A Place Called Home

A memoir of Beaufort and St. Helena Island, South Carolina

by Elizabeth Bishop Later with O.R. (Sonny) Bishop, Jr.

Reaching for the Creek

The limb of the old oak bends and dips toward the creek,
Brushing the water ever so lightly with its branches;
Steady in its growth toward this moment
When it can finally touch what it has reached for
Through countless sodden summer afternoons and the gray squalls of January.

Patiently, it has watched the tide flow out, then back again,
Bringing, on its current, the crabbers pulling their traps
And glistening porpoises chasing silver, flitting fish.
The tiny crabs peek cautiously from their muddy homes
While oysters, edgy but delicious, pop and spit like old sailors
At the quirky brown pelicans, swooping and splashing and indulging
The heron, who stands aloof and dispassionate on the sandbar,
Unimpressed by the beauty of the early morning light on the creek. 

I am not nearly as old or so wise as the bowing tree,
But my soul, whether troubled or at peace, knows to listen
When the rivershore invites me to come and be near the water,
Where I can feel its breath on my skin and hear it whisper,
As I reach to it like the ancient oak,
That I am home.

A Sea Island Miracle

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

Perhaps you have or haven't noticed, but a small miracle happens when it rains on the Sea Islands. As many miracles do, this one happens quietly and without fanfare, in the form of a little plant that can be found mostly in oak trees, and sometimes in pecan trees. 

The unassuming fern I refer to is an epiphyte - a fancy word that means it's an air plant. It gets its nutrients from its host tree, and generally just hangs around being, well, "ferny". It's what ferns do.

In a low water environment, it can lose up to 75% of its moisture - making it look dead - without actually dying. It turns brown and kind of crispy and, to the unknowing eye, one would think it's beyond hope.

But then the rain comes, and with it, the miracle of the Resurrection Fern (scientific name: Pleopeltis polypodioides - a spectacle of alliteration that is a miracle in and of itself) and before you know it, the fern comes back to life - thus the origin of its name.

The miracle of the Resurrection Fern usually catches me a little off guard. Passing under the large oak tree on Yard Farm road on the way to town, I don't notice it. Then, while I'm gone, it rains and on the way back home, there it is, green and vibrant and fully alive. 

I am in love with the amazing resilience of the Resurrection Fern. I think it teaches us a valuable and enduring lesson - that the "rain" in our lives can often bring out our very best beauty.

That's a pretty profound sermon from a little plant that spends its time hanging out in trees, just breathing the air.

Follow your heart, stay focused on what's important, and protect the magic that is our Sea Island home.

A Southern Table

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.

"Mr. Douglass, what would you do?"

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

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.

My Grandmother's Garden

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.

How to Build an Ark

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.”

Mission accomplished.

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.

The Joy of Lowcountry Swings

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). 

On Change, Trees, and the Southern Way

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 -

The Dream

The Storm

The Airplane

The Tornado

The Nightmare

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. 

Beaufort Museum
and the
Case of the Shrunken Head

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:

  • When can we come over?
  • Can I see The Shrunken Head?

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:


A Lowcountry Autumn

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”.

It Wasn't All Moonlight and Magnolias

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".

The Art of Southern Hospitality

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.) 

Even southerners sometimes forget that life is so much better when the principles of southern hospitality are exercised.  This usually has something to do with change and deteriorates into comments about (adjective) Yankees and being re-invaded by the north and other such unattractive remarks. 

To our friends from other places who have discovered the beauty of the south, let me assure you that the screen door is open and we're setting another place at the table for you. All we ask is that you understand that we're partial to our home the way that it is and we don't really want to change it. Please love and accept us for who and what we are, in spite of our quirks and eccentricities.

Thank you. 

And, in return, we will share our beautiful home with you and show you everything we love about it - the amazing sunsets, the steamy summer nights filled with mosquitoes, and the peace of watching a blue heron skim across the water on an early morning. We'll even introduce you to the critter that is called a boiled peanut, if you're game.

In the south, our culture of gracious hospitality is alive and well. As Anne Holm so beautifully pointed out, "Politeness is something you owe other people, because when you show a little courtesy, everything becomes easier and better. But first and foremost, it's something you owe yourself."  

And that, actually, probably could support a dissertation. 

Crabby about Crabs

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

When it comes to things of a Beaufort nature, I am definitely a fan. I even love the things most people don't - heat, humidity, bugs. Hurricane watches, bridge closings, sunburn. I love just about everything about my Sea Island home. 

I say this first and with some emphasis knowing that my next statement will make you wonder if I'm really the southern girl I profess to be. Because there is one thing about Sea Island living that I don't love.


Blue ones. Fiddler ones. Rock ones. Especially King ones whose legs have been pulled off and put on a plate. (I can feel you staring at me already.)  Maybe it's their little stick eyes or their resemblance to big spiders. Perhaps it's the multiplicity of jointed legs. I don't know. (And yes, I'm very aware that King Crabs are not found in the waters around Beaufort.) 

So lest you think I've seceded from the great State of Southern Happiness let me explain.

My crustacean doubt started early in life with a dream that my school (Beaufort Academy) was being overrun with thousands of blue crabs. In the dream I was standing on the porch of the high school building with a broom, delivering sweeping blows at these skittery creatures that just would not stop coming. Only a few months after that I awoke one Saturday morning to an unusually high spring tide. Apparently, the general fiddler crab population had been advised that evacuation was necessary so they left their homes in the mud and retreated to our house, about 100 feet from the creek. For lack of a more eloquent way of describing it let me just say this: THEY WERE EVERYWHERE. On the porch. In the grass. And (horror of horrors) hanging on the side of the house. My nightmare had come true.

And thus it began.

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. 

One lovely summer day at the beach I was minding my own business, wandering happily through tidal pools only to have a crab attack my little toe. I danced around like a mad person trying to get that thing to let go. My screams could be heard in Yemassee. My mother explained to me that "that poor little crab" was more scared of me than I was of it, but that has never actually been proven.

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:

  • www.classichousewife.com
  • Chuck Grimmett
  • www.boxhillpizzeria.com

The Hunting Island Lighthouse

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

At sunset on July 1, 1859 the Hunting Island lighthouse emitted its first beacon of light to mariners, protecting them from the perils of sandbars and treacherous currents near the coast. The lighthouse was fitted with a Fresnel lens, a giant beehive of concentric glass prisms that was so amazingly efficient that every 30 seconds the focused light from the simple oil lantern cast a beam 17 miles into the darkness. 

In 1861, the original Hunting Island lighthouse was blown up by the retreating Confederates to slow the Union Army down, so the lighthouse we cherish today as part of our home is actually the re-built lighthouse, completed in 1875. Supposedly, the re-builders of the lighthouse looked at the ever-present erosion on Hunting Island and thought to themselves:

"You know - one of these days we might have to move this thing. Let's make it easy." 

So they constructed it out of cast iron plates that could be dismantled. And sure enough, in August 1887 a storm took away enough beach that the lighthouse stood only 152 feet away from the ocean. While it took two years to get the funding, eventually all they had to do was unbolt the steel plates, move the pieces on a tramway, and reassemble it a little over a mile inland.

Piece of cake. 

(Not really. It actually took six months to take it apart and put it back together and the workers all had malaria but the lighthouse was successfully re-lit in October of 1889.)

My first memories of the lighthouse are far before people got smart, realized what a treasure it was, and started a campaign to protect and restore it. As teenagers, of course we spent our share of time at the beach and almost always climbed the lighthouse while we were there. It was great fun but at the time (1970s) the lighthouse was in a sad state of disrepair. The Fresnel lens was in the bottom of the lighthouse - broken, dirty, and neglected. Graffiti had been painted on the brick walls around it.  

But climb we did. 167 steps all the way to the top. The last few stairs were a bit treacherous, given there was no handrail. We knew we were up high; we could hear the wind blowing through and around the lighthouse. Claustrophobics and those afraid of heights didn't do well. 

But, just as you can today, we stepped out through the steel door and were greeted by the most magnificent view of the ocean.

I have often wondered what it would have been like to be the lighthouse keeper. Isolated from civilization, the lighthouse keeper's job required him to ensure the integrity of the light all night long. If it was cold - he had to keep the light going. If it was stormy - he had to keep the light going. No excuses. Too much was at stake. 

I don't think I would have been a good lighthouse keeper. I complain about having to get up and let the dog out at night.

Climbing the lighthouse when visiting the beach continues to be one of our family's traditions. It's a delightful experience  - full of anticipation for the view from the top, but it's also a little unnerving. (As my Aunt Kay once said, "It scared me and I liked it!!) The steel steps are perforated with large holes so the higher you climb the farther you can see to the bottom of the lighthouse. You know you're safe but it can still be a little intimidating. And because the lighthouse is just a big hollow brick and steel tube every sound is magnified and echoes. Climbing the lighthouse at night while listening to my brother and his friends make ghost sounds is an adolescent memory that's pretty etched in my brain. Just thinking about it gives me the creeps. 

Today, the lighthouse stands as the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina. You only have to pay a small fee and up you go, step by step, round and round to the top, where you can be treated to a bird's eye view of the beach and catch a glimpse back to a time when a lonely lighthouse keeper on Hunting Island protected people he'd never met by keeping the light shining bright.

This piece of the Fresnel lens from the Hunting Island lighthouse was picked up by Sonny Bishop in the 1960s when the lighthouse was in disrepair and the lens was broken. He used it many times when teaching at Beaufort Academy to illustrate how prisms work.

Hoppin' John and a trip to Shoney's
Get the original Yard Farm recipe here

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

As we wind down from Christmas (am I the only one who thinks "Wow! I'm glad that's over??") my little southern heart turns to one of the best meals of the year - New Year's Day.

For those who might be unfamiliar with southern New Year's custom, a traditional meal of Hoppin' John, collard greens, some kind of pork, and cornbread is eaten.

Not only are southerners very much like Chinese people (we eat a lot of rice and worship our ancestors), we also tend to be somewhat superstitious. So the components of this meal have meaning, as such:

Hoppin' John is eaten for good luck. The black-eyed peas swell when they're cooked, indicating a growth in posterity.

Collard greens (actually, any kind of greens will do) will ensure you have money for the year.

Pork (your choice of kind) is eaten because pigs root forward while chickens scratch backwards therefore, pork symbolizes growth and progress through the year.

Cornbread symbolizes gold (and at the price of gold right now, I'm going to eat a lot of cornbread!)

This tradition is so engrained in me that I think my soul would explode if I didn't eat Hoppin' John on New Year's Day. And I have an indelible memory of Hoppin' John that I must share.

