by Elizabeth Bishop Later
Today, the minister of our church came to visit. Being a special visitor and all, there was a certain intentionality to the Saturday cleaning. Things that haven't seen a dust rag in months were treated to a brushing off. Pillows were fluffed. Dog hair painstakingly removed, since I'm not going to be the one whose dog's hair rides on the preacher's pants next Sunday.
In breathless anticipation of the spiritual stopover, the idea of Preacher Cake came to mind. I remember hearing grown-ups talking about this when I was little, but couldn't remember what it was. I looked through every southern cookbook I have but nothing included anything called a Preacher Cake. If Charleston Receipts doesn't have a recipe for it, is it really a thing?
Thank goodness for Google, which pointed me to this lovely website with a recipe for what is, essentially, Hummingbird Cake - a wonderful dessert with ingredients that could be found in any pantry in case the preacher announced he was coming to dinner that night.
In my ruminations on special visitors, I thought back to a time that seems to be long gone when families dressed up in ties and dresses for family dinners. Linen tablecloths were pressed, and the fine china and crystal laid out carefully. I tried to continue this practice with my own children, but they felt a little constricted by the fanciness of it, so we ended up going the Chinet way of the world. I was disappointed not to continue the tradition.
Even my own mother, who was raised on perfection at dinnertime, has gotten to the point where she's fairly comfortable (though not completely) putting pepper jelly on the table in the jar, rather than serving it in a little crystal bowl with a tiny silver spoon. I think she hates it, actually, but therapy is helping. She can be counted on to say at least once, "Don't bring the china serving bowl", which really means "I am completely embarrassed that I'm serving this food in a Pyrex dish".
There's something sad and poignant about china collecting dust in a cabinet, and real silverware tarnishing in a red velvet-lined case. It heralds longingly back to days when families lived close enough together to have a special meal every now and then, outside of Christmas. When if you wanted to know what was going on with your uncle or your grandmother, you had to actually talk to them (or to your aunt, who knew everything about everyone). When manners mattered, and napkins were real, not paper. We've become so casual - which certainly makes getting everyone together a lot easier and, for mom, a lot more enjoyable - but I think we're giving up something we'll be sorry we let go of so easily.
So I contend that maybe we should consider the benefit of pulling out the stops of a real southern table every now and then. Because nothing says "You're special to me" than going to the trouble of pressing the tablecloth, polishing the forks, and trusting that no one will drop any of Grandma's china lest there no longer be a matched set.
Proust once wrote, " “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” But I think he was wrong. Because when I think of the love, and security, and sense of family that came with using the china, I'm sure I remember it exactly the way that it was.
The man on the left of this picture, holding the maps, is my grandfather, Mr. Leland S. Douglass. When this picture was taken in 1968, he worked with farmers in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. His official title: Head Administrator for the Williamsburg County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. His job: handling tobacco programs and other crop management projects that the government was involved in, including building ponds and drainage ditches as is depicted in this picture.
Anyone familiar with United States history knows that 1968, the time this picture was taken, was a time when we were in the midst of re-evaluating our views about race relationships in our country and particularly in the South. I very clearly remember that time where segregation was the norm. I remember seeing the sign for the colored beach and the white beach. There were white restaurants and “span” or colored restaurants. White people didn’t shop in the same stores as black people. Black people didn’t go to the same churches as white people. As a country, we've had times when we behaved better.
When the tone started to shift toward civil rights and integration, everyone – whites and blacks – were nervous about what the changes would bring. It was a time of confusion, anxiety, and fear that often manifested itself as anger. The whole country was watching to see what would happen in the South.
I was a child when we started changing that world, so I had time to grow up with new norms and viewpoints. But my grandfather had grown up in a world where the rules of living were set and accepted into blacks on one side and whites on the other. By the time his world started to change he was in his late forties. It would be easy to expect that he would be very set in his ways and would be resistant to this change.
But that wasn’t my grandfather.
As a Deacon in Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, he was a leader. And he was part of a congregational meeting one Sunday where the topic of integration came up. People asked, “What will we do if a black person wants to become a member of our congregation? What will we do if a black person walks into our sanctuary one Sunday and sits down in a pew?”
Some said they wouldn’t accept it. Some said they would get up and walk out.
Then someone asked, “Mr. Douglass, what would you do?”
