Friday, July 20, 2012

A World of Looking Down

“Don't grow up too quickly, lest you forget how much you love the beach.” 
~Michelle Held

When my sons were little, we spent our summer vacations at Edisto Beach in South Carolina, an hour's drive from home. Each year our rented house was a far cry from the rentals of today. We could only afford rustic cottages with no A/C, no white carpet and no dishwasher. Furnished with hand-me-down furniture, the wood floors were unpolished and the walls paneled in real cypress (if only they could talk).

After lolling for hours on the beach, a cold-water shower stall located downstairs is where we rinsed all the Johnson's Baby Oil from our sunburned bodies.

A full day on the beach meant that we came in at noon for pimento cheese sandwiches and sweet ice tea. After bolting down lunch, we returned for more sun and more searching for shells and shark's teeth.

I don't remember how old my son Skip was when we decided to hit the beach early each morning in order to get first crack at whatever had washed ashore during the night.

I do remember that the decision was made right after we bumped into Mrs. Rhame, my former algebra teacher who was scouting for shells at low tide. She inquired about my life and family, and then asked Skip what he most liked to look for on the beach.

"Shark's teeth," he exclaimed with no hesitation.

"Me too," she said. "Have you found any?"

"Last year I found five good ones, but this year only two."

She patted his head and laughed. "Well, come to the beach early every morning, keep your head down, and you'll find more."

She glanced at me. "Hunting for shark's teeth means living in a world of looking down."

Oh, how right she was! We searched at daybreak after that (with our heads down) always for petrified shark's teeth, a young boy's wampum.

Every summer, my boy and I shared magical times long before breakfast when the beach was bereft of people. We listened to the sounds of waves slapping softly at our bare feet, occasional squawks from hungry sea gulls as well as the mournful ringing of far-off buoy bells.

When he spotted the black shiny tip of a shell buried in the sand, he would run ahead of me expecting to bring back the prized black petrified tooth. Always, we walked quietly, breathing the salty scent of seawater, the sacred smell to which a low country child learns early on to love.

But little boys don't stay that way for long. They grow up and frame a life for themselves outside of a mother's arms, as they should. My son did everything that was expected of him and that included falling in love. 

When Skip got engaged, I was living in California so my new husband and I flew back to South Carolina in anticipation of the wedding. We rented a house on the Isle of Palms complete with roaches and smelly mattresses, overhead fans and cold-water showers. For two weeks, I allowed my unbridled love of the Carolina coast to feed my soul as it had not been fed since leaving the Southland.

Each day, I tramped back and forth from the beach to the house making mounds of pimento cheese sandwiches and gallons of sweet ice tea. At night, I slept without waking, even with a ton of sand in my bed.

To cap off those idyllic days, my son left his law office in Charleston each evening, drove across the Cooper River Bridge to spend the night with us.

On the eve of his wedding, he suggested that we get up at the crack of dawn and go once more in search of shark's teeth.

We awoke at five a.m. and as we high-stepped our way to the water through sea oats and sand spurs, we were aware that both of our lives were about to change again. He would always be the son I loved to pieces but he would no longer be my little boy. From that day on, another woman would take my place picking san spurs out of his feet.

But on that particular July dawn, strolling hand in hand down the solitary beach, we looked to the future and we did not look down.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4, 2012

Waking up With Lady Liberty

Today is no ordinary day. It is the last one of a transatlantic crossing and much too short a visit to England, Ireland, Iceland and Newfound. I had hoped to spend lots of time in Ireland, birthplace of my great-grandfather, so the few hours on a bus tour around the city of Dublin turned out to be not nearly enough.

It is 4:30 in the morning and as I make my way up to the open deck and worm my way over to the starboard side of the cruise ship, I find myself as wide awake as the city that never sleeps. I greet the new day by looking at the magnificent New York City skyline. She is kicking up her heels like a chorus line of Rockettes loaded with sass and bling. “Just look at me,” she seems to say, “am I not the most exciting city in the world or what?”

I have visited New York City in the past, but never have I sailed into town at 4:30 in the morning while hanging onto the side of a ship and wondering how my great-grandfather must have felt when first he glimpsed, as I am doing, the grand Lady Liberty herself.

I hope he heard the story of how the statue came to be constructed from toe to crown and how it ships transported it piece by piece from France to America, but he probably didn’t. However, I bet Great-grandpa wiped tears from his eyes as often as I am doing while standing at a similar railing and looking at The Lady shine the light of freedom on him.

What might he have been thinking? What would he have turned to his little brother and remarked, both of them having recently fled the devastating potato famine in Ireland and both of them scared out of their Irish britches?

“Look at ‘er there, lad, the ol’ gurl hursef. That’s our noo mum. She’s gon’ tek’ caire of us naiw, she will.”