One year, when I was about 14 or so, my parents, brother, and I were traveling back home on New Year's Day from some destination, the location of which has now left me and isn't really important to the story. For supper, we stopped at a Shoney's to eat. Because it was New Year's Day, the restaurant was serving Hoppin' John but if you didn't want a whole serving they were giving out complimentary medicine cup size servings because, you know, they probably didn't want to be responsible for anyone's bad luck for the coming year. You got a complimentary serving whether you wanted it or not. 

At some point near the end of our meal a man and his teenage son came into the restaurant. For some reason the man's son had decided he didn't need to wear shoes in the restaurant. Of course, they were stopped at the hostess desk. 

A disagreement ensued and the man and his son decided to take seating into their own hands and proceeded to stake out a table next to ours. 

The manager was summoned and a bigger disagreement ensued. Words were exchanged. Tensions mounted.

For some reason, still unknown to me many years later, my brother (16 at the time) got up from our table and stood beside it - an icon of strength and intimidation at 6'0" and 120 pounds.  I guess if nothing else he could have used his bony elbow as a weapon if he had to enter the fray.

The man and his son were finally escorted out. As for me, I had not moved a muscle in the 10 minutes since the pair had entered the restaurant. My brother may have had a super-hero image of himself but I knew my place at 5'0" and 70 pounds.  I honestly don't remember what my parents were doing but knowing my father, he was calmly sipping his coffee and planning what his strategy would be if things got really bad.

So every year when I eat Hoppin' John I think of that Shoney's. I picture my tall, skinny brother trying to look tough and I remember how still I sat. 

And yes, I ate the Hoppin' John that was given to me in that little cup. We all did. 

We didn't dare not to.

Finding Little Pieces of Ourselves

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

One of the great mysteries of life is how a place - a building, a spot of ground, a restaurant, a school - can become so intertwined with who we are. Perhaps it's because at those special places we leave a little piece of ourselves behind. When we go back to visit or even just see a picture we find the little piece of ourselves that we left there.

For just a moment we become a little more whole than we were before.

This is the way I feel about this building. For those of you who didn't grow up in Beaufort, this is the original building for St. John's Lutheran Church. Located on Ribaut Road, it was dedicated on June 17, 1956 with a charter membership of 52. 

When my parents married they realized that going to the Presbyterian church one Sunday and the Methodist church the next was going to be a little disruptive when they had children, so they followed my great-grandmother to the Lutheran Church. There they became actively involved and taught my brother and me that church was where one was supposed to be on Sunday (fever and vomiting were potential reasons for not going, but couldn't be counted on). Being in the choir or behind a musical instrument was preferable. 

At St. John's Lutheran Church I learned the goodness of people. I learned that church was a place where I could be an awkward, weird, grumpy teenager and the grown-ups around me would still act like they loved me. (I'm sure they rolled their eyes but I never saw it.) The people I saw every Sunday (and every Wednesday at choir practice) became like family - adults like aunts and uncles; peers like cousins.  

I learned that balance in my life would always be found in taking a few hours on Sunday and singing a hymn or two, because that's what my parents did.  I found joy on Easter Sunday when the sun, streaming through the stained glassed windows, lit beautiful arrangements of azaleas, lilies, and dogwood blossoms in every windowsill of the sanctuary. And, to this day, Christmas Eve just doesn't feel the same if I'm not at a midnight candlelight service.

I believed that in this place I was safe and the regular Sunday church attendance our family engaged in created a beautiful and reassuring rhythm to our lives that I still dance to. 

The sanctuary of St. John's Lutheran Church
at its former Ribaut Road home (picture circa late 1960s)

In 2001 the congregation outgrew the building on Ribaut Road and moved to a beautiful new site on Lady's Island. The old church was sold to Lowcountry Technical College so the building is still there but I can't go back.  Oh, I could walk in but it wouldn't be the same. Anyway, I want to remember it the way it was.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to go to church at St. John's Lutheran Church in their (relatively) new building on Lady's Island. Fortunately, the stained glass windows, wooden cross, and other sanctuary elements were carried over to Lady's Island so there are many things that make it still feel comfortable. But when I walked into the sanctuary, there stood the tree bearing Chrismons, each ornament a symbol of Christ and his ministry. It couldn't have been a more perfect connection back to my childhood since one of my favorite parts of Christmas was always looking for the twirling angel Chrismon on the tree.

The little piece of me that I left at the old building on Ribaut Road cannot be revisited in person, but I frequently re-visit the memories  - the hymns, the good pastors, my mother at the organ, the sound of my father's voice in the choir, the peace found in that simple little building - and am grateful that home includes such a treasure.

Oysters - a Beaufort Delicacy

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

As we move into the autumn months, we hail the return of Safe Oyster-Eating Season. Through the summer months we refrain from harvesting local oysters from the tidal creeks for two good reasons, one being that the oysters need a little breather which helps prevent over-harvesting and the other being that eating locally harvested oysters in a month that doesn’t have an “R” in it will result in certain death.

OK, you won’t really die but rumor has it that you could, quite possibly, get so sick that you wish you would die. And that’s pretty much the same thing, only worse. 

Personally for me, oysters fall into that category of “Things Someone Must Have Been Really, Really Hungry to Eat For the First Time”, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating that other people like them. So here are a few fun facts to know and tell about oysters that will make you sound smarter at your next oyster roast.

1. The first thing you could throw out to your oyster-shucking friends is the word “terroir”. Loosely translated, the word means “a sense of place” but, technically, it means that food takes on characteristics of the environment it’s produced in. There are distinct flavors imparted to oysters by the waters of the rivers they grow in. Some oysters are mild, some are salty-sweet – all depending on where they grow. For example, you could say something profound such as, "The high quality of Lowcountry pluff mud creates the terroir of these oysters." 

Or you could just say, "Dang, Billy, these oysters are great! Hand me another beer." (But you won't sound as smart.)

2. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning that they suck in water, filter out plankton and detritus (dead plant and animal matter) to eat, then spit the water back out. You can witness this process by standing near an oyster bank at low tide and watching the oysters. Every now and then you’ll see a little stream of water come squirting out of an oyster shell. The process is very similar to the one you participate in when you eat an oyster – you eat the good stuff and discard the shell. Same theory. However, while eating oysters, I would not recommend thinking about this procedure since thinking about what oysters eat and, thusly, what you're eating definitely ups the ick factor and oysters already have enough of that going on.

4. Baby oysters (called spat) are born by a process called called broadcast spawning. See? You sound smarter already. They enter this life as tiny, needle-point sized larvae and float around, free as a…..um….baby oyster…..until they grow up a little, decide to settle down, and attach themselves to something sturdy in order to start growing a shell. They prefer to attach themselves to other oyster shells (called clutch) and I heard from a reliable source that  existing oysters emit a chemical that attracts the babies. It’s an important choice these little ones have to make because once they attach themselves to something, they’re there for life.

Given that baby oysters thrive better if they attach themselves to existing oysters, there’s a need for restoring oyster beds with old shells. With the decline in oyster canneries and shucking houses, most oyster shells are ending up in landfills but there’s a robust and healthy program in the area where you can take your oyster shells post-roasting and donate them to the cause of oyster shell recycling. If you’re interested in recycling your shells, there are many drop-off locations in Beaufort County. 

As Andrew Carnegie once said, “The first man gets the oyster; the second man gets the shell.” But in this case, the second man is taking the shells and making more oysters so he actually wins.

Oyster seeding on Wallace Creek, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Oyster shells are loaded on a barge and washed off along the river banks by a high pressure water hose. The empty shells provide a place for the larvae to adhere and start growing. The only ones that will live are those between the low and high tide levels. It takes about 4 years for a larvae to grow into a harvestable oyster.  There are no male and female oysters, but each oyster can produce the eggs and fertilize them within the shell. (Sonny Bishop said it, so it must be true.)

3. If you’re wanting to harvest your own oysters, there are plenty of places to choose from as long as you have a license. The harvesting season is October 1 through May 15 and, while there's a limit on how much you can collect every day, you should be able to get plenty for an oyster roast of your own. You’ll definitely want to check this map  to ensure that you’re harvesting from a safe location and you're not getting fecal coliforms bacteria along with your supper.

If you're new to the area and haven't tried an oyster yet, just know that the first one is tricky. Don't look at it. And definitely don't chew it.  Just put it on a saltine cracker, douse it up with some tabasco sauce, and swallow it whole.

And that, folks, is fine Lowcountry eating. 

Photos of oyster roasts used with permission from eatsleepplaybeaufort.com.

The Mountains

It's fall leaf season in the mountains and I couldn't resist reminiscing a little about our visits there. 

I have such beautiful memories of our semi-annual visits to the mountains. I'm old enough to remember people feeding the black bears on the side of the road (OK - not such a great idea - but it does provide a unique memory). My dad had his favorite stops - Bridal Veil Falls, Grandfather Mountain - and we almost always went at least to Cherokee and sometimes on to Gatlinburg. I have to say I'm a little sad when I see what Gatlinburg has become. 

At any rate, our breakfasts were cold cereal in the motel room and lunches usually consisted of pimento cheese sandwiches and little cans of Donald Duck brand orange juice and apple juice, eaten by a gentle mountain stream. I delighted in the names of places on the Blue Ridge Parkway; around every turn was another knob, gorge, cove or gap.

One year it snowed in the mountains while we were there and Bridal Veil Falls created a little patch of ice that we enjoyed sliding around on. For Sea Island kids who went on the trip with beach sand in our shoes,  a little snow and ice was the most exciting thing that happened to us all year! 

The highlight of every trip was driving through Bat Cave where we were allowed to roll down the car windows and yell to hear our voices echo. This was accompanied by my dad honking his car horn. And, of course, every valley we passed prompted a discussion about whether or not that particular valley was the home of the Jolly Green Giant.

One year the Hipp family graciously offered us the use of their cabin. I will only say this - I have never been so cold in my entire life. I was so excited to get in the warm car the next morning that the relief of it has become a memory permanently etched in my mind. 

 This postcard I found reminds me so much of that little cabin.

I was always a little sad to leave and go back to our home at sea level. After being in the mountains, our Sea Island home seemed so flat and sandy. Of course, I wouldn't trade my Sea Island home for love nor money, but the mountains.....ah, the mountains......

The Road to Home

Nothing inspires the imagination of a romantic southern mind than a view of an old plantation avenue. The tree-lined road leads temptingly to an end that is usually hidden from sight; the inability to view the final destination making the journey toward it that much more intriguing.

The favorite image of a southern plantation avenue is a long dirt road lined with ancient oak trees, their limbs covered with Spanish Moss, their branches creating a cathedral-like ceiling which only allows the occasional sunlight through the leaves. A walk down one of these roads causes one to talk a little quieter and listen a little closer for whisperings from times gone by. The connection with the history of these places grows stronger when strolling down their paths.