My grandfather pondered the question. Then he answered quietly, “I would welcome him, shake his hand, and invite him to sit with me.”
I'll pause a moment to let you imagine the import of that moment; the impact of that statement in a time and place where a comment like that required no small bit of courage.
His simple yet profound statement sets an example for us of quiet kindness in a world full of noisy squabbling and contention; where many people talk but few listen, where people take sides rather than come together as human beings living on the same planet. I am proud to call him my grandfather.
At around the same time this picture was taken, my father was invited to join the Ku Klux Klan. He respectfully declined, telling them that he thought he could probably find something better to do with his time.
Neither one of these men were afraid to act consistently with their core values of integrity and respect for the differences - and similarities - we all share, race notwithstanding.
We could use a little more of that these days.
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
South Carolina is known for its beautifully romantic, manicured gardens. Charleston’s gardens are probably best known – Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, Drayton Hall – but Beaufort also has its share of gardens both magnificent and tender in their beauty. What could be more appealing than strolling down a back street on a warm spring afternoon and finding a wrought iron gate inviting you to peek inside? Frances Hodgson Burnett said it best: “And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles”.
But our Sea Island home has two faces. One is the picture of perfection, stateliness, prestige, and aristocracy – beautiful antebellum homes with their manicured gardens; the romance of the south. This face is the public face, the one people from all over come to gaze on. This is what she looks like when she’s dressed up and going out.
The sentimental idea of the romantic antebellum south, with its wealthy Sea Island planters, cotton fields, and ladies in hoop skirts has been illustrated in so many movies and books that this is the only historical reality many people know. When they picture the south they don’t see, and definitely aren’t as intrigued by farmers traveling dusty dirty roads on St. Helena Island and early morning shrimpers up before the sun to find a spot in the ocean that will yield a catch. But, as they say, beauty is only skin deep and if you look closely at our lovely Sea Island home, you’ll also see a countenance of simplicity and modesty, equally alluring in its grace and charm.
You’ll see the face of my grandmother’s garden.
My grandmother had what the French call “la pouce verte” – the green thumb, as it were, although what I remember about my grandmother’s hands is not a thumb that was green, but that there was frequently a little dirt under her fingernails. She was a great lover of plants and flowers and not only tended to her live green things but also perfected her skill as a florist whose work with silk flowers was highly sought after in Beaufort. All one had to do was show up at House and Garden gift shop on Lady's Island with a container of any sort and, on returning a few days later, would find that she had created a work of art.
But my grandmother’s garden was not a polished, manicured courtyard - the icon of the southern garden. It was a hodge-podge of azaleas, roses, camellias and gardenias planted wherever she might find a place where something might thrive. It was a place where you would most often find her having her way with a shovel and an errant shrub or taking this bush here and putting it there. She nurtured and tended but exercised tough love when she needed to, the results of which garnered her awards at Beaufort Garden Club Camellia and Rose Shows every year.
As a little girl I was mesmerized by her mimosa tree, which I called a powder puff tree for its soft pink, puffy blooms. She showed me how to touch the leaves just so then watch them curl together. “They’re very sensitive”, she said and I was struck by the idea that a tree could feel and respond to my touch. And my favorite was her clematis vine which she coaxed around her porch’s iron railings. The royal purple flowers were as big as salad plates and I love them to this day, although I remember her admonition to be careful with it as “it will climb all over the devil”.
Today, what is left of her work are azalea bushes which were transplanted from her home on Lady’s Island (where Grayco Hardware and Rite Aid now sit) to Yard Farm on St. Helena Island. They have stood the test of time and, in spite of not having her care on their behalf, still bloom in splendor every spring. I have a feeling they wouldn’t dare not to.
So when you’re done enjoying the sentimental, romantic view of the south which we all love, you might take a moment to look a little deeper. On closer inspection you’ll find that our Lowcountry home is filled with beautiful secrets, soft-spoken secrets that aren’t showy and glamorous, but are exquisite nonetheless.
Just like my grandmother’s garden.
When it comes to wild hairs and grand ideas, my father is king. He can get away with this because, truly, he can do just about anything. He calls it Frogmore Engineering; I call it sheer talent and smarts.
At any rate, in my formative years it was not unheard of for him to be sitting at the breakfast table, get “that look” on his face, and announce: “I think I’ll knock that wall down today”.
