrets cannot be uttered unless whispered in close quarters. When she leaned in, I raised my hand to her cheek, slowly tilted her head towards mine, and I kissed her. I believe to this day that, for just a few moments, the world actually revolved around us. Taking its cue from my heart, time stood still, until she pulled her lips slowly away from mine, and she smiled.

“I’ve been waiting for that all day.”

From that kiss, as I was hers, she was mine.

I realized then that I knew nothing of happiness before I saw the smile on the face of my Jessica Rose. The winds shifted a bit when she smiled, giving the world a moment to catch its breath.

Years later, on a blistering Valentine’s Day, just a few months after she had moved out of the neighborhood to Belpre, I looked outside my window and cursed. A blizzard was overpowering the town, and I had yet to see my beloved. I hopped on my bike and weathered the storm, arriving at her doorstep some fifteen miles later, with no feeling left in my fingers or toes. I knocked on her door with a single rose between my teeth, again cursing the cold that made my teeth chatter so hard I thought I might bite through the stem. I sat on her doorstep for thirty minutes, laughing, talking, and loving. Then I straddled my bike and set off for home.

She died the following winter. On November 9, 1997, she ran a red light, and was broadsided by a semi truck. She was killed instantly, as was one of her passengers, while another girl, a mutual friend, was badly injured.

Nikki called me that Sunday morning. Still asleep, I felt a slight alarm at Nikki’s sobbing, but was too groggy to attach any significance to it. She told me that Jess had been in an accident. My neck stiffened a bit as I sat up on the edge of the bed. Still, nothing registered. So she had been in a wreck? So what? This was Jess, after all. The idea of her being so much as injured was beyond my comprehension. I waited somewhat impatiently for the rest of the story, going over in my mind the idea of calling Jess soon to make sure she was okay.

And so I was unprepared when Nikki’s words came through the receiver:

“Robby… she’s dead.”

I don’t know what I felt in those first few seconds. Perhaps it was numbness. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely that I felt every emotion that had ever manifest itself coursing through me, until I couldn’t stand the weight of it, and I put my hand through the nearest wall in an attempt to somehow give the terror a chance to escape into the recesses of that wall. I dropped to my knees,  and I sobbed (much as I’m doing now).

An hour later, still sobbing uncontrollably, we were in the hospital lobby with Jess’s parents, who gave the doctor permission to ask me if I wanted to see the body. They never doubted what Jess and I had shared, and they knew, somehow, that I needed to see her. I nodded. When they pulled her from the freezer, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her mouth. That very mouth that had breathed life into me so many years before was frozen in a look of horror, agape and stiff. That image is still very fresh in my mind.

That was my junior year in high school. If I ever so much as picked up a pencil for the next two years, I have no recollection of it. I was made to see a psychiatrist, who put me on anti-depressants which I pretended to take. Friends and family worried about me constantly, and had every right and reason to do so. My world had been shattered, and I saw no reason to participate in what was left of humanity, for she was the only member of it who had mattered. She had been my life, my love, my Rose.

I mourned with reckless abandon, as if grief were my only skill. If I loved her as much as I claimed, then I must grieve with the same intensity. To do otherwise was to tarnish not only her memory, but our love itself. I must not succeed in anything, for to succeed would be an admission that life could go on without her. I must not experience joy, much for the same reasons.

I adhered to this philosophy for longer than I thought possible. I did not succeed in anything. I did not experience joy. Indeed, I took a certain pleasure in my misery.

See, Jess?

Do you see how much I love you?

I am not willing to participate in life without you.

Aren’t you proud?

See how faithfully I am honoring your memory?

My negligence bore many side effects: wrecked relationships, strained ties with family and friends, and a descent into severe, and frequent, binge drinking to numb the pain. For years, I sabotaged every chance I was given at happiness.

Then I realized what a schmuck I’d been.

She wouldn’t be proud of me. She wouldn’t even recognize me. In fact, I no longer recognized me.