However, Fuller Plantation on St. Helena Island had a unique feature. Unlike most oak-tree lined avenues, Fuller Plantation’s avenue was lined with magnolia trees. Robert Waight Fuller, grandson of Thomas Fuller who built Tabby Manse in Beaufort, owned Fuller Plantation (sometimes called Fuller Place) and took the idea for magnolia trees from his family’s country home in Sheldon:

"From the public road to the house, and all around it, was one of the noblest avenues of magnolias in all that land of stately forest-trees. The overhanging and interlacing branches formed a perfect archway; and when the trees were in bloom with large white flowers, it was a triumphal arch. As years added to their stateliness, they seemed to be the presiding genii of the place. As night came on, they were vocal with the wild concert of owls that flocked there from the surrounding swamps.”

The avenue to Fuller Plantation is now the road to Yard Farm, where the Bishops have lived for four generations. We call it “The Lane” and as soon as I make the turn off of Highway 21 I know I’m home. Not only has it served as a passageway to our house, but it evokes sweet memories of strolls with my grandmother where we discussed important world events such as what it’s like to live through a hurricane and whether or not my latest 7th grade crush would ever call me on the phone. (He never did.) At night it provided the perfect backdrop for Ghost Walks with my brother and our friends, a camera flash acting as our only source of light when someone heard a noise that needed investigation, which was often. “Flash it!” someone would yell, evidence that this person had become spooked enough to require a little light to make sure something of a supernatural source wasn’t about to grab us from the bushes.

In the 1940s, when O.H. Bishop,my great grandfather, acquired the Yard Farm from Ross MacDonald (MacDonald-Wilkins Company) he wanted to dress up the road to Yard Farm a little so he built a gate at its entrance. In its day, it was quite impressive. He even put statues of animals on the posts but someone else liked those animal statues too and it didn't take  long for them to disappear. 

After the Bishops got out of the farming business and sold the land, the gate fell into disrepair and today only a remnant of it remains.

A glance down the dirt road today wouldn’t tell anyone that it was a plantation avenue if they didn't already know it. While beautiful in its own way, it isn’t pretentious or striking. Someone passing by on their way to Hunting Island won’t put the brakes on and turn around to get a picture. But that’s why I love it so much. It’s a hidden treasure; one of many on the Sea Islands that are overlooked by the crowds but very much appreciated by those who take a moment to know its history and feel the spirit that resides there.

It is the road to home.

Prom Dress Perpetrator 
(A "Sonny's Story")

In 1957, my bride to be was a first year school teacher in Beaufort. Being a single female, she was required to stay at the Teacherage, a dorm type large home run by the district. Back in the day, a single female of good reputation did not rent an apartment alone. That was a time when having teachers of sterling background was important. The Teacherage is now a bed and breakfast called the Two Suns Inn on Bay Street. (She could have stayed with her family if they lived here.)

Since I was finishing school, she worked the year before we married. One holiday, all of the teachers and the housemother left for the weekend, so she would be alone in that huge house. I offered to ask my grandmother, who ran a boarding house in town, to let her stay there, but she refused.

So after a date at the local drive-in movie, I was to drop her off at the dark building. She didn’t refuse my offer to check the house out before leaving. So I made the rounds, checking doors and windows and closets.

I got to one closet and the hackles raised on my neck. I went into combat mode thinking with all senses on alert. I grabbed the doorknob with my left hand, had my right fist balled up if needed and pulled the door open very quickly.

Something suddenly flew out the door and landed on my face and chest. I heard a crackling noise and instinctively started pounded it with both fists. Short one-two punches as hard as I could. Then the perpetrator fell away onto the floor.

My bride showed up as I was still panting and asked, “What was all that noise?” I explained that when I opened the door, IT suddenly flew out and I started hitting IT.

We both looked at IT on the floor. IT was a girl’s pink hoop style formal prom dress with a tattered paper cover. She laughed first and then I did. Apparently when I opened the door quickly, the air rushed in and blew the dress off the hanger into my face.

We decided to keep it a secret. I could see the headline in the then weekly Beaufort Gazette, 


She found another paper cover and we checked the dress for damage and there was none, not even one torn seam.

You know, they just don’t make prom dresses that strong anymore.

Mary Bishop and her hero, Sonny.

Thank you, Mrs. Barnwell

When Beaufort was occupied by the Union Army in November 1861, residents of Beaufort and the surrounding islands evacuated so quickly that many left their dinners sitting on the table. Imagine the panic of these people as they hurriedly packed as many belongings as they could while the Union troops advanced on them. What to take? What to leave behind? Sarah Caroline Barnwell faced this dilemma.

But first - some history. 

In the 1700s, South Carolina was divided into parishes. Many of them you've probably heard of such as Prince William Parish, home to the Old Sheldon Church ruins, and St. Helena's Parish, home to the much-loved St. Helena's Episcopal Church as well as the Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island. There was St. Andrews Parish which you've driven through if you've been to Charleston, also St. Paul's, St. Michael's, St. Matthews......yes, you're seeing a biblical pattern.

The propensity for biblical names stems from the fact that in the 1700s the state church of South Carolina was the Church of England, or Anglican Church (although its prominence in southern society dwindled some in the post-colonial period).  Parishes of the church existed throughout the state to serve as election districts and were responsible for community matters such as taking care of the poor, developing roads, and providing education. Registers were kept of parish goings on - births, marriages, deaths, etc.

So you can imagine that a Parish Register would be an extremely important and valuable record of the history of that community.

Once the Union troops got to Beaufort they packed up all the records they could find and sent them elsewhere; eventually, they were burned. Very, very little of Beaufort's pre-Civil War records survived the war. Certainly this wasn't the greatest tragedy of the War Between the States but it can be listed among the things that happened that just make your heart break at the thought of all that rich history - gone. Just gone.

Enter Mrs. Barnwell. 

Mrs. Sarah Caroline (Richardson) Barnwell was married to Captain Edward Barnwell who was, for many years, the warden of St. Helena's Parish. His job was varied but one of his tasks was to keep the Parish Register.  Captain Barnwell died before the Civil War, but Mrs. Barnwell was still in possession of the Parish Register when the "Day of De Big Gun Shoot" sent everyone fleeing from Beaufort and the sea islands in advance of the Union Army. 

She knew the importance of the register, but there was only so much she could take with her. I can only imagine the pain of this decision-making, especially in the panic and hurry of trying to get out of Beaufort. Fortunately for us, she decided that the Parish Register couldn't be left behind, so she packed it up with her other cherished possessions and took it with her. I wonder what precious family treasure she had to leave behind so that the register would fit in her trunk?

After the war, she eventually gave it to Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper and he eventually gave it to the Charleston Library Society.

And now....be still my heart.....the register has been digitally archived and you can read THE WHOLE THING online. If you apply a little imagination, it's actually riveting reading and the dates are mind-boggling - 1700s Beaufortonians, long gone, coming alive in your mind through simple entries made about births and baptisms, marriages, and deaths by fever and dropsy. There are old Beaufort names; a whole mess of Barnwells, of course, but  also Albergotti, Bull, Pinckney, and Fuller.  

A description exists on the front page that includes this:

Done at Beaufort in the 25th year of the reign of His Majesty George II and is 

most humbly inscribed unto the Reverend: the minister, the church, wardens 

and Gentlemen of the Vestry and the other, the Gentlemen freeholders of the Said Parish, by their most humble and obliging servant, William Gough, St. George, 1752.

Can you picture Mr. Gough in 1752 (1752!!) in his breeches and buttoned coat, sitting at a wooden desk in St. Helena's Episcopal Church, the very building we know and love in the year 2014, writing this down with no idea that people would someday be reading it on a computer via the internet? 

Therefore, we must appreciate Mrs. Barnwell for her quick thinking, her attention to heritage, and her (perhaps) impulsive decision to include the St. Helena's Parish Register in the limited space in her trunk as the Yankees descended upon her home. With her actions she preserved a precious piece of Beaufort history that would have otherwise been lost. Her decision gave us one more opportunity to ponder our connection to these people who also loved Beaufort and called it home.

So thank you Mrs. Barnwell. What a gift you gave us.

You can read and ponder the St. Helena's Parish Register here. 


The Miracle of Returning Home - A Turtle Story

Nestled in the warm, protective sand on Fripp Island is a little turtle nursery - nests, created by  mama turtles and populated by many soft, round eggs. Just the fact that these nests exist is, in itself, somewhat of a wonder because recently a small miracle took place. It happened while we weren’t paying attention, as miracles have a tendency to do.


Here it is. Far away, perhaps hundreds of miles away, a female Loggerhead Turtle felt a little tug. I’m not a turtle, so I can’t explain exactly what that tug felt like, but whatever the sensation was, it caused the 250 pound  turtle to set her internal navigation system and start swimming toward Fripp Island where, some 20 years or so ago, she hatched from her egg. Humans are such proprietary creatures; we think we’re the only ones who feel a longing for home but, apparently, we aren’t alone in that somewhat inexplicable feeling. For, you see, the female Loggerhead Turtle also feels that little pull that draws her back home.  She remembers the place from which she came and, even if it means swimming a very long way, will return to the beach where she herself hatched to make a place for her little ones to start their lives.


I must say that, for a turtle, this seems pretty remarkable and there’s something about it that makes me feel kind of small and, well, reverent in a way.  I, too, have often overcome many barriers to follow an internal tugging of heart strings and make a trip home from a place thousands of miles away. They are, of course, different barriers than our turtle friend and none were life-threatening, but they were obstacles nonetheless and sometimes seemed dauntingly insurmountable.  I feel that we’re a little connected, she and I.


So she makes this significant trip overcoming who knows what – strong currents, predators, all the power of the sea and the things in it – and finally makes it home to Fripp Island to lay her eggs. She makes her way out of the surf where, again, her instinct comes into play and she chooses a place on the beach where she thinks her babies will be safe from marauding raccoons, hungry ghost crabs, and curious beach visitors.


And then she does another seemingly difficult thing. She covers her eggs with sand then turns around and heads back to the ocean, leaving her babies behind. She won’t ever see her little ones. She’ll never know if they actually hatched safely and made it to the ocean.  She can only hope that, even if they do make it into the surf, they live long enough to tell about it.


It must be really hard to be a mother turtle.

Fortunately, though, while fate will always have the upper hand because that’s just the way nature works, her little ones will at least have a fighting chance to make it to the ocean. Enter the Fripp Island Turtle Team, a group of volunteers who work to protect the nests and the hatchlings so they have the best chance possible.


And there are rules to govern our somewhat thoughtless and bungling human behavior. Starting May 1, it’s "Lights Out" on Fripp Island, in keeping with county and city ordinances. Through October 31, no artificial lighting can be visible from the beach at night, in an effort to help moms and hatchlings stay oriented to the ocean. Their instincts tell them to follow the light which, in this particular case, is a good thing since celestial light guides our reptilian friends to the surf. But they’re easily disoriented by other types of lights and, in their inability to discern natural light from artificial light, may head the wrong direction and end up in someone’s back yard instead.