And by suppertime it would be gone.
This (as well as many other Wild Hairs) happened several times throughout my childhood, in spite of my very wise teenage warnings (which my parents, inexplicably, never listened to) that a house without walls was just a big box and is that what we wanted to live in? It didn’t matter. We were living in Jericho; walls tumbling down all over the place.
So no one in our family was very surprised when he started making noises about building a boat. This Wild Hair germinated in the early 1970s when money was somewhat scarce at our house but grand ideas were not. At that time, catamaran pontoon deck boats were very popular. He watched them putt-putting along in the Beaufort River and thought it would be great to own one until one day, while waiting on the Woods Bridge, he watched one cross the wake from a shrimp boat. The wave crashed over the deck, taking several objects with it, including an ice chest. While the basic design seemed functional enough, they obviously didn’t take rough water well because of the tube shaped pontoons. Plus, they were a little on the slow side. And what fun is that?
But he decided that these drawbacks were nothing a little Frogmore Engineering couldn’t correct. So he went to work.
Using wood, he created a frame for the pontoon that was more boat-shaped instead of making the pontoons the traditional tube shape. He felt that this would make the boat more stable and would allow for more speed so the boat could plane. The frame was then covered with an aluminum alloy called Duralumin which was a product used in the construction of freight hauling semi-trailers. He found a factory in Savannah that manufactured the metal in large, 8-foot wide rolls. They were very accommodating and cut off a 40 foot section for him. Using tin shears, he cut the metal and shaped it around the wooden frame, then used pop rivets to secure the joints.
The next step was the fun part. He purchased 10 gallons of foam and poured it into the hollow pontoon to firm it up and, in his words, “make it sink-proof”. We had a lot of fun squirting that foam all over the place.
Once the pontoons were built, he moved on to the deck which was made of 3/4 marine plywood, then added a cabin that, by design, resembled a shrimp boat cabin. A 2x12 oak board on the rear of the pontoons held the 100 horsepower Evinrude motor. My mother joined in the fun by making cushions for the benches inside the cabin.
While Yard Farm has a boat landing, it wasn’t nearly big enough to launch a house boat so he re-designed an old farm trailer and installed a hand-operated winch in order to move the boat to the boat landing on Lady's Island where she had her maiden voyage.
And how did it work out? Well, I’ll let him tell you:
“The boat handled better than I hoped for.
It would plane with the throttle about 2/3 and had a speed of about 25 mph. I
tried it going across a boat wake and it crossed it fine with no water coming
on the deck.”
Unfortunately, life got in the way and we didn’t use the boat that much. It wasn’t the easiest thing to maneuver into the water, so that was somewhat of a deterrent to Saturday outings on the boat. It took two people to load the boat on the trailer since any breeze would mis-align it and, given that his only helper was my brother – all 100 pounds of him, it's pretty evident why it didn't get out on the water much.
The irony is that 20 years later the commercial sports boat manufacturers started selling a similar design with boat shaped twin hulls and a flat area in between to enhance its ability to plane. Too bad he didn't patent that design......
So while we tease my dad sometimes about his Wild Hairs, I’m glad he gets them. Every one he’s ever had has produced some kind of adventure, memory, experience, or education for us. He’s taught us the fine science of Frogmore Engineering and, relying on that and my mother’s promise that we can accomplish anything if we have a book, my brother and I have successfully pursued some Wild Hairs of our own.
But that’s a blog post for another day.
Swing me till summer,
Swing me through fall.
I promise I’ll never get tired at all.
(From the book, You Be Good and I’ll Be Night, by Eve Merriam)
Two years ago one of our children became seriously ill and was hospitalized for three months. We climbed out from the wreckage of that event and realized that the ordeal of coping with it had left our whole family exhausted, jittery, and generally freaked out. Sleepless nights, balancing work and hospital visits, and eating way too much fast food had taken its toll on our general well-being and we were, for lack of a better way of saying it, a collective mess.
In situations like these, one needs a little perspective and I knew where to find it. I needed to go home to Beaufort. So I called ahead to make sure my bedroom hadn’t been taken over by my mother’s cookbooks and fabric collection, bought plane tickets, asked the neighbor to feed the cats, and went home.