As I write this, I search for a moment- a singular place in time in which this epiphany struck, an external circumstance that would serve as a metaphor for the awakening. There is no such moment, however. The truth is much simpler: it was a choice. All that had been raging inside me dimmed to a dull flame, finally allowing for new growth, and the change had occurred, not through the influence of the world around me, but despite of it. I recall stumbling upon a quote from Carl Sagan:

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

The universe was not standing still because I had lost my love; in fact, it did not care at all. Incredibly vast as it was, and the lives of two such tiny creatures so insignificant, the universe was completely indifferent. How amazing, then, was the fact that I had known her at all? If we are but a speck of dust in an inconceivable existence, how spectacular that she had walked by my house that fateful day and invited me to climb trees with her? I had known a love that most desperately seek their entire lives, and the odds against that happening were, quite literally, immeasurable. If rarity begets value, I had stumbled upon the most valuable piece of knowledge in existence, and that value resided inside of me, by way of her mere existence.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. There are days, less frequent now, that still terrify me, because those are the days when I cannot for the life of me conjure the contours of her face. She sometimes appears as nothing more than a blur when I close my eyes. I carry her with me everywhere- to the grocery store, on my morning walk. Her memory is now a source of infinite wonder and joy, and those sentiments serve her memory much more faithfully than sorrow and misery ever could. As with any struggle, any misstep, any divergent road, the change came from within, because only by living is life truly honored.

Robby and Jess

My childhood began as if on a hot-air balloon ride, and Jess was the flame that thrust me into the clouds. The view from on high was magnificent, and the world looked as it does from dizzying  heights: sparkling, orderly, a perfect grid. That fateful November day, my flame died, and I watched my childhood come crashing back down to earth at a paralyzing speed, thrusting me into the mud and the muck so long forgotten. It was years before I had the courage to lift my head and look at the messy, chaotic world around me.

Once I lifted my gaze and began the slow walk back to reality, though,  I realized that the love that we shared was still with me, and I walked (and still do) with the purpose of a man who has known the strength of love.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

The Simons House (part 3) by Margaret Ward McClain

This is a story about a house.

Today, my walk in meditation begins as it did then, and I am as physically present in mind now as I was then in body.  I take a deep breath, then up the concrete step to the heavy wooden front door.  The door swings open to the ground level, a cinder-block and concrete first floor that anchors the wooden structure of the main house upstairs.  The air is still, slightly musty, cooling without the chill of air conditioning.  I start down the narrow hallway, past the laundry, past the dormitory-style ladies’ and men’s shower and dressing rooms.    A green beaded curtain separates the main living space from an extra fridge, a rusty freezer and piles of fishing equipment and hardware.  I pause to run my fingers across the smooth wooden beads, smiling at the click and shimmer of the absurdly avocado green strands.  Décor is a jumble of vintage yard-sale furniture and a cheery green-and-orange color scheme, best of the 1960’s floor-to-ceiling.   I move on past the brown-and-gold plaid polyester couch to the twin-bedded downstairs rooms:  sky-blue for my parents, orange for me and whichever itinerant family member would occupy the other twin bed.  Slightly curling posters and paint-by- number portraits of horses and ships line the walls.  A box fan sits in the window, turned backwards to pull the hot air out.  I turn the knob and a cross-breeze fills the room.   I sit for a moment on the narrow bed against the wall, drinking in the scent of salt, scrub pine and bay.

I would linger here, lay my cheek on the cool cotton sheets, drift off to sleep to the hum of the box fan and the murmuring ocean, but I have another place to go.

In the middle of the downstairs space sits the staircase.  The narrow wooden stairs are almost a tunnel, rising steeply and emerging abruptly from the floor on the second story into the main house.  My feet fall into the grooves worn on the stair treads by decades of flip-flops and sand.  Upstairs is a different world, all dark wood with bright borders of porches and windows.  To my left, three small bedrooms with creamy floor-to-ceiling bead board line up like soldiers, doors opening to the shotgun passage from front porch to back.  To my right is the small kitchen with its cracked linoleum floor and rickety butcher-block prep table.  Leaving the kitchen behind I turn for the open passage leading past the bedrooms to the great room and front porch.  The first bedroom has bunk beds (bunk beds!)  for the children, first me and my sister, later my younger cousins.  The middle bedroom, a room just large enough for the double wrought-iron bed, sheltered my aunt and uncle and let them keep an ear out for the children.  The front bedroom, for my grandparents, has twin beds and a window-unit air conditioner, then the only air conditioning in the house.