Personally, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for guiding a baby turtle away from the ocean after all its mother did to give it a good start in life.


All in all, it’s a pretty noteworthy process and you can’t help but want to cheer the little ones on as they emerge from the sand like so many actors from “The Walking Dead” and, shaking the sand off, immediately start actively inching their way to the water.  No one taught them to do this. They just know, in the same way their mother just knew she had to go home.


There’s a lot we can learn from the story of the Loggerhead Turtle; lessons on persistence, courage, and remembering our roots.  And how fun it is to cheer the little ones on as they start their lives in the vast and scary ocean, hoping that their predators will have already eaten lunch when the little guys finally make it to the water's edge. Because as Dr. Seuss so wisely wrote, “And the turtles, of course….all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be."


Photos: credit eatsleepplaybeaufort.com and used with permission.

Watch videos of hatchling turtles making their way out of the sand and into the surf at Fripp Island here. 

A Moment of Wonder

Slowly, the traffic crawls across the Woods Memorial Bridge. Closed for ten minutes to let a boat go through, the bridge has successfully backed traffic up to the Factory Creek Landing on one side and Bellamy’s Curve on the other. The stoplight at the corner of Bay and Carteret Streets enjoys a cool and contemptuous sense of importance since its timing now controls the destiny of all those people sitting in their cars, air conditioning blowing full blast to keep the Lowcountry heat from baking them in their SUV’s. On both sides of the bridge people are waiting…..waiting…… while ice cream melts in a grocery bag and dentist appointments start to get rescheduled. Babies fuss. Bladders wish they’d been emptied earlier. The good nature of fine southern folk is tested.

At moments like this, it’s best to follow instructions my parents gave me when, as a teenager, I was bored with waiting. “Just sit and think beautiful thoughts”, they’d say. At the age of 14 when it felt my world was a little claustrophobic and I was sure that all the good stuff was happening to other people, I didn’t do very well with just sitting and thinking beautiful thoughts. But, given there wasn’t much else to do, I developed somewhat of a knack for it and I can now highly recommend it. The thinking of beautiful thoughts can open up the possibilities of experiencing a moment of wonder; possibilities which abound in our beautiful Sea Island home and which are easily missed when we’re busy trying to get something done.

So I’d like to invite you to drop the deadlines for a minute and cultivate a sense of Sea Island wonder with me.

Take a stroll through the cemetery at St. Helena’s Episcopal Church. Envision the tombstones being lifted off the graves then carried inside and laid across the pews to be used as operating tables during the Civil War. Can you imagine it? Today the church grounds are a serene and peaceful place; a place to go to think beautiful thoughts, as it were. But can you stand in awe at what the church grounds must have felt like with Union soldiers bustling about among women in hoop skirts who worked as nurses? 

Early in the morning, find a place by the side of a tidal creek and wait. Everything is still and peaceful as the tide comes in and the only sound is the morning songs of whippoorwills and mockingbirds. But if you’ve been living right you’ll be rewarded with a porpoise sighting. Just watch. Be patient – and - there! The brief sight of a shiny gray back as the porpoise comes up for a breath of air. Can you believe you’re in a place where this happens all the time?

At the other end of the day you stand a good chance of receiving the gift of a Lowcountry sunset over the water. They’re so beautiful you’ll just have no choice but to stop what you’re doing and wonder at the sight of it. Take a picture if you need to, but then take time to just sit and watch. Remember to breathe.

Some wonders are easily overlooked, like these little fiddler crabs that go about their fiddly business while we deal with important human affairs like bridge closings and dentist appointments. Did you know that these tiny crustaceans have an uncanny and completely reliable sense of time? They know when the tide’s coming in and, when the feeling is right, they climb into their holes and close up the opening with a mud ball. There they wait patiently (much more patiently than we do on the bridge) until their internal alarm clock tells them the tide has gone back out again and it’s safe to un-barricade the door and go back to doing what fiddler crabs do best – eating stuff and looking for girlfriends. Now that’s just extraordinary.

If you really want to stand in wonder, sit quietly on the grounds of the Penn Center and envision former slaves getting an education, acquiring new skills, learning to be free. Even the huge oak trees seem to stand in awe of it. Can you picture schooners on the creeks around Beaufort, carrying cotton to Savannah and Charleston?

If that’s not enough, consider the magic of tides. As someone once said, “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” Or maybe take a short detour off of Boundary Street for a few minutes and wander the tombstones of the National Cemetery. Think of the honor, the patriotism, the sacrifice.

When I was younger and the internet didn’t exist yet for me to visit places with the click of a mouse, I used to stand on the beach at Hunting Island, look to the horizon, and think to myself, “Across there lies England.” The thought of it! Now I know that I was a little too far north in my estimation of where I would be if I could travel quickly and easily across the ocean – I’d actually be pretty close to Marrakech – but still! The thought of it! And maybe there’s someone like me standing on the shores of Morocco thinking “Across there lies America”. Cool.

Walt Whitman said, “Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.” The trick is seeing the moment, touching it, and acknowledging it. In this beautiful place we call home we have the opportunity to literally be stopped in our tracks by one of those moments on a daily basis. 

So the next time you’re sitting on the bridge, consider it a blessing. You have no choice other than to stop what you’re doing for a moment and think beautiful thoughts – and in the process perhaps you’ll be touched by a moment of wonder.

Picture of St. Helena's Episcopal Church cemetery from tripadvisor.com

Picture of people on the Moroccan coast from peregrinetravelwld.com.au

All other pictures credit Elizabeth Bishop Later

The Beaufortonian's Guide to Visiting Beaufort

Tourist season is in full swing in our lovely home town. Folks from all over are driving down Highway 17 and up Interstate 95, taking a little detour on Highway 21 and ending up in one of the most beautiful places in the country. 


OK - the universe. (Bias is an inherited southern trait.)

We love and welcome visitors to Beaufort and are so happy they've chosen to spend some of their precious vacation time strolling down Bay Street and riding in carriages through the Old Point. There's a lot to see; a lot to do. And it's great fun.

However, for those of us who grew up in Beaufort, live elsewhere, and visit regularly, we admit that we have a very serious character flaw. They say that admitting it is the first step to recovery, so here goes: we are snobs about being native Beaufortonians. It's a pride thing, really. So when we visit, the very last thing we want is for someone to mistake us for tourists.  Once I was walking down Carteret Street with my dad, who had a camera in his hand. He said, "I probably should have put this camera in a bag. Walk like you know where you're going so no one will think we're tourists." 

The only thing worse than being mistaken for a sightseer is someone thinking you're a Yankee. Heaven forbid. 

Rest assured that you will never catch us in a t-shirt that says, "It's a Beaufort Thing." We avoid the stores on Bay Street between the months of May and September unless we're wearing dark glasses. And just in case we do have a real need for carrying a camera downtown, we've got our bases covered with car decals like this one, which eliminate any confusion.  The decal's message: "We're in the cool club. We were born here." 

Of course, we enjoy all the great things Beaufort has to offer, too. We just don't do it when anyone's looking. So if you want to visit Beaufort like a native Beaufortonian, here are five suggestions:

1. Eat at Duke's BBQ. Eat your BBQ with several slices of Sunbeam white bread from the loaf on the table along with a double helping of fried pork skins. Wash it all down with a big glass of sweet tea but don't use a straw. 

Straws are for tourists.

2. A visit to the Chocolate Tree is a must, but put on your best southern accent when talking to the chocolatiers. "I just LOVE these darlin' chocolate sand dollars! I just can't get enough of 'em." 

Pay in cash. Credit cards are a dead give-away.

3. If you get caught on the bridge, stay in your car. Opening the door and resting your feet on the door handle is acceptable. However, if you absolutely must lean on the railing to watch the boat go under, go with the nonchalance of Robert Mitchum and make sure you don't point at anything.

4. Take a ride to Frogmore and eat lunch at the Shrimp Shack. Get the Shrimp Burger but do not, I repeat, DO NOT ask if the Shrimp Burger has shrimp in it. My schoolmate Julie will stare at you like you've got a head growing out of your left shoulder. 

5. Grits are a thing here. But if you ask for milk and sugar everyone's going to think you're from New Hampshire. (A very nice place, but remember the goal here....) Butter and salt, mix it all up with your eggs and bacon, and eat it with a spoon. 

And while we're on the topic of Lowcountry food, if someone offers you a boiled peanut just pop it open and eat it. Choke it down if you have to and, for heaven's sake, don't say "Ewww....it's soft!" 

So there you have it. Our top five ways to visit Beaufort like a native. Of course, you can always throw caution to the wind, forget what everybody thinks about you, and just enjoy it. Take the carriage tour. Wander in and out of the little stores on Bay Street and buy lots of stuff adorned with seashells. Walk on the waterfront and gaze at the sailboats. Stroll into the Chamber of Commerce and pick up some postcards and brochures.

You never know what might happen. You might even find a new Facebook friend from New Hampshire. 

Photos of The Chocolate Tree and bowl of grits courtesy of our friends at eatsleepplaybeaufort.com. All other photos credit Elizabeth Bishop Later.


It’s late on a summer afternoon and the temperatures have been excruciatingly hot. These are the days when you emerge from an air conditioned building and walk as fast as your heart will let you without giving you a pain in your chest to your car which has been super-heated to over 120 degrees. It’s an oven in there so you open the car door, reach in carefully, and start the car so you can turn the air conditioning on full blast for a few minutes before you get in. You don’t dare get inside immediately lest you self-combust or get a third degree burn from the steering wheel.

It’s hot. And that’s an understatement.

To the east, across the river, the entire sky has turned bluish-black like a wall of bruise. A storm is on its way in from the ocean and this worries you more than the possible heat stroke you’re going to get inside your automobile, so you venture carefully into the car (mind anything metal), roll all the windows down to blow out the hot air, and hurry home. Getting caught on the road in one of these storms will lead one to wonder why cars sold in the south don’t come with skis and a propeller because so much water is going to come pouring down you’ll think how much a boat would come in handy right about now.

The low rumbling gradually gets louder and louder. The incredibly dark cloud creeps over you, darkening the sky and giving you a feeling of excited but anxious foreboding. Soon, the wind picks up, blowing moss out of the trees and sending oak leaves flying about. It’s going to be a frog strangler.

Life in the Lowcountry is a gentle life – lazy days, warm nights, quiet moments in the swing watching the tide come in. But a Lowcountry thunderstorm is anything but gentle. It’s a raucous event; a jarring experience.