This visit happened in November when the Lowcountry heat had faded, most of the tourists had gone home, and the evenings could be enjoyed without the harassment of sand gnats and mosquitoes. We were embraced by family, nourished by my mother’s most excellent southern cooking, and restored by frequent trips to The Chocolate Tree for fudge and to Hunting Island for strolls along the beach. But one activity, so simple, so small, was the most therapeutic for me.
I sat on the swing.
From that vantage point I watched the sun set over Wallace Creek. I regarded the herons as they had their lunches of fiddler crabs and small fish. And I allowed the soft, humid breeze from the creek blow away the strain of the last few months. At a time when our little family boat had run aground on a sandbar, the simple act of swinging allowed me to stop agitating for a minute and come to the realization that the tide, as it always does, was turning.
We’d be back in the water and floating along again very soon.
Swinging is the perfect combination of activity balanced with rest, the soft swaying motion allowing our bodies to gradually rock away the stress, and settling our minds so that we can think clearly again. Perspective, creativity, and insight come to us when we least expect it, especially when a swing is involved.
Thanks to very thoughtful city planners, the Beaufort waterfront is the perfect place to go when one needs to find a different viewpoint, nurture a relationship (many a date has included a trip to the waterfront swings), or remember what it feels like to just sit still and be present in the moment.
At any point during the day or evening, one can sit on the swings at the waterfront and ponder the possibility that the view of the Woods Memorial Bridge, the soft lapping of the Beaufort River against the sea wall, the shore birds gliding across the water, and the boats peacefully making their way was all planned simply for your personal enjoyment and peace of mind.
Perhaps the magic happens because swinging takes us back to our more carefree childhood days when we spent more time on swings. The swing of my childhood was a simple rope tied to the largest branch of a Spanish Oak tree on the Yard Farm on St. Helena Island.
My memories of that swing – my
own childhood memories and the memories of my children playing on it - are
permanently impressed in my mind, and when I am old and can’t remember what I
ate for breakfast, I will still be able to hear the joyful laughter of children
playing on an old rope swing tied to the branch of a very old oak tree.
So if you’re in need of a change in mindset, some perspective, or just a mental deep breath, get to the Beaufort waterfront as quickly as possible. Take a seat in a swing. Use your foot to gently propel yourself back and forth. Then wait for the magic to happen.
Pictures: credit Elizabeth Bishop Later, Jarom Later, and our good friends at eatsleepplaybeaufort.com (used with permission).
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
Recently, a small firestorm broke out over some changes made to an iconic road on St. Helena Island. As was their right, property owners cleared some underbrush and a dead water oak tree from the avenue leading to Coffin Point Plantation. But rumor had it that it wasn't a dead water oak tree, but was actually a live oak tree.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of back and forth was found on Facebook and other social media sites. Some defended the property owner's rights. Some tried to set the facts straight. Many were simply outraged at the very thought of it. From the tone of some of the comments, one worried whether or not a meeting to gather torches and pitchforks might be held.
I'm not really concerned with the politics, codes, legality, etc. of the act. I assume the property owners did what they did for good reason and, given it's their land, well it's kind of their business.
But what did fascinate me (although it didn't surprise me) was the ardor over the whole thing. Most of the discussion was being held between people who have no legal property rights to the road and the basic premise of the upset wasn't so much whether or not the people who owned the property could change the look of the road, but that they did. And when they changed the look, they changed - us.
You see, there are two types of property ownership in Beaufort County. One is the legal ownership of a piece of land. The other is the ownership by our hearts of the memories attached to what we see, what we grew up with, what we love. The overall sentiment was this: that road is part of home - it's part of me - and, darn it, stop changing it! Yes, it's a bit of an existential crisis.
Ruth Steinmeyer Bishop with Sonny Bishop at Coffin Point Plantation, St. Helena Island, circa. 1935
We native Beaufortonians have a character flaw. We love our little town, its history, its presence, its look - just the way it is (or, more accurately, was). Add to this that many of us have grown a bit anxious over the pace of change in Beaufort County, so when even one small difference is made to the look of the place we get - well, a little upset. Our memories are threatened. Our connections to our past which we hold quite dear to us become less sturdy. It scares us.
In his book, Night Train to Lisbon, the author Pascal Mercier says this:
We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find only by going back there.
This seems to be a defensible explanation for why so many people became so upset. How will I find myself if the place where my heart resides changes so much I can't recognize it?