On my way down the passage I am caught, as I always have been, mid-stride, captivated.  A tall oak curio cabinet stands against the wall, honey-colored wood intricately carved, glass-front doors revealing shelves piled with a wonderment of shells.  There is a collection of hundreds, some carefully labeled with a Latin name on a tiny strip of paper, others stacked to overlapping.   Conch shells, purple striped urchins, varicolored mussel shells spread like wings.  Some are familiar, like an entire shelf of pale lettered olives, the South Carolina state shell, sometimes found on the island by the sharp-eyed and lucky.  Others are messengers from exotic shores:  giant conchs with porcelain-smooth pink centers, a curving cream-and brown nautilus, and tiny wentels spiked and whorled.   My mind is pulled past my horizon to another shore, where the life of these creatures begins, the thousands of watery miles of life and death between, the wave that carries them, the hand that carries them here.

I could spend hours here, gazing, but I move on.

Beyond the curio cabinet the passageway opens onto the great room, connected to the front porch by a door and a wall of double-hung windows.   It is paneled floor-to-ceiling with dark cypress furnished with white wicker, a Morris chair, and a lobster trap with a glass top serving as a coffee table.  I move to the center of the room, letting my glance drift across the walls decorated with netting spangled with shells,  yellowing Audubon prints of brown pheasant, a rowing oar above the passage to the upstairs bath and kitchen.  I step through the small doorway and let my fingers brush the knob to the pantry door, but I do not open it. Across the narrow passage is the upstairs bath, a small space filled with a pull-chain toilet and massive claw-foot tub perched on the bead-board on elaborate feet, enameled a spectacular shade of orange.

The passageway ends in the small narrow kitchen, connecting to the back porch with a door and a double hung window behind the stove.  Passing through the kitchen I end where I began, at the staircase.   Doors and windows honeycomb the upstairs.  Solid wooden three-paneled doors with round glass knobs connect each room with at least two others, windows open to the exterior, doors and interior windows open to the porches.  With doors and windows open, the lightest breeze has run of the house, ruffling bed sheets, stirring the sea-oats plucked and propped in containers for decoration, flipping cards on the table, sending paper napkins fluttering.  Closed up the house is a hollow tree, dark wood enclosing sturdy wooden doors and shuttered windows batten down to keep out the tropical weather.  In summer we lived with doors and windows flung wide, open to the light, open to catch the cooling breeze off the ocean, open to the beautiful sight of a distant storm.

I return through the upstairs the way I came, through the great room to the front porch.  I step through the door into bright space, gray painted wood under my feet, sky-blue bead board above, ahead a lattice of white-painted wood and screen and beyond it the ocean.  The hammock hangs at the far end, a white curve of rope and wood against the gray, the rope’s open weave casting a patterned shadow on the floor.  A small green lizard napping underneath startles and skitters off to a shady corner.   Inhaling deeply, I smell salt and the ozone coming off the water, wax myrtle and bay and sand baking in the sun.  Sheltered for a moment under the crooked eave of the porch, I allow myself to think of my son.  Already half-grown, his long-limbed body would span the length of the hammock on this porch he has never seen.  He won’t know this house.  The voices that flowed through me many long evenings on this porch are as still as the summer night.

The losses began one by one, far from here, and rolled on unrelenting for year after year.

Now dates file in like headlines:   1989:  My parents’ fragile marriage finally crumbles.  1993:  my aunt dies of colon cancer at the age of 44, leaving my uncle widowed, my two cousins motherless.  1998:  my grandfather dies a painful death from bone cancer; two weeks later, my grandmother suffers a stroke that takes her movement and her voice but does not kill her until two years later, 2000.  2003:  my own marriage does not survive.  2005:  retired five years and remarried for only four, my uncle dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, and my cousins are orphaned.  My mother and her sister have lost their nuclear family, alone but for my sister and me and my cousins, now two young ladies they have pledged to love.

The Clan is much diminished, and we who are left will never be the same.

Many families have the same story.  For us somehow it should have been different, because of the Simons House.  The house remains, unchanged, a physical place of us, where we were and became.   It should have done as it always did:  stopped the world beyond, shielded us, sheltered us together .  Today, when I walk through the house in meditation, I am alone.  What story will I tell my son?  That the price of love is grief and loss?  That lesson will come unbidden soon enough.  That precious memories of time spent with loved ones can fill a hole in your soul?