My parents taught us to have a healthy respect for thunderstorms. The story of my great uncle, whose mother stood on her porch calling for him to hurry….hurry….only to watch him get struck and killed by lightning as he galloped home on his horse served as a frequently told cautionary tale. The farm workers who were knocked out cold in the packing house when lightning hit the telephone line during tomato packing season was a perennial favorite story. If ever we started to forget, we were reminded. “Did I ever tell you about your great uncle?”

With this in mind, we had house rules when thunderstorms rolled in. We were instructed to come inside at the first sound of thunder and stay away from the windows. As the thunder got louder and louder we made our preparations, unplugging electrical appliances and getting out candles in case the lights went out. In my pre-teens my maternal grandmother, who lived in Kingstree (just a couple of hours up the road) told us about a whole series of houses there whose toilets blew up when lightning hit the sewer line. So then we had to add avoiding the bathroom to the list of precautions. You learned to use the bathroom before the storm but, if you didn’t and couldn’t hold it, you dashed into the bathroom between thunder claps and prayed that the toilet didn’t detonate while you were on it.

At the moment my parents decided the storm was close enough we all gathered in my parents’ bedroom in the center of the house, away from the chimney and the CB radio antenna. And there we waited it out, two adults and two children sitting on a bed, counting seconds between the lightning and the thunder to gauge the storm’s distance from us. 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000 we’d mutter…….

I don’t believe I was an anxious child, but I really didn’t like loud noises. So you can imagine what a thunderstorm that rolled in right over our house on St. Helena Island did for my nerves. I learned that the brightness of the lightning was a predictor of the decibel level of the thunder clap that followed. A bright flash sent me hunkering down, arms over my head, eyes squeezed shut in preparation for the crashing thunder that followed. The times when the lightning flashed at the same time the thunder rolled were enough to give somebody Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No longer a rumble, the thunder turned into an explosion. The cats went under the bed. Were it not for the security of my parents’ presence I would have been under there with them.

These days I crave a good thunderstorm. I said this once to a friend from Iowa and she got a look of horror on her face. Her thunderstorms carried tornadoes; not a friendly memory. But there’s something oddly reassuring about the rumbling of the thunder, the feeling of electricity in the air, the absolutely impressive event that a Sea Island thunderstorm can be. And then, when the onslaught ceases, there’s the lingering scent of rain in the air, the soft humidity, the steam rising off the asphalt that has baked all day in the sun.

So on my list of things that remind me of home a good thunderstorm is right up there at the top. Bring on the heat. Bring on the thunder. Bring on the feeling of home.

Picture of lightning on Lady's Island, South Carolina from eatsleepplaybeaufort.com and used with permission.

Picture of storm traveling off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina by Steve Casey from the website http://wximpact40-88.pbworks.com/

"Dr. K" - Trusted Family Doctor

On a cold fall evening in 1964 a solitary car travels south on Highway 21. The road, both eerie and beautiful in its isolation, carries the driver from town across the Beaufort River, passing over Lady’s Island and the tiny Chowan Creek bridge to the remote and sparsely populated St. Helena Island.

In the dark the driver, who travels alone, slows the car and leans forward slightly in order to more clearly see the obscure dirt road that he needs to turn onto. It is late and he is tired, but he relaxes a little when he sees the familiar landmark of the Bishops' packing house. This is where he turns to continue down a long dirt road, fields of fall vegetables on his left; moss draped oak trees and magnolia trees on his right.

Pulling up into the yard, he parks and picks up his bag of tools from the back seat – stethoscope, reflex hammer, bandages, and medications – and, with the confidence of familiarity, approaches the house and knocks on the back door. The front door is for guests and this is no guest. This is Dr. Keyserling and it is me he’s coming to see. I am three years old and I have the Measles.

Now some people say that I shouldn't be able to remember anything that happened to me at that age, but I can remember Dr. Keyserling in his white shirt walking through that back door, pulling up a chair beside me as I lay on the little sofa in the kitchen and saying, "That's a lot of spots you have". 

In today's healthcare world a visit like this seems so quaint and remote, almost foreign in its concept. Younger generations who have only ever seen doctors in an office or a hospital setting cannot conceive of the idea that a doctor would actually drive to your home to take care of you when you were sick. But that's what happened and in his book, Doctor K: A Personal Memoir, Dr. Keyserling humorously and poignantly related stories of his time as a rural doctor in Beaufort County. It is unfortunate that relative newcomers to Beaufort will never have the experience of Dr. Keyserling's down-to-earth, pragmatic style of the practice of medicine.

My childhood memories of Dr. Keyserling are of his little office on Bay Street, which looked out over the Beaufort River. Going for our shots, we entertained ourselves in the waiting room with back copies of Highlights magazines until the very starched presence of Dr. Keyserling’s nurse appeared. I was not so much afraid of Dr. Keyserling, but I was surely scared of his nurse. Looking back, I’m sure that she was an incredibly delightful person, but she was very firm and all business in her white uniform, nurse's cap, and white Clinic shoes, and I knew she wouldn’t hesitate to stick me with something if given half a chance.

Our parents didn't take us for "well checks" like parents do today. There was always purpose in our visits to the doctor – school shots or some small treatment, such as the removal of ringworm (frozen out of the bottom of my foot and followed by my mother saying, “I told you not to go outside without your shoes on”) or the stitches my brother needed when he stuck his hand through the window. Other than that, our few doctor-patient interactions always followed this pattern:

Dr. K: "How are you feeling?"

Me: "Fine."

Dr. K: "Are you eating?"

Me: "Yes, sir."

Dr. K: "Sleeping?"

Me: "Yes, sir."

Dr. K: "Do you hurt anywhere?"

Me: "No, sir."

Dr. K: Then what the heck are you doing here? You're not sick! Get out of here!" 

It could be said that Dr. Keyserling was a pioneer of conservative medicine.

To this day, I bear the scar of his work. It was late summer of my 7th or 8th year and it was time for my brother and me to get our Smallpox vaccinations. This vaccination required scratching the skin on the upper arm with a needle that had the vaccine embedded on it. In about a week the place that was scratched with the needle would scab over and in about two weeks the scab would fall off, leaving a scar. My whole generation wears these round, dime-sized scars on their upper arms.

I don't know why Dr. K. was compelled to do it, but I remember him telling me that he was going to make mine look like a butterfly. And you know what? It does. 

I grew up to be a nurse and, after graduating from nursing school at the Medical University of South Carolina, would see him in the halls of Beaufort Memorial Hospital where I had my first real nursing job. He was good to work with as long as you did things right. If you didn’t…..well, let’s just say it was worth it to do it right.

In a day and age where healthcare can be sterile and cold, driven by the dollar, and sometimes focused on the convenience of healthcare providers instead of what’s best for patients, Dr. Keyserling and the way he cared for several generations of Beaufortonians is a bittersweet memory for those of us who ever needed him. His gruff but reassuring presence when we were ill cast a feeling of security over us that is rare in medicine today. He cared about his community. He cared about his patients. And we knew it.

While he would certainly scoff at my sentimentality if he were alive to see it and would generally give me a very bad time about it, I have to say that I miss him. Technology and our ability to cure the sick and injured has vastly (and thankfully) improved since 1964 when a country doctor made a house call to a very sick little girl on St. Helena Island. But I would dare say that we were, by far, better cared for then – in every sense of the word.

Photo of Herbert and Harriet Keyserling from the College of Charleston website: jewish.cofc.edu.

An Open Letter to the Beaufort City Council

Photo: Beaufort's Waterfront Park, courtesy eatsleepplaybeaufort.com

To the Honorable Mayor Billy Keyserling and members of the Beaufort City Council,

It will come as no surprise to you that there is one more voice being added to the clamor over the potential development of “River Place” in the current parking lot by the marina. This polarizing issue is surely one that is weighing heavily on your minds. People are upset. Folks are concerned. Tomatoes have been thrown at you. Some of them are rotten.

So as a preface, let me assure you that this letter is not an attempt to engage in the melee, cast doubt on your motives, or incite the crowd. It is simply my small effort to provide one more perspective as you consider the choices available to you on this issue.

I am compelled to do this because I am a 4th generation native of the area, born in Beaufort and raised on St. Helena Island. My great grandfather, O.H. Bishop was integral to the development of truck farming enterprises on St. Helena Island and his sons and grandsons continued that legacy until the 1970s. Mayor Keyserling, our families are not related, but are connected. Dr. Herbert Keyserling was boyhood friends with the Bishop brothers, including my grandfather, O.R. Bishop, Sr. and spent many summer hours playing on the Yard Farm on St. Helena Island where my family still lives. 

While I have never lived within the city limits and I currently don’t live in the area I am, in every respect, a Beaufortonian. I may not be there physically but my heart and soul are there; it is the place I go to when I need to be re-grounded to who I am and what I stand for and I do it as often as possible. It is as much a part of me as each member of my family.

It is the place I call home.

I have tried to educate myself as much as possible on the issue at hand. I’ve read the Civic Master Plan that is posted on the city’s website and believe the four core principles – Serve, Energize, Connect, Celebrate – to be relevant and, if adhered to, will promote the right balance everyone seeks between preservation and growth. While I did not vote you into office because that is not my privilege, I trust that the citizens of Beaufort have chosen representatives who will adhere to the vision set out in the Master Plan to “celebrate the waterfront” and “preserve Beaufort’s historical legacy”. 

Being on the City Council of any town is a position of great responsibility but being on the City Council of a town like Beaufort brings with it an even greater responsibility. You are entrusted with caring for a whole town full of landmarks, culture, and unique architecture while also ensuring that the town remains vibrant and financially stable.

But equally as important as the stewardship you have over the physical attributes, history, and financial stability of the town is your guardianship over multitudes of memories from people who have experienced Beaufort as well as the future Beaufort experiences we want our posterities to have. You are the caretakers of whether we will continue to be able to share what we love about our home or whether it will just be a story to tell, starting with “This place used to be…” 

You would never dream of razing the Verdier House in the name of progress because significant history happened there. But important personal history for many, many people has happened on the waterfront in Beaufort. It isn't written in history books and you won’t find it in a tour guide but, to each person who has their own little personal piece of history in Beaufort, it is no less important.

This is no small burden you bear.

As with anything so precious and beautiful as our town and our waterfront, people will come along who will want to exploit it for their own gain. I am not at all suggesting that this is your motivation, but developers want to make money. I’m sure they lay awake at night, giddy at the thought of what they could do if they could get their hands on the property where the parking lot sits. And if they do – if you allow them to have it to build on – will you look back in 10 years and be pleased with that decision? I honestly can’t believe you could reflect on your time in office and think to yourselves, “We did the right thing”.