I do understand. When the county threatened to pave the dirt road to our home, the old avenue to Fuller Plantation on St. Helena Island, I practically came unglued. Even though the road would remain, it wouldn't be the same. I felt personally threatened. Fortunately, this calamity was avoided and the road remains as it was. For now.
Yard Farm road, the old avenue to Fuller Plantation on St. Helena Island
We also have a strong connection to trees in this place we call home. Other parts of the country cut down trees willy-nilly but here, even where there's a great abundance of trees, they don't come down without a lot of things having to happen first. That's probably a very good thing.
For example, there's this tree which I love. It's a Spanish Oak tree in the yard of my childhood home. It's a lovely old tree that's been there a long time. And there's so much to love about it.
It is a tree of size. An oak tree - once a tiny acorn (an almost unimaginable thought) - that has grown to such proportions that it now commands a prime spot on Yard Farm.
It is a tree of history. Who knows what it's seen? In the children's book, "The Lorax", the Once-ler "speaks for the trees for the trees have no tongues". Ah....if only they did. What stories they could tell!
It is a tree of fun and excitement. The rope swing is the latest version of several rope swings attached to the largest branch. When I was 12, one of my childhood friends fell out of the swing and broke her collarbone. In her pain and distress she swore she had been deliberately pushed out of the swing.
I don't know - I think I'm pretty sure she just fell out. That has a tendency to happen with swings. But I still felt badly about it.
As teenagers, we got an extension ladder and leaned it against the trunk of the tree so we could climb to the first bifurcation of limbs - about 12 feet above the ground. We carried the swing with us, carefully turned around, slipped a foot in the loop of the rope and jumped. Oh, the adventure! (Especially since the integrity of the rope was constantly in question.)
And my children, grown as they may be, still beg their uncle for his special swing pushes -
There are other Yard Farm trees with stories to tell. "The Dragon Tree" is a horizontal casualty of Hurricane Gracie but yet is still living and thriving as a perfect place for little boys to play. And my grandmother had a tree in her yard next door that was perfect for climbing into with a book and losing track of time. When I was in that tree I knew that, for a moment, I was invisible to the rest of the world, safe in its protective arms, soothed by its quiet strength.
But probably most profound to me is that this particular tree is a tree of security. It's been there my whole life. It's been there for my dad's entire life. In the sea of change that is life, this tree is constant.
How very reassuring. And how necessary to those of us who have become a little distressed over the changes we see happening to the place we call home.
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
Once upon a time there was a man of unknown name or origin. No doubt he must have been something of an adventurer because, somehow, he found himself in the regrettable position of being amongst adversaries and they shrunk his head. And you thought you were having a bad day.
Who knows how or when or (especially) why, but his head ended up in the collection of the Beaufort Museum. And, while no one knows exactly who the unfortunate soul was whose fate it was to have his head minimized and put into a museum in the South Carolina Lowcountry, one thing was certain.
He was famous.
Every child who grew up in Beaufort in the 60s and 70s made a trip to the museum to see The Shrunken Head. Never mind the rest of the stuff in the museum - things like old carriages, pictures of Civil War generals, and arrowheads from the Yamasee Indians. You know, things that were actually meaningful and important and relevant to our heritage. On school field trips the buzz on the bus was about only one thing.
The Shrunken Head.
A few months ago we got an invitation to visit with Katherine Lang at the new and improved Beaufort History Museum to discuss a temporary exhibit in the museum related to the history in our book. In reply, I asked her two questions:
Imagine my overwhelming disappointment when she told me that they no longer had The Shrunken Head. It had disappeared when museum artifacts were moved about.
As my Dad says, durnit.
This tragic misfortune aside, we had a wonderful visit at the museum and perused the very nice collection of Beaufort history items housed there, including the current special exhibit of Victorian clothing. Helpfully arranged in chronological order, we walked through the beginnings of Beaufort through the chaotic time of the Civil War and on to the 1950s.
An especially interesting piece is the
stove used to heat irons in the Mather School. In 1867, Rachel Mather
came to Beaufort from Boston with the philosophy that every woman
deserved a good education and with the intent to educate daughters of freed
slaves. Her school became the underpinnings to what is now the Technical
College of the Lowcountry.