No, my darling, they cannot.

I breathe in deeply again, place my hand on the screen door, and push it open.  In a step I am outside on the deck above the trees, facing the ocean.  The door bangs closed behind me.  I lean against the deck railing and see the view as it was:  no new road, no row of million-dollar mansions between the old house and the ocean.  Just bare dunes crested with sea oats, blooming with mallow and lantana; a wide swath of creamy sand beach curving to the inlet; huge vertical towers of white cumulus clouds over a slate-gray ocean;  low tide, a few whitecaps barely breaking, flat and calm to the horizon.    A splinter from the wood rail bites my palm.  Through layers of past, present and future, the tactile presence of living in this place urges me on.

There isn’t time; I have another place to be.

Maybe it is another beach house, on another island.  Maybe it is a house on a lake, cool and green and blooming with flowers in the summer heat.   Maybe it is a log cabin above the river, the slow-flowing water the very color of my son’s hazel eyes.   There is a house where there is a family, where my boy is a child for a  moment.   I must be present.   I must make sure:  when he is grown and lies awake at night, when the price of love is paid in grief, there will be a door for him to step through, a place he can enter body and soul, and breathe.

(This is the conclusion of The Simons House.  Thank you for reading!  Previous posts represent parts 1 and 2. Click here to read about Margaret.)

The Simons House (part 2) by Margaret Ward McClain

In my early childhood my parents moved us from Charleston four hours away to Greenville, red-dirt capital of the Upcountry, for my father’s job.  To the broader family it was an eighteen-year exile.   I presumptuously think this was a late passage into adulthood for my mother, the pain of moving away from her parents like losing a limb.  She had five-year-old me and my infant sister in a new town.  My father was unpredictable, volatile; one moment a kind and tender husband and father, the next moment angry and vicious.  In the early 1970’s, alcoholism wasn’t an illness, mental illness didn’t happen to ordinary people, and nobody talked about any of it.  This isn’t that story, but it would be less-than-honest to leave it out of this one.  It is a truth infused into every element of my childhood.  We were a family,  not of gods and children, but of human beings.

The truth, for better or worse, made love for us more fragile, and more precious.

Relentlessly optimistic and gracious, my mother made it all look beautiful.  Providently her brother and his wife moved near us, and for a time we all bore our exile from the Lowcountry together.  Going to the Simons House was our homecoming, each of us taking our place in the life we coulda-shoulda-woulda had.  Charleston in the 1970’s still suffered the ravages of Reconstruction.   Industry never took hold and many South-of Broad mansions were all collapsed verandas and peeling paint.  Downtown streets now packed with chic boutiques were rows of boarded-up storefronts and broken windows.  One hundred years stopped the city still.  It rotted inside from the generational poverty, crime and violence that were the legacies of racism.   The grand old city and its inhabitants were ‘too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash,’ and many middle-class families like mine had little choice but to move elsewhere.

The caravan was on its way.  We traveled in a convoy with my uncle, aunt, and cousins, their car similarly piled high with provisions.  “Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine”   and the miracle of CB radio connected us like an invisible string down the highway.  Mounted under the dashboard, it crackled and squawked for the four-hour journey, allegedly to keep Dad from getting a ticket.  It didn’t work.  More than once we saw the bubblegum popping in the rear-view mirror then heard my dad curse and pull over.  Conveniently he could pay the ticket, in cash, to the trooper right there on the road.  Mostly my dad and uncle played walkie-talkie going down the road:  “Breaker-one-nine, this is the Witch Doctor, copy?”  “Go ahead, Witch Doctor.”

Constant communication was necessary.  Inevitably a beach towel started flapping, a cooler threatened to jump ship, or heaven forbid, the trailer blew a tire.   My sister and I were perched as lookout in the back seat, trained to alert my parents at the first sign of a flapping rope or a fishtailing trailer.  We had about a fifty-fifty chance of making it all the way without shimmying to a swerving, swaying halt along the shoulder of the interstate.  Serious cussing and fussing ensued.  Dad would strip off his shirt and bang away at the trailer, frying himself to a crisp in the heat rolling up off the asphalt.  My mother would roll down the car windows as the heat built up, the dog panting between my sister and me as we started to sweat and stick to the vinyl seats.   After an hour or so of sweating and cursing and a medicinal beer or two, Dad would have the trailer back in commission and with a, “We got the hammer down to Charlie-town!”  we’d  be rolling down the road.

After hours cramped in the wagon, broken up by a Coca-Cola and bathroom break, we’d finally roll in to the Holy City.  Heavy, sulfur-laden air rolling in from the paper mills west of the Ashley River proclaimed our arrival.  Even asleep we couldn’t miss it.  Dad would roll the windows down and announce, “Ahh, the smell of North Charleston!” as my sister and I squealed and covered our noses.   Over the next hour we’d roll across the lattice of bridges criss-crossing the city, the scent gradually fading from paper mill to the salt exhalation of the marsh.  As we crossed the causeway to the islands, lined on either side by rows of full-blooming oleanders and a vast expanse of salt-marsh, I’d imagine the road knitting itself closed behind us, shrinking the world to a speck.  The island spread out before, a narrow road suspending us between the sloe-brown waterway and the silver whitecaps of the inlet.  We drove over the Breach Inlet bridge, past the Grim Reaper sign warning of deadly currents in the waters deceptively calm at the crescent of beach.  We madea right turn into a green tunnel of maritime scrub, and finally a break in the brush and the leaning wire fence marked the sandy yard.   The car rolled to a stop.  In a second of stillness before the explosion of arrival, the sweet smell of the sun on a giant bay tree suffused the air.   The big gray barn of a house hunched behind the bay tree, half obscured from the street, sloped roof tucking back into the brush.

We were home.

Moving-in day was controlled pandemonium.  Children and dogs tumbled from the hot cars and scrabbled out of the way as the men maneuvered cars and boats in the tight postage-stamp of yard.  My grandmother’s bum hip and seniority earned my grandparents the coveted single parking spot under the carport for their pea-green government-issue  K-car.  “Here we are!”  she’d sing out in a musical tone reserved for us children, and Christmas.  She’d open the passenger door and swing her legs out, giving us a glimpse of hot-pink toenail polish and white Bermuda shorts.  My grandmother rarely wore trousers and never, ever wore shorts, except at the beach.  At the beach her once-glorious gams were liberated, long dancer’s legs displayed between white bermudas and bright sandals with giant flowers on the toe.  Her banjee shoes, she called them, a Gullah word for ‘ridiculous’.  It fit.  My grandfather would emerge from the driver’s side in similarly natty attire:  madras Bermuda shorts, embroidered guayabera,  and a broad-rimmed Panama hat straight from Panama.  “Hi, babe!”  he’d wave to me and call out as my sister and I sprinted across the yard.  Then he’d turn and offer his arm to my grandmother.  She pushed and pulled her way out of the car, exclaiming “Oh, Lord, it’s hot as the hinges ofhades!”  Thus began her two-week verbal assault on the heat.  If creative cursing made it cooler, she’d have been in the Arctic year-round.  We children were well-trained.  First item of business:  find her fan.  After mobbing my grandparents with hugs, we took fan, suitcases and laundry baskets of linens from the back seat and headed for the door.  The joyous bucket brigade of moving-in had begun.