Preservationists are often labeled as romantics and sentimentalists; quixotic with no sense of the realities of life. But let me be clear. I understand the need to keep Beaufort alive and well. We need people to visit and spend money in our town; our local businesses need to thrive. But there must be a better way to vitalize our city’s economy – one that doesn’t trample on our memories, our experiences, our collective desire to keep Beaufort from turning into a town just like so many other towns that have sold out in the name of progress and growth. This vitalization has been done before in Beaufort and has been done well. The rejuvenation of Bay Street and the Henry C. Chambers waterfront park are two excellent examples of how it can be done. In fact, the State Historic Preservation Office has highlighted Beaufort’s downtown as a shining example of thoughtfully planned revitalization that has attracted people and businesses while maintaining the character and charm of the city.

All you have to do is follow this pattern but to do otherwise, to destroy the original fabric of the west side of the waterfront by allowing developers to use it in the name of economic growth and revitalization will be profoundly disrespectful on many, many levels. The Pulitzer-prize winning writer Russell Baker once said, “Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things”.

I believe that your love for Beaufort is equal to mine, but I wrote in a recent blog post that I was afraid that Beaufort was at risk of being loved to death. So I am imploring you, begging you to put aside the “River Place” concept and explore other ways of enhancing the waterfront that will satisfy both the need for financial stability as well as the need for preservation of our history, our legacy, our memories, and our ability to share all of that with the future.

I believe you to be people of integrity who want to do the right thing for Beaufort and all who have a connection to it. You are bright minds who will find resources to help you carry out your stewardship in a way that will preserve the sense of place that the waterfront provides. 

I know you can do it. I trust and hope with all of my heart that you will.

Most Respectfully,

Elizabeth Bishop Later

Treasures from the Ocean

We pile in the car, our beach gear in hand: a cooler of drinks, sandwiches, and snacks as well as the foundational sunscreen, beach towels, and radio. We’re on our way to Hunting Island and the kids are more than excited at the prospect of a swimming-laughing-boogie-boarding day at the beach.

Of course, I’m expected to have various and sundry other items that may be required for the random need – Tylenol for a sun glare headache, vinegar for the rare jelly-fish sting, hand-wipes since beach sand is fun but not in your sandwich. And tucked away in a side pocket of the duffle bag is a stack of empty whipped cream containers.

In case you weren't aware, whipped cream containers are an essential beach-going item because at some point everyone’s going to tire of being in the water. Eyes will start stinging from the salt, folks are going to get water-logged, and they’ll exit the surf and start wandering up and down the beach looking for shells. Just as the book you brought starts to get good, everyone’s going to come to you with fistfuls of shells and ask for something to put them in.

Whipped cream containers. Essential beach item. You can thank me later.

In reality, this is the fun part of the beach experience for me. Oh, the water is fun, fun, fun but what could be more exciting than strolling along looking to see what the sea is offering up today? There’s no telling what treasure you’ll find. It’s serendipity at its best and I defy anyone to go to the beach and not stoop over just once to pick up something alluring in the sand.

The best time for hunting shells is on an outgoing tide, when shells are left on the beach by the receding water. Hunting Island shells are generally bivalve shells such as Angel Wings, Clam shells, and Atlantic Cockle shells. And there are thousands and thousands of intriguingly tiny Pear Whelks, Ram’s Horns, Conchs, and Florida Augers – miniature shells who have their own stories to tell as they’ve been transported from place to place with the ocean’s currents. If you look closely you’ll usually see a small hole in the shell that’s created by a snail that uses its tongue to file a hole in the shell and feed on the soft creature inside. Of course, this kills the animal inside the shell and the shell eventually washes ashore.

That may have been more than you wanted to know.

At any rate, it’s definite that you’ll find lots of these kinds of shells. The only difficult part will be choosing which ones to pick up and take home with you. But you might find a sand dollar and anyone who finds a whole sand dollar on the beach goes home feeling like it’s been a good day. (Editorial comment: Do the right thing with live ones and throw them back into the ocean). Sea sponges and shark teeth always wash ashore and you’re certain to find a jellyfish or two, although I can’t recommend trying to take one home with you.

If the beach-combing gods are smiling down on you, you’ll find some sea glass. Since most of us are drinking out of plastic containers these days and recycling has become more popular, sea glass is somewhat elusive but it’s still around for someone willing to spend time looking for it. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient…Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

Sea glass starts out as trash, usually bottles thrown into the ocean, and the sea tumbles it and tumbles it, breaking it up and wearing the shards smooth. The result: a gem from the sea. The more round and frosted a piece of sea glass is, the higher its value. And if you happen to find a piece of orange or pink glass, then the beach-combing gods were really smiling on you since sea glass in these colors is extremely rare.

There’s something beautifully restorative about strolling aimlessly down the beach, looking for a treasure to take home with you. In many ways, it feels like visiting a guest who graciously sends you home with a little goodie. And years later, when your grown children find the box of collected shells they’ll remember what it was like to play at the beach all day. They’ll hear the waves and the seagulls, feel the sunshine and the salty breeze, reminisce over romping around in the surf, and think to themselves, “Now, that is a beautiful memory”.

For ideas on how to preserve your shell collecting memories, visit our Pinterest board:

Remembering Your Trip to Beaufort, South Carolina

Picture of shells on the beach: Credit Krista Franzese and used with permission from eatsleepplaybeaufort.com

All other pictures: Credit Elizabeth Bishop Later

My Love Letter to Beaufort

"Just leave it up to you and in a little while

You're messin' up my mind and fillin' up my senses." 

(Dolly Parton)

Last night I woke up thinking about you. This happens to me on a disturbingly regular basis. One moment I’m minding my own business sleeping, say, as happened to me last night or doing something I need to focus on like work or laundry or deciding between 45 or 60 watt light bulbs at Home Depot and suddenly, from nowhere, here you come.

You and I have separated, amicably of course, so we no longer spend every waking moment together as we used to. Many years ago I made a youthful decision that this was best because it seemed that there were others that had so much more to offer than you did; you graciously accepted my decision. You were holding me back, you and your small town ways. It wasn’t that you weren’t good for me but Destiny was calling to me, telling me that if I was going to accomplish anything in life I needed to be somewhere else. Now I know that Destiny cannot always be trusted and may have lied just a little.

And now, many years later and many miles away, I find myself suddenly and inexplicably staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night or hesitating in Aisle 14, caught up in an unbidden memory of you. A feeling of security. The scent of pluff mud. The sound of cicadas on a muggy summer evening. I’m sure that little ache in my chest is probably just a result of the dark chocolate salted caramel mousse I finished off my Olive Garden dinner with.

Now that I’m older and wiser I see that my youthful decision to seek broader horizons was made with an equally youthful unawareness of future consequences. I could not foresee that one small decision to live far away from you for a brief time would lead to a lifetime of living far away from you. As someone once said, “It’s best that we can’t see the future. We probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning”.

I hope, though, that you don’t think that just because I moved along in my journey that I’m still not madly in love with you. Au contraire. There’s so much of you that is engrained in me, runs in my blood, fills my thoughts. How could I be anything but totally enamored? I hope you recognize that my love for you is displayed in sharing you with my children, telling stories about you, preserving you in pictures, ensuring that we have Frogmore Stew on special occasions.

Your simple ways taught me that the real pleasures in life are sitting on a swing with a loved one, watching the tide come in or the sun set. Your sense of history and place instructed me in the importance of heritage and remembering that who we are is made up of everything and everyone that came before us. Your lively and sometimes noisy military activities taught me patriotism and an appreciation for those who fight to protect our freedoms.

A walk down a dusty dirt road in the evening under arching trees, a salty breeze from the creek, a choking and coughing spell from a lung full of beach water, sitting patiently (and sometimes impatiently) on the Woods Memorial Bridge as its span slowly, slowly, turns to open and close....these are the things I love about you. 

And there are other things I love about you that are now only memories, my ability to recreate them unfortunately impossible: wandering in the bookshelves of the little library on Craven Street, waving at Santa Claus during the Christmas Parade, shopping for a birthday present with my grandmother at Edwards on Bay Street.

There are many who have discovered how easy it is to love you. They come from all over, from big cities and small towns, from snowy climes and western reaches. For most it was love at first sight so they stayed to sit and stare at you, stars in their eyes, their hearts bursting with puppy love. Others only come to visit but their infatuation is no less evident or compelling.

I don’t doubt their passion for you, although sometimes I’m afraid that they might love you to death. I only know that mine is a different endearment, one born from our shared experiences: the times when I was frustrated with you for being so provincial, the times when I was fearful for you as I watched a hurricane churning off the coast, the times when my 14 year old teenage self was so bored I thought I would die, the times when you provided a lovely sea breeze and a pelican gliding across the water to add to the magic of a date that ended with a walk on the waterfront.

So at night when all the tourists have gone to their rooms, the traffic on Carteret Street has subsided, the gift shops on Bay Street have turned their signs, and the dark windows of the boats at the marina signify that everyone has gone to bed, I want you to know that I am awake and thinking of how much I love you.

And I am hoping that you still love me, too.

Photo of Iwo Jima flag raising ceremony is public domain. Credit: Lance Cpl. MaryAnn Hill

Symbols of Home

One of the many unique things about living in South Carolina is the sweeping use of the South Carolina State Flag symbols to represent our connection to home. I've done a little research and I can't find any other state where the symbols on the flag have become so commonly used. 

(Of course, poor Virginia never had a chance - their symbol illustrates someone in a toga stepping on some poor soul. Imagine that on your koozie or the back of your car.) 

Nevertheless, the symbols on our flag connect all of us as South Carolinians. Once, when we lived in Idaho, someone passed me on the highway honking and waving like my car was on fire. "What in the world....?" I thought - until the car passed me and I saw that they, too, had a South Carolina decal on the back of their car. I'm surprised we didn't pull over and start hugging each other. 

Symbols are important in a culture. They're intentionally crafted to spark a feeling within us when we see them. The symbols on our State Flag, now used so frequently on the back of our cars (and on shirts, plastic cups, Christmas ornaments, backpacks, etc., etc.), were chosen because they illustrated ideas that all South Carolinians at the time could connect with. Originating in 1775, the blue of the flag represented the color of the uniforms worn by soldiers at the time. The crescent (no, it isn't a moon) represented the silver emblem worn on their caps. It wasn't until 1861 that the palmetto tree was added to commemorate Colonel William Moultrie's valiant defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan's Island against the British Fleet in 1776. 

But symbols are funny things. They originate, as did the symbols on our State Flag, to connect us to a shared experience. But as soon as we see the symbol our imaginations, fueled by our own feelings, experiences, and perceptions, start turning it into something uniquely personal. It becomes special to us because we connect to it in a very intimate way.