There's a fitting tribute to Robert Smalls, who some say is the first African-American hero of the Civil War. Stephen Elliott, who organized the Beaufort
artillery and was present at the bombardment of Fort Sumter, imposingly stares down at you from his life-size painting. You can get
a demonstration on how a rice trunk works and ponder Beaufort area life
in the 1500s.
When you come away from the museum, your understanding is reinforced that Beaufort is not only a beautiful place, but it's also an important place in the annals of history. So if you've never visited the museum or you haven't been there in a while, take an hour and go see what they've done with it. I promise you'll be enlightened.
And if you happen to have information on the whereabouts of The Shrunken Head, please fess up. We miss him.
Special thanks to Katherine Lang, President of the Beaufort History Museum, for inviting us to be part of the wonderful legacy that is the Beaufort Museum. Our special exhibit will feature in mid-November.
For more information about the Beaufort History Museum, go to:
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
As Albert Camus once said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”.
And when it
comes to bright and vibrant fall colors, everyone’s a fan. Lowcountry leaf
peepers, taking advantage of the season, head north to spots like the Great
Smoky Mountains National Park where they can indulge in an autumn that is so
very different from what’s happening at home. The morning air is crisp there,
the mountains take on the look of a patchwork quilt, and no one can resist
stopping for apple cider or a jar of apple butter at a roadside stand. Autumn
in places north of us is quite the show and we’re hypnotized by the display of eye-popping
reds, oranges, and yellows.
Autumn in the Lowcountry is a much quieter affair. As with most things about our Sea Island home, fall is gentle; a gradual softening of the temperature, a mellowing of the light. The progression into a Sea Island fall is so slow as to be almost imperceptible and can, without the sudden vivid flurry of foliage, easily be missed. But to those who pay attention, the subtle differences as we change seasons are just as beautiful and glorious.
It’s the time of year when we start seeing those amazingly beautiful Lowcountry sunsets. We may not have a plethora of Maples to give us bright colors in the fall, but we have color nonetheless – reds and oranges, yellows and purples in our evening skies. Look closely and you’ll see, amongst the still green oak trees, a little Virginia Creeper exhibiting its fall flourish. The marsh grass, vibrant green all summer, has taken on a golden hue.
Autumn at Yard Farm always means an “all hands on deck” effort at picking up pecans that have fallen off the 100 year old trees. As a child, I hated this interruption in my very important teenage life. After all, I had music to listen to, “Seventeen” magazines to peruse, Bonne Bell lip gloss to try out. But my parents insisted that my hands were not painted on and I was to use them to help collect pecans. Each of us took a Piggly Wiggly grocery bag and went to work, every afternoon after school, until they were all gathered. For years, I hated pecans. But now, it’s a treat beyond treats to scuffle through the fallen pecan leaves and find a freshly fallen pecan to munch on.
Of course, we have our own fall traditions in Beaufort. One of my favorites is the annual Ghost Tour which consists of an evening carriage ride around the Old Point while being told ghost stories. Now let me tell you this: I am a believer in ghosts. It takes nothing for me to get completely and totally creeped out. So when the Confederate Soldier jumped out of the bushes (I think we were somewhere near Marshlands), I became convinced of two things. First, I could have a heart attack and live to tell about it. And second, I had the world’s record for the fastest attempt at exiting a moving carriage being pulled by a horse. It was awesome.
There are fall tomatoes at Dempsey Farms and pumpkins for the picking at Carteret Street United Methodist Church. There’s enough Goldenrod around for everyone to have an allergy and every weekend finds an Oyster Roast being held somewhere. And it’s not quite cool enough for hot chocolate, but sometimes we drink it anyway because hey….it’s fall. That’s what you do. (It makes no difference that it’s still 80 degrees outside.)
So enjoy autumn in the Lowcountry. Enjoy the relatively cooler weather, the subtle changes that signify fall on the Sea Islands. And, if you must go see the leaves, our lovely Lowcountry understands that what she has to offer isn’t a Beauty Pageant fall. But in her gracious southern way she sends you off with one of her simply beautiful sunsets as if to say, "Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back”.
