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.)