I love the history of our State Flag symbols and put the decal on my car as a reflection of my pride in being a native South Carolinian. But it means so much more to me than that. The palmetto tree and crescent say "home". When I see it I am flooded with memories and feelings. I'm sitting in a swing on the waterfront in Beaufort on a summer evening; I'm wading in Wallace Creek on St. Helena Island with my grandmother. I can taste the shrimp burger at The Shrimp Shack and smell the decadent chocolatey scents of The Chocolate Tree. I'm at the beach, where I can hear the seagulls fighting over my cheese puffs. The mockingbirds are singing on a beautiful spring day, perched in a blooming dogwood tree or azalea bush. 

The use of the South Carolina State Flag symbols in our everyday life on our everyday objects says "we love our home". 

And isn't that the truth?

The Mud in Our Souls

The Chowan Creek bridge that links Lady's Island and St. Helena's Island is a landmark to me. First, it was the spot where, on our way to school on chilly winter mornings, we could turn the heater on in the car because the distance from home to the "little white bridge" was enough for the engine to warm up sufficiently to provide heat.  And second, it's where you can get a good whiff of the smell of home. 

One day, as we drove to St. Helena Island across the Chowan Creek bridge I rolled the window down. One of my children asked me what I was doing. "Smelling the mud", I said.

My children, as do most folks from the Lowcountry, understand that the smell of pluff mud is the smell of home so they indulged the sudden breeze in the car so we could infuse the car with the aroma of home. 

Without getting into a marine biology lesson, the ecosystem of salt marshes is a rich and variant world that thrives on the salt water flooding and draining that occurs with the tides. The marsh grass (technically, cord grass or spartina) is the main player, providing erosion control, a little filtration of pollutants, and home for all kinds of coastal critters. The other day I read a blog post from a New Mexico native who wrote "I recently visited South Carolina and learned that people eat oysters that grow in mud". She went on to say, "It's possible it was a tourist trick, but other people were eating them too, I swear". 

Bless her heart. 

At any rate, it's the decomposition of the dead marsh grass that creates pluff mud. The soil that marsh grass grows in is muddy and full of peat, which is made of all that decomposing plant matter. Because it's waterlogged, peat is very spongy and soft. And because it's made mostly of decaying organic matter and spends a great deal of time under water, it has very little oxygen in it. That lovely scientific process creates the distinctive sweet and acrid aroma that some describe as a rotten egg smell but Lowcountry folks describe as the smell of home.

Enough science.

The best word to describe pluff mud is probably "gooey". It's a slick, mucky substance that dries hard on your shoes, stains your clothes, and has led to more than one slip and fall into the water. (Watch those oysters. You know - the ones that grow in the mud.) 

If you're heading out in the john boat for a little ride on the creek, it's best to sacrifice a pair of old tennis shoes to be your mud mucking shoes because once you step in pluff mud it's never coming off your shoes. And speaking of shoes, I sure wish I had a nickel for all the shoes that people have lost when they stepped in pluff mud, sank in up to their knees, and lost a shoe trying to get out. Trust me - I've lost my share. 

Some people have gotten very creative with pluff mud. There are products out there ranging from t-shirts that are screened and dyed using pluff mud, products to make you look younger, and beer. As a disclaimer, I'm pretty sure the beer doesn't actually contain pluff mud, but I'm open to new ideas.

So once you've stepped in it, smelled it and, believe it or not, eaten out of it, the iconic pluff mud sticks with you - both literally and figuratively. Who knew that something so icky, so tenacious, and so smelly could be so loved. 

Reflections on a Rainy Day in Beaufort

"There are so many ways I could love this island, if I were the rain." 

(Richard Nelson)

I probably speak for all Beaufortonians when I say that our favorite days are hot sunny days - days to sit on the porch and sip a cool drink or hang out at the beach and listen to Chairmen of the Board sing Carolina Girls or Beach Fever. Those are the days we can go out and haul in some shrimp for supper or take a dip in the creek after lolling about in a boat all afternoon. Is there anything better than swinging at the waterfront on a warm, humid summer evening or walking out of a building chilled by a blasting air conditioner into the sultry heat of a hot afternoon? Rain on those days usually comes in the form of a late afternoon thunderstorm - a gradual crescendo of thunder that leads into a commotion of lightning and torrential rain. 

But I should like to take a moment and extol the virtues of a cool, rainy day in Beaufort. While it doesn't lend itself to sun worshipping activities, these days have their own merit. 

When compared with the aggressive rain of a summer thunderstorm, this rain is almost caressing in its nature. The soft patter of raindrops is so soothing; I find myself becoming more reflective and introspective. As opposed to the bright, glaring light of those other days, the light becomes a little flossy and misty, as if we've woken up in a Monet painting. This one, in particular, reminds me of a rainy day on the Sea Islands.

Whatever the temperature, I find myself opening the windows a little so I can hear the rain. My father always loves to hear rain on the awnings; says he never sleeps so well as on those nights when he can fall asleep as the raindrops tap-tap-tap on the metal over the windows.

So while I love a hot sunny day in Beaufort I love, equally as much, a cool rainy day in Beaufort. It's an opportunity to enjoy homemade vegetable soup and find a place to watch the misty rain fall on the marsh, the herons and egrets begrudgingly doing their fishing while the frogs sing their happy songs. 

There are plenty of gloriously long, sultry days to come and we'll take advantage of those days in our Lowcountry way. But on those days, perhaps, we'll wish for just a few moments of that soft rain that comes this time of year - each little raindrop reminding us that enjoying a water-color day in Beaufort is just as nice as spending a day at the beach.

Painting of "Morning on the Seine in the Rain" by Claude Monet, 1898.

Photo of raindrops on moss by Sonny Bishop,

Photo of boats on the Beaufort River by Brittney Porter Later.

Photo of Woods Memorial Bridge from the waterfront on a rainy day, courtesy of EatSleepPlayBeaufort and used with permission.

Mr. and Mrs. Lipsitz

This is Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Lipsitz who ran Lipsitz Department Store on Bay Street in downtown Beaufort for.....well....a really long time. They have the distinct honor of introducing me (as well as many other people my age) to my first pairs of shoes. In 2009 they closed their store after many, many years of serving the little town of Beaufort and even now when I think of it I become very nostalgic over it.

In the 1960s, when I was a little girl, there were two places to buy shoes in Beaufort. One was Lipsitz Department Store; the other was Schein's Department Store just down the street on Bay. Lipsitz was our shoe store. We knew them. And they knew us.  In those days we bought three kinds of shoes: church shoes, school shoes, and play shoes. One pair each. In the 1960's in our little hometown there weren't a lot of choices, but we didn't know what we were missing so we were quite happy with what we got.

To add to the atmosphere, the store was graced by the presence of Lippy, the mynah bird who had two phrases: "Where's Joe?" and "Stride Rite, Stride Rite". From his perch in his brass cage he supervised my shoe-buying experience. And what a process it was!

First, I would climb up on the raised red vinyl chair and have my foot measured - by a real person who did nothing all day but sell shoes. That was exciting. Who knew how much bigger my foot would be than last time? The old shoe was removed and my sock foot was placed in the metal sliding foot-measurer (technically called a Brannock Device, but metal sliding foot-measurer is so much more fun to write).  It seems like there was no back room for this store. All the shoe boxes were stacked on shelves, under chairs, and in corners. Somehow they always knew where to find the shoes in your size, though. They had their own organizational system but it worked for them.  

A pair of shoes would come back in the right size and a great deal of checking for fit would happen. The sales person would squeeze my foot, use a thumb to feel for my big toe ("wiggle your toe" he'd say) and watch carefully as I walked away and back again. Then the same process would happen all over again with the other shoe. They would never in their lives let a child get out the door unless both shoes had been tried on and fitted.

The store had a big, plastic red goose on the counter - symbol of Red Goose Shoes which everyone wore, unless they were wearing Keds, Stride-Rites, or Buster Browns. Once the shoes were chosen and paid for, Mr. or Mrs. Lipsitz would let me pull the big Red Goose's neck and out would pop a golden plastic egg with a prize inside. I'm sure they were only supposed to let me do it if we actually bought a pair of Red Goose Shoes, but I don't ever remember a trip where I didn't get to pull the goose's neck.

Before they closed their doors for the last time I took the opportunity to visit with them in the store. They were as fun and smiley as ever. It seemed that nothing had changed. The shoe boxes were still everywhere and the red goose, though retired to a top shelf, was still alive and well. The mynah bird seemed to be the only thing missing.

I actually feel sorry for children these days. Their parents buy their shoes at Payless or Walmart and what a shame for all the little ones who will never know the excitement of sitting in that red vinyl chair or the thrill of pulling the goose's neck.

So to Mr. and Mrs. Lipsitz, I say thank you.

Thank you for caring that my growing feet had shoes that fit right.

Thank you for giving me sweet memories of something as simple as buying a pair of shoes.

And thank you for being such a lovely, unforgettable part of my childhood.

God bless.

Picture of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Lipsitz - photographer unknown

Picture of Lipsitz Department Store, 1966 from the photo gallery at Eat Sleep Play Beaufort (www.eatsleepplaybeaufort.com) - used with permission.

In Living Color
To edit or not to edit? That is the question.

The celebrated photographer, Ansel Adams, once said: 

"There are no rules for good photographs. There are only good photographs."

If that's true, and I believe that Ansel Adams knew what he was talking about when it came to photography, then those on both sides of the question about whether or not edited pictures of Beaufort are appropriately capturing the authenticity of the place are correct. 

To catch you up: There's a wealth of beautiful pictures of Beaufort and the surrounding area available on the internet, particularly on the Facebook pages and websites related to Beaufort. All of them capture the essence of what the photographer wanted to show others about the lovely place we call home. Not all came right out of the camera; some have had some editing done. Some have had A LOT of editing done. Recently, there's been an interesting online discussion about people's preferences for edited versus unedited, a debate which I have abstained from participating in, even though I have an opinion. My opinion isn't important. To each his own and who am I to say what is art and what isn't? I can't even draw a stick figure.

It's interesting to note, however, that this is not a new dilemma introduced by computer technology and the availability of editing software to anyone who has a camera. This argument has been around for over 150 years. 

You see, the dispute over editing photographs actually started with the advent of daguerrotypes in the 1850s. People loved daguerrotypes but they got bored fairly quickly and wanted the photograph to show more realistically what the subject really looked like. And thus the process of hand-tinting daguerrotypes was born. The public loved it. 

But not everyone was a fan. Francis Wey, the French writer and photography critic (1812-1882) wrote that hand-colored photographs were "vulgar productions of commerce....It's forcing nature to lie". 

On the other hand, the French Society of Photography was in favor of editing with brushes and colors and made a statement in the 1850s about it: "Photography has two goals and two ambitions: 'Art and Science'. Some cry fraud; austere priests of photographic virginity, even at the sound of the word retouching, cover their faces and wear mourning for their defiled vestal."