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
In early September, 1833 a few people stood around a small, open grave on the grounds of the Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. In the grave was a small, wooden coffin which bore the body of little Caroline Mary Scott, age 3 years and 10 months, who had died a few days earlier. Her mother, Sarah A. Scott, stood quietly weeping – her grief at the loss of her little one compounded by concern for her other child – Adaline Matilda, who lay seriously ill at home. Imagine the depth of her grief when, after watching Caroline pass away, she then saw Adaline Matilda die three days after her sister, one month short of her 6th birthday. The poignant scene on the grounds of the Chapel of Ease repeated itself all over again.
To be a child in the 19th century was a perilous affair. In the south, 6% of children born in 1850 died before their first birthdays. 12% died by the age of 5. Nationally, children under the age of 5 accounted for 38% of all deaths in the United States. By 1860, that number had increased to 43%. A walk through any cemetery in the Lowcountry attests to this fact, tiny tombstones adorned with lambs and rosebuds standing vigil over the sad reality.
We don’t know what happened to little Adaline and Caroline. We also don’t know what happened to the little girls buried next to them – Anna Catherine and Sarah Jenkins Pope, who died in 1851 and 1853 at the ages of 10 months and 16 months. But we do know that life for children during that time was full of hazards. Not only were they prone to accidents, but they succumbed to diseases that seem so foreign to us in our medically enlightened world today – Yellow Fever, Malaria, Typhoid, and Scarlet Fever. Stillborns, miscarriages, and newborn deaths also contributed to the anxiety of antebellum parents.
Mothers worried constantly about their children. In a letter to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson in 1839, Nelly Custis Lewis wrote, “When our children are sick we are miserable and should they recover, we constantly fear that they may be again ill, and when we see them suffer without the power of relieving, and often unable to discover what it is which afflicts them, happiness seems out of the question.”
Motherhood was the prevailing source of a sense of worth to southern women in the mid-19th century. It was central to their status. But there was also great responsibility put exclusively on mothers to keep their children alive and healthy. In many ways, given the severe lack of medical understanding and knowledge at the time, this was often an impossible task and a very unfair expectation. And when their children died, the evangelical teachings of the day confined them to only one of the stages of grieving – acceptance. They were told that it was God’s will that their children died and they should quietly resign themselves to it. Many believed that God had taken their children because they loved them too much –more than God himself, and they believed that He punished them for it. Mary Jeffreys Bethell reflected on her living daughter in her diary, saying “we must not love her too much, the Lord might take her." (Mary Jeffreys Bethell Diary)
An inquiry into the culture of antebellum life on the Sea Islands lends some interesting insight into the rituals and customs that surrounded these untimely deaths. Letters were written to family members and friends on mourning paper - stationery lined with black borders. The heavy black borders indicated the deepest grief; the borders lightened as the bereaved transitioned through the mourning period. If you received one of these in the mail, you knew immediately that someone you knew had passed on.
Frequently, these letters would contain a lock of hair that was made into jewelry. We take pictures of everything these days but, in the mid-19th century, sometimes a lock of hair was the only thing the family would have to remember the child by. And it may seem very morbid to us today, but photography was so new and hard to come by that families frequently only spent the effort to “make a likeness” of the child after he had died. Perhaps having a picture didn’t seem important while the child was alive. But certainly the grief over the loss of the child would be compounded if there was nothing with which to remember him.
Some historians have argued that the high mortality rate made mothers somewhat indifferent; that the loss of children to accident and sickness happened so often that mothers weren’t affected by it. What a ridiculous idea. In 1849, Margaret Dickins wrote to her husband in a letter saying, “I am very, very miserable , every day I miss and mourn for my Mary. It is dreadful to think I shall never see her on earth again, at times I can scarcely bear up under the agonizing thought.” (Francis Asbury Dickens Papers). And although southern patriarchy required strength and stoicism from men they were allowed to openly express their grief at these times even while their wives were encouraged and expected to resign themselves to the fate of their children. While quelling their emotions was expected of women, it was praised in men and the entire household did everything it could to support him and help him recover from his grief.
So a visit to the Chapel of Ease always leaves me with a faint melancholy feeling. I never go there without stopping at the graves of Anna, Sarah, Adaline, and Caroline and thinking of what it must have been like to have been a parent isolated on a remote island off the South Carolina coast, helplessly watching a little one pass away. The Chapel of Ease is a charming and graceful spot, but is also a place where the realities of living on a lonely sea island in the mid-19th century are evident. To stand at the graves of these children and imagine the events surrounding their deaths is to be reminded that life in the antebellum south wasn’t all moonlight and magnolias.
The pictures of children used in this post are not pictures of the Scott and Pope girls. Unfortunately, I couldn't find pictures of them. However, the pictures do reflect the time period of the mid-19th century and what they might have looked like.
Additionally, I made an assumption that the Scott children were buried at two separate times, given that they died 3 days apart and burials during that time generally happened very quickly. It is possible that the two girls were buried at the same time.
The painting is Carl Wilhelmson's "The Sick Child".
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
While I am much too young to remember this, my mother tells me that my grandfather had a soft spot for strays, meaning that without warning or notice he would show up with a person in tow for my grandmother to feed. It could have been a salesman he'd met; sometimes it was just someone off the street that looked like he could use a good home cooked meal. Every now and then it was someone she actually knew, but that couldn't be counted on. (Interestingly enough, my son inherited this same trait which has provided us with some very interesting interactions with boys sporting blue mohawks, a girlfriend with some of the oddest eating habits I've ever seen, and a variety of motley 4-legged animals that turned into pets.)
At any rate, knowing this to be a regular event, my grandmother was always prepared with an extra pork chop or slice of pound cake. She once remarked, "I felt like I was running a boarding house". Perhaps she complained more vehemently in private, but she always knew when she heard the screen door open and close that she was probably going to get to exercise her southern hospitality.
The concept of southern hospitality is well-known and has framed perceptions of the south for decades. It's as rooted in southern culture as the ideas of southern belles and sweet tea. Of course, there are courteous and hospitable people all over this great land of ours but, for some reason, the south gets to wear the badge of honor when it comes to warmth and friendliness.
I recently read that some social scientists believe the practices of southern hospitality to be a masquerade for the deficiencies of the south - slavery, discrimination, poverty. I say, with all the southern sweetness I can muster, that this is a bunch of baloney. Somebody had a dissertation to write and ran out of ideas.
I believe the reality to be that southern hospitality is born of a general feeling of good-naturedness and kindness toward others. There are social norms in the south, taught to us from birth, that can be summarized very simply: "Be nice". I know it's hard to write a dissertation around that and I guess if I were a grad student trying hard to be an up-and-coming social scientist I might panic and make stuff up too, but really, folks - that's it. We're raised to be nice. Use your manners. Make others around you comfortable. Act like a lady. Conduct yourself like a gentleman. Behave yourself. (I could go on about not wanting to see bra straps and boxer shorts, but that's a blog post for another day.)
by Elizabeth Bishop Later
Of course, once my brother discovered that crabs sent me into a panic he tortured me with them. He would catch little fiddler crabs and chase me around with them. Sometimes he succeeded in getting them into my shirt. Perhaps this was his idea of Immersion Therapy but if he was trying to cure me of my phobia it was a resounding failure.
And then there was the day I came home from my summer job at House and Garden Gift Shop on Lady's Island to find my parents gone, my brother off somewhere. I let myself in the back door, put my things down, and walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. Imagine my surprise when I found a blue crab in the kitchen sink (very much alive and not appreciating being held captive) which my brother had netted out of the creek and sequestered for his supper later on. Now that you know me and crabs you can probably picture my reaction. It was somewhat similar to the one I had when we were out shrimping from a little john boat in the creek and, on pulling in the shrimp net, I found that I had caught a big daddy blue crab who immediately got himself extricated from the net and dropped into the boat.
There wasn't enough room in that boat for me and the crab. So I got out. Right in the middle of the creek. At the time, it didn't occur to me that there were thousands more just like him where I had retreated to.
So here's the deal.
Before you vote me off the island (Hunting, Fripp, St. Helena, wherever....) because I'm not a crab lover, just remember this: I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how someone ever looked at a crab and thought, "Wow! That looks delicious! Let's eat it"! So if you invite me to your next party you can be sure I won't be double-dipping in the crab dip. Your other guests will be greatly entertained if you find a fiddler crab and chase me around with it. And if we're ever in a seafood restaurant together I promise that I will never, ever (ever) ask you to share your crab legs with me. They're all yours.
Because you'll never catch me taking a picture of a crab, I had to borrow. Thanks to the following for their crustaceanly pics:
by Elizabeth Bishop Later