We invaded the house like the Viking horde.  The cars and boats disgorged their load armful by armful.  We children ran up and down the stairs and in and out of each room, making sure that the previous year had not altered a thing and each stick of furniture and knickknack was intact.  We offered loud reports of anything new:  “Mama!  They got an os-illating fan!!”  Fortunately, the Simons’ didn’t believe in change.  Every year, every plastic lobster, every collection of seashells, every deck of cards remained in its proper place, having somehow survived our summer conquest.   The house fit us all like a favorite pair of jeans, broken-in just right.  Within the hour we had each found our proper places.  My grandmother perched on the vanity stool in front of the window air conditioner in her room, fanning and praising the Lord in relief.  Later she would line the vanity with little containers of poudre , umpteen lipsticks in reds and corals, and her glass bottle of Shalimar.  My mother and aunt fluttered from room to room with thrilling efficiency, first filling the refrigerator and pantry, then unpacking sheets and making beds.  The men unloaded the fishing gear, shrimp nets, rafts, bicycles and beer, clanking around loudly downstairs until the work upstairs was done.  We children ‘helped’ first one and then another, running out onto the porch, up and down the stairs, into the yard, tracking in sand and pestering people.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable delay,  my uncle would yell, “Let’s go beach!!”  He’d already be halfway down the narrow path between the dunes to the ocean, towel flung over his shoulder.  Bathing suits?  We’d had those on since six o’clock that morning.  Hot, sweaty, sticky children bolted through the house, out the screened door of the front porch, down the concrete stairs and took off after him across the dunes.   Older than the rest, I tried to maintain a pretense of dignity and walk until I could claim hot sand burning my feet.  Ignoring the prick of a sand spur or sharp shell, I’d run to the first lap of foam on the sand, plow into the surf up to my knees, and fling myself headfirst under the waves.  Blissful shock of cold, then dark, then down and down to rush upward again, break the surface and breathe deep. With the taste of the salt and water streaming down my face I emerged, fully awake and new.

In the evening, after supper had been prepared in the tiny kitchen, eaten on the back porch at the long wooden table, and cleaned up after, the family repaired to the front porch.  Each found an accustomed spot on the mishmash of furniture, claiming a front-row seat for the evening’s entertainment:   a cooling breeze scented by wax myrtle and bay, light deepening  from gray to darkest blue at nightfall, appearing pinpoints of buoy lights marking the harbor channel,  blinking specks from ships at anchor miles out to sea.  My spot was the hammock strung at one far end of the porch.  I sat curled around my books there, reading until darkness obliterated the words on the page.   Then I just lay low, hoping to escape discovery and bedtime for as long as possible.  I sat quiet and still, listening as the adults talked and laughed into the night.  The rhythm of their voices rose and fell in waves, laughter and joking, impassioned discussion of politics, funny  and tragic stories that wove together into history and identity, into us.  Gazing out at the ships’ lights in the darkness, I listened until the words disappeared and only sound remained in the rising fog of sleep.  Later, carried to bed and feeling the cool of the sheets on my skin, I would rouse enough to feel a current of joy.

Tomorrow I would still be here.  I would wake in the morning and be home.

(Click here to read Part 1 of this essay. Click here to read about Margaret.  The Simons House concludes, next post.)

The Simons House (part 1) by Margaret Ward McClain

I still walk through the house in my mind , not as much in memory as meditation.

I savor each step, from the threshold schhhh of my foot scraping the sand on the back door cinderblock, to the tatty screened door smacking shut behind me as I step out to face the Atlantic Ocean.  Nights when my grown-up self lies sleepless, scrubbing my feet together in the desperate itch of anxiety, I step through that door, inhale deeply, and walk body and soul into that place where I can breathe.

Because we have all been children, we all have a physical place that is a part of our being, because it was the place of our becoming.  As children we are physical beings locked in the moment.   The sight, sound and scent of living, the tactile presence of it, embeds itself within us.  It is unnoticed but as constant and critical to our growing as oxygen that flows through our blood from breathing.  As adults, we live in layers of past, present and future.  When my adult present was rocked and cracked by death, sickness and separation until it split into a gaping rift, I found that childhood place.  It bubbled up, unbidden, and flowed liquid into the gap.  Some embedded tactile presence of living rushed into the emptiness that threatened to take my life and filled it.

This is a story about that place.

The Simons (rhymes with “ribbons”) House is an old island house, built sometime in the 1920’s on the Isle of Palms in South Carolina.  In days before air-conditioning, a waterside refuge from the swelter of Charleston summers was considered a near necessity for the well-to-do.  Proximity to the city meant the banker Mr. Simons could join his family when they left their house in town for the summer.