Lil’ brother likely whimpered at the mention of their mother, a victim of poverty and neglect, buried mere months before the boys set sail. Perhaps he moved a wee bit closer to his big brother, the one charged to take over once they set foot on American soil, the one who would find work however he could so that his brother would be fed, clothed and schooled proper in this, their new country.

My guess is they looked across the New York Harbor that day at the torch held high by The Lady and were warmed by her light just as I am today. They came here with nothing, having left everything behind in the fallow potato fields of Ireland. In time, their losses would be replaced with fulfilled dreams made each night as they grew into men and good Americans. Like so many immigrants throughout our history, their earnest prayers were answered, their hopes rewarded.

Many Americans will never have the opportunity as I did to look upon The Statue of Liberty at daybreak. Seeing her at least once should be a requirement for every citizen of our great country, but then, one of the things that makes us great is that we don’t require it of our people. It is no surprise to me that The Lady’s power too often gets lost amid the information overload that we are fed and must sift through day after day. But she is patient. She is willing to stand her ground and remain strong for all of us.

Lest we forget what she stands for, the poet Emma Lazarus summed it up in her work engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Lady lifted her lamp to a homeless, tempest-tossed Irish boy and his brother and when she did, our country became stronger. He became a proud citizen and later served his country. His descendants would have filled him with awe: A symphony musician; NASA Engineer; lawyer; Episcopal priest; psychologist; writer; teacher; good Americans all.

Nothing will ever diminish the spark of hope woven into the fiber of the Statue of Liberty and imparted to those who see her for the first time.

“Give me your tired, your poor…”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Woman's Tears

I remember the day Mama cried as though her heart would break in two. 

I had seen her get mad at Daddy or at my brother, and at me more times than I could count. When she lost her temper, she never used the four-letter “S” word, and she never cried. Instead, she yelled SHITE! I grew up thinking of that particular non-word as an expletive. 

Apart from the strangeness of seeing her tears that day, I sensed something else but at my young age, how could I possibly have understood?

“Mama, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

Gazing at her only daughter who still smiled with baby teeth, more tears fell and were followed by a ragged intake of breath.

I crawled into her lap, reached up and wiped her wet cheek. She squeezed me so hard I thought my ribs would break. I let her hold me close, intuiting even in my naiveté her need to hold someone.

After supper while she visited with Daddy’s sister, I overheard the reason behind Mama’s tears. My young aunt, still in nurses training, had not yet married and she and Mama were close friends.

Daddy had left for the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to train. My parents scrimped and saved in order for him to realize his dream of becoming not merely a policeman like his father, but a top detective. We had very little money and none coming in after he left, but they were young and willing to make the needed sacrifices.

Before she married Daddy, Mama had had a sad life. Forced to quit high school at sixteen after her mother died with Typhoid Fever, the family expected her to help raise the other children. In 1930, only a year after the Crash, nobody had any money to spare and there were no jobs. Mama grew vegetables, raised chickens and milked the one cow they owned. While helping the family to survive, my mother was able to develop a strong work ethic.

Her education, by necessity, had to be cut short but she was bright and eager to learn, so she kept her mind open to new ideas and possibilities.

When Daddy set off to make his dream come true, Mama asked Mrs. Willie Berry for a job as a waitress at Berry’s On the Hill, a popular restaurant located not far from our house. Mama might not have been educated, but she knew how to serve food. With Daddy gone, there were bills to be paid, children to be fed.

Mrs. Berry, a gentle woman, hugged her. “You’re a godsend! Not thirty minutes ago one of my waitresses up and quit. You can take her place.”

So why had Mama cried like her heart would break?

On Saturday night, she put on her new uniform, got my aunt to babysit and then struck out on foot for the restaurant. She had never held a paying job before so landing one filled her with a sense of pride.

Wearing a big smile, she walked over to the table of eight women seated in the large dining room. The hungry customers were busy talking as she approached with her pad and pencil all set to take their orders. 

Mama knew the women. All of them. Some were her neighbors; others were friends she had met at church or at Eastern Star meetings.

While telling my aunt what happened that night, she began to cry again.

“They looked down their noses at me,” Mama said. “The minute I put on that waitress uniform I ceased to be their friend. I was only their servant.”

My aunt patted my mother on the hand.

Mama said, “I took their orders and when I turned to go back to the kitchen, they giggled and said spiteful things behind my back. I heard it all. What did I do wrong? Why did they make fun of me? Cappy needed shoes and Boo needed a Scout uniform. How else could I have paid for them? What did I do that was so terrible?”

In my bed that night, I cried for my mother. At the time, four-year-old Cappy had no idea that
grownups were occasionally mean or unkind to each other. I only knew that women she’d thought were her friends made her feel bad about herself for doing whatever she could to take care of her family.

And knowing that, my heart broke for her.