(I actually laughed out loud when I read the phrase "photographic virginity". Is that really the way people talked in 1854?)

So I was intrigued when I found this book in a local book store. Using computer colorizing technology and a gentle, thoughtful hand, John Guntzelman has taken black and white photographs captured by Matthew Brady and other renowned Civil War photographers and brought them to life - a process which took nearly four years.

I was amazed at the feelings I had as I looked through the pictures - pictures I had seen many times before but in black and white. I was startled by the intensity of Major General George E. Pickett's light green eyes. I more clearly saw the years of strain showing on the faces of freed slaves from Foller's Plantation in Virginia.

I was especially pleased to find that Guntzelman had chosen this picture of General Isaac Stevens and his staff to include in his book. The photograph was taken on the porch of a house in Beaufort soon after the Union occupation of the city in November, 1861. The familiar light of a late fall day in Beaufort, the vibrant green of the shutters, and the earnestness on the faces of the men (which does not translate as well for me in the black and white photograph) was like time travel.

I imagine that digital manipulation of photographs will remain a hotly contested topic. People will continue arguing their preference for natural versus edited.  But for me, at least in this case, using computer technology on these pictures has done nothing but help me appreciate just a little more the human side of the Civil War. These were real people, a fact easily forgotten in the grainy two-tone originals. And perhaps it's good for us to be reminded of that. 

Daguerrotype from www.photographymuseum.com

All other photographs from the book, "The Civil War in Color" by John C. Guntzelman

Love for Therapeutic Riding - Making a Difference

When I was a little girl I was just like every other little girl. I loved horses. I didn't have one, so I pretended that things that could be straddled were horses - the arm of the sofa, my large doll house crafted by my father, or an aptly named construction horse. The idea of riding a horse fueled my imagination and I could fancy myself galloping on my noble steed, hair blowing in the wind, the two of us connected through that special bond that only a little girl can have with a horse.

The summer we were ten years old my cousin, Angie, and I were visiting a restored farm in Pocataligo near Yemassee. We were allowed to hand feed a mare in a corral and I was, quite honestly, in horse heaven. She was so gentle and loving; so appreciative of the food we were giving her. I looked into her big brown eyes and felt that we were really connecting, that horse and me.

And then, for no apparent reason, that horse reached over and bit me on the neck.

I want to be clear about this. This was no gentle nibble or playful flutter of her whiskery lips. This was a full-on chomp designed to inflict maximum harm. Fortunately, I saw her coming out of the corner of my eye and was able to draw back slightly so I wasn't seriously injured (although from the sound of my cousin's screams you would have thought I'd been killed). When the dust settled and the damage was assessed I was found to have two injuries. The first was a giant horse hickey, which I soon recovered from. But the other more serious injury was a fear of horses that I have never recovered from. I still love the idea of horses but I always prefer to have a little distance between us.

I gave up the dream of being a horse person.

But Denise Bishop hasn't given up her life-long love affair with horses even though I know she's been bitten, stepped on, kicked, shoved, and generally roughed up by many horses on many occasions.

And thank goodness for her tenacity, because that love for horses has compelled her to become involved with therapeutic riding, through which she has made an enormous difference in the lives of many people with special needs and their families. In 2009, after several years of involvement with Heroes on Horseback, she started Love for Therapeutic Riding, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to use horseback riding to provide unique therapeutic techniques for people with special needs.

Working from her Sunshine Stables on the Yard Farm on St. Helena Island, and using a completely volunteer staff (even the certified instructors volunteer their time), Denise uses three trained horses to provide a unique approach to therapy. This therapy enables people with conditions such as Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and Attention Deficit Disorder to improve their balance, coordination, and posture. Information about the physical benefits of this therapy can be read here.

The horses seem to sense that great care must be taken with these special riders and, even though safety precautions are always in place, the horses are gentle, perceptive, and calm while working. And while the physical benefits of this therapy cannot be oversold, there is certainly something equally therapeutic about the bond that forms between the horse and its uncommon rider. Self esteem and confidence grows and children who have perhaps experienced social misfortune because of their disabilities find that they are immediately accepted by the large, gentle animals. Sir Winston Churchill said it best: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man".


Of course, we must include Duke the Donkey in this narrative. Rescued from a shelter where he was abandoned in the middle of the night, Duke is every bit a part of the loving culture at Sunshine Stables; a long-suffering soul who can make you feel better just by letting you love on his big, fuzzy donkey ears. While Duke doesn't provide therapeutic rides, he offers his own brand of curative interaction that lets you know he's present and attentive to whatever needs you have that he can help with.

Denise is always looking for people who have a love for horses and a desire to make a difference to volunteer with her. If you're interested in volunteering time or making a donation, you can visit the organization's website: www.lovefortherapeuticriding.org or email her at love4tr@islc.net.

Thoughts on the Happy Boat

Driving over the Woods Memorial Bridge into Beaufort provides a picture of all that is fine about Beaufort. To the left lies the waterfront and marina, its sailboats resting in the soft swells of the river. The seawall and Old Point homes lie to the right, stationary cannons reminding us of the city's Civil War history. The spires of St. Helena's Episcopal Church and the Beaufort Baptist Church stand tall, icons of history and faith. The tide - incoming or outgoing - provides a constantly changing picture of sandbars and shorebirds. It's a beautiful sight - all that is right about Beaufort.

And then, of course, there's the Independence (fondly called the Happy Boat at our house), which showed up in Factory Creek a couple of years ago and people wondered, "what the heck"? In the beginning it was unadorned then the smiley face appeared. It was quite the mystery for a while until the owner, Bill Slachta, cleared up the conundrum. (You can read that story here.)

The other day the wind blew it into the Factory Creek dock; for another brief moment the Independence was in the news. And then the fight started. Well, not really a fight, but certainly a healthy debate between those who have learned to embrace its presence and those who hate it haven't quite come to terms with it. They expressed their opinions about the watercraft in short phrases ending with double exclamation points. It's an eyesore!! Get rid of it!! Fine the owner!! You could practically smell the smoke from the torches and hear the clanging of the pitchforks. I guess for those folks it just doesn't fit with their idea of "Beaufort" and what "Beaufort" should be. 

So, for what it’s worth, here's my perspective. 

Beaufort is a beautiful place with a whole continuum of southern experiences to enjoy, from carriage tours around the Old Point to fine food on Bay Street. Bed and Breakfasts provide the perfect step back in time, giving visitors a little taste of the historic, romantic south they come to savor. It’s a perfect environment for social butterflies to get their fill of oyster roasts, nights on the town, and cocktail parties.

But that's what's on the surface. Look underneath and you'll find hometown people with humble roots – farmers, shrimpers, the salt of the earth. You'll find our military, protecting us and inspiring us with their patriotism and love of country. You'll find people whose idea of a day on the river is dragging the john boat to the river shore and launching off, a 10 horsepower motor putt-putting them to the nearest sandbar where they can dip an old rotten chicken neck in the water and catch some crabs for supper. You’ll find a quiet current of simplicity and humility.

While I love everything about Beaufort - it's romantic southern image, it's antebellum homes, it's draw for tourists - the real Beaufort I love is a simple, unpretentious place - a place of dusty dirt roads and steamed okra, church suppers and family, the acrid smell of pluff mud and the incessant sound of cicadas. For those of us who grew up in Beaufort the sparkly shine provided to tourists is just that - sparkly shine - but doesn't wholly reflect all that we love about Beaufort.

For me, the Independence is, in its own way, completely representative of the place I call home. Its straightforward, transparent message is "Hey, I'm not very pretty but I can take you out on the river and we can go shrimping and swimming and spend a whole summer afternoon getting a beautiful sunburn together”.  Maybe I'm partial to it because my dad built his own boat once, then sold it after its maiden voyage presented so much anxiety for my mother that he realized its destiny was not to be the watercraft he envisioned. It wasn't much prettier than the Independence, but nobody in Beaufort complained about those kinds of things in 1975.

The river is there for all to enjoy, whether you have an expensive yacht or a dinghy; a 30 foot sailboat or a hand-made ark with a smiley face painted on the side. As Matthew Goldman wrote, "One takes what the river offers, both good and bad. The joy of living by running water far outweighs the sorrow." 

So the next time you're driving across the bridge, try to accept that everything you see represents something that makes Beaufort a wonderful place - the church spires, the antebellum homes, the expensive yachts at the marina, the Old Point - and the Happy Boat.

Bomb Scare

Sonny Bishop loves to tell stories - and people love to listen to them. Here's one we thought you might like:

When I worked at Beaufort Academy  in administration, we would get an occasional bomb scare by telephone. We followed the planned routine, called local law enforcement, and pulled the fire alarm to get everyone outside.

One of my chores was to go around with two deputies and unlock 400 lockers with a master key. I would get blisters every time.

We never had a bomb, but we did have a scary moment. One of the deputies found a metal can in one locker and was inspecting it carefully while I stood to the side. Both deputies and I were looking at it wondering if it was dangerous. One deputy noticed it had a screw off top and carefully began to unscrew it. I started backing up as he started unscrewing the top. As soon as it was loose, something shot out of the can and scared all three of us. There was no loud boom, no smoke, but on the floor was a Jack in the Box doll with a spring attached. It took several minutes before we recovered enough to think it was funny.

The Bridge

While perusing Facebook today, I found a discussion going on about the Woods Memorial Bridge over the Beaufort River. The premise of the original post was that it was a lovely part of the uniqueness of Beaufort and most people chimed in with agreement.

But there were a few comments adorned with symbols indicating some degree of profanity that clearly showed there's definitely a Love-Hate relationship with that bridge. My first thought was "why so angry"? 

But the bottom line is this: if you have all the time in the world, the bridge is a lovely place to idle away some time while a boat goes through. If you're in a hurry the bridge is not quite so lovely.

When I was little, before the McTeer bridge was built and before Lady's Island had a fire department, the Woods bridge was the only way into and out of Beaufort for those who lived on the islands. One winter a house on Lady's Island caught on fire but the bridge was stuck in the open position so the Beaufort Fire Department couldn't get to it. All they could do was watch the house burn from the bridge. 

The good thing these days is that folks have a choice. Take a chance on the Woods bridge (best to leave 15 minutes early just in case) or take the safe route over the McTeer bridge. In the mid 1970s, my brother and I with a couple of our friends took a walk one evening up the McTeer bridge before it was completed and sat on the edge of the construction. The bridge was complete up to the very middle of the bridge which allowed us the opportunity to sit at the highest point of the bridge and dangle our feet over the Beaufort River. We shouldn't have been there. I know that now. But it sure was fun.

I would say that I have more of a loving relationship with the bridge than anything else. When you see the bridge you know you're home. It makes Beaufort unique and beautