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.