The beach house is well-built for its purpose, settled under a hipped roof behind the dunes in a small strip of maritime forest.  Screened-in porches run the full length of the house front and back.  Double-hung casement windows connect the porches to the interior.  A shotgun floor plan allows the breeze to move and views straight through to the ocean.  The house has all modern conveniences, of course, circa the 1950’s:  gas stove, sink, refrigerator.  Modernity, perhaps also the1950’s, enclosed the back porch to add windows facing the street and a sliding glass door to the main house.  A rickety deck out front just skims the tops of the stocky pine and wax myrtle brush, allowing a broad view of the beach and the ocean beyond.   A dishwasher, washer-dryer, and downstairs washrooms were added in the 1960’s.  An “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” practicality has otherwise left the house and its furnishings, funky and functional, unchanged.   Violent island storms have not been able to damage the sturdy-built house; it hunkered down in the pines to survive even when Hurricane Hugo scoured the island in 1989.  As newer houses parked themselves in the middle of the street or were swept out to sea, the stout grey Simons house on its cinder-block foundation stood, and stands today.

In the 1960’s my maternal grandfather befriended Mr. Simons.  Our family was firmly middle-class, my grandparents living in a sturdy brick ranch house on then-rural James Island, my young parents in a small house nearby.  My grandparents were proud McLeods of Scottish descent, frugal by nature, children of the Depression, known to squeeze a nickel ‘til it squeaked. The very idea of a beach house was out of the question.  But my grandmother, a red-hot Mama, suffered in the tropical heat.  Worn out with fans, ice trays and complaining, my grandfather worked a deal with Mr. Simons.  Our family (in those days a hive that included my maternal grandmother and grandfather; my mother and father;  my mother’s brother and his wife;  their two daughters; my mother’s sister;  my sister;  and me), could have his beach house for the last two weeks of June.  Thus Mr. Simons was spared the indignity of renting his house to the public, our family was spared the indignity of being renters, and my Grandmother would be cool.  They struck a price we could afford and the deed was done.  I still imagine that by ‘our family,’ Mr. Simons pictured my genteel grandparents.  In reality, we were a horde between twelve and twenty, a volatile mix of cocktail party, day care, kennel, and commercial fishing operation.  We were a Clan, decamped for our two weeks of summer.

In my childhood, I imagined that real life happened only at the Simons house.  Everything else was just an interruption.  I was good at imagining.  After some tests at school I was tagged a ‘gifted’ child (read:  nerd).  I was socially awkward, painfully sensitive, uncoordinated, and homely.  Of course I was paired with an outgoing, bubbly, beautiful little sister.  She was, and still is, a tiny porcelain doll, a perfect miniature with olive skin, huge green eyes and long, loose curls of dark hair.   I was blessed with a stocky build,  fair skin that crisped lobster-red at the first hint of sun, and a shock of dark hair so unruly my mother kept it cropped in a ‘too much trouble’ shag.  My eyes are deep-set and pale as water, and my front teeth stuck out so far that (so I was told) I could eat an apple through a picket fence.   Given those cards I preferred to live elsewhere, that “other place” being my interior fantasy worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, the green hills of James Herriot’s Yorkshire, the dramatic Brontes, and Greek mythology.  When I ran out of books I read cereal boxes.  My parents seemed to prefer that I live elsewhere, too.  I wasn’t much trouble catatonic in a book.  Mom and Dad  loved me; I never doubted that.  But my pretty, preppy, popular and handsomely alliterative parents didn’t know what to do with their oddball eldest child.   At the Simons house my grandparents were in charge and knew exactly what to do.

They let me be.

They didn’t give two hoots about giftedness or moodiness or mouthiness.  They casually shared their gifts:  his prodigious intellect and quirky inventiveness, her glamour and vicious wit, and both were generous with their humor and all-encompassing love.  For two whole weeks of summer, there was a real world I could live in.  At the Simons House I had a place.

Getting the family to the house required weeks of preparation.  By the time school was out in early June the excitement was excruciating.  Plans were made, the party assembled:  my mother’s parents, my mother’s young sister, my parents, my sister and I, my mother’s brother, his wife and their two girls, everyone’s dogs.  Our Clan at its core:  three families, four children, and at least three family dogs.  All would stay two weeks.  A host of friends and relations would traipse in and out.  Groceries alone filled the back of the station wagon.  There was menu planning, baking, packing and more packing.  Boxes of sheets and towels, suitcases, sunscreen, dog food and enough booze to float the Peninsula had to go somewhere.  Most years it piled to the roof of the station wagon, filled a car-top carrier, and was lashed with rope to the inside of the Boat.

The Boat, Dad’s prized possession, had many incarnations.  At its pinnacle it was a well-kept Boston Whaler with all its original parts.  The Whaler enjoyed only a brief tenure before the need for cash eclipsed the need for Boat.  The rest were a flotilla of scows perched on rusty trailers in varying states of restoration.  The motors ran, sometimes.   All performed admirably to satisfy my dad’s endless need , like Rat and Toad in The Wind in the Willows , to mess about in boats.  My favorite was a nearly flat aluminum john-boat.  She was painted the same electric blue the old-time Gullah families used on window and door trim to keep bad spirits out.  She was dubbed “Plait-Eye” for the supernatural power of her ungodly blue to repel haints, hags, and the “plait-eye”– evil spirit of conjunctivitis.  Gallons of WD-40, yards of duct tape, and tremendous cursing guaranteed that her motor would be seaworthy for two weeks in June.  Her first job was to get all our gear to the coast.  Shrimp nets, crab traps, ice chests, bicycles, and anything that wouldn’t fit in the car was secured aboard.  Plait-Eye was heaped high and hitched to the station wagon.  Mama piled my sister, the dog and me in the car to fight for real estate in the back seat.  Dad climbed in the driver’s seat, popped a beer, unwrapped a stick of Wrigley’s, and lit a cigarette.  Chewing and puffing, he backed our multicolored paraphernalia wagon out of the drive and we hit the highway.

Our one-third of the Clan was on the move.

(Essay continued, next post.  Click here to read about Margaret.)

A Few Words on a Gifted Writer

Margaret Ward McClain is a writer for the Essays on Childhood project.  She is also someone I knew in my years at Davidson College, and with whom I recently reconnected at our class reunion down Tobacco Road to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

I remember Margaret as a quiet but incredibly fun person when we were in school.  She was quirky-smart like many of my classmates, always alert and focused, and clearly absorbing even in her silences the antics and personalities of our more boisterous friends.  She was and is a beautiful woman, but she always had that untouchable intellectual attractiveness that so many of us long for, as you know even in your twenties how much you will covet that trait in the coming decades.  I always noticed the young men in school looking at her in a certain way, in a way that said they too knew she had a timeless “specialness.”

(It’s kind of cute now to remember watching guys try to flirt with Margaret.  They really wanted her to like them, but one could see they knew how far out of their league they were to even try…..)

On receipt of Margaret’s essay, I am reminded of what a unique and brilliant woman she is.  I also learned something about her, and that is that within her tiny frame is the courage of a lion.

I’m not sure she considers herself a writer, but I can promise you that after you read her essay, you will consider her a gifted storyteller and accomplished essayist.  I have read The Simons House several times now, and each time it leaves me in tears.  Happy tears, but really very serious tears nonetheless.

Due to the length of the essay, it will appear in three separate posts over the rest of the week.  This way if you have the opportunity to read it all at once a few days from now, you can do so; but you will also be able to read it in sections as time allows.  (For the record, my strong preference is to wait until you have the time to read all of the posts together as a single experience.)

No one has a “perfect family,” and every one of our families has been touched by grief over the years.  I’ve learned that for some people, grief and loss make it emotionally impossible to revisit old memories.  It hurts too much to relive the beauty, love, and connections that time, illness, and hardship can take away.  Only lions can, as they say, “go there.”

We may never be able to return to some houses.  But maybe we can take our children, and enter new places to call home.  I hope you will keep an eye out for Margaret’s essay beginning tomorrow, and that you will share it with others.  It is a powerful piece of writing.

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret was born in the miasmal swamp of Charleston, South Carolina.  She spent her childhood dividing time between the Holy City and Greenville, SC, the red dirt capital of the Upcountry, where she was raised and attended school.  She says, “At Davidson College I learned how to be a better human being, and also received a B.A. in English.”  She earned a  J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law, went on to practice domestic law, and finally landed at I.B.M. Today she is a recovering lawyer residing in Chapel Hill with her wonderful husband Tim.  Professionally she is the mother of a 13-year-old son, two grown stepdaughters in-residence, and three very spoiled dogs.  Margaret’s essay, The Simons House, centers on the house where her family spent two weeks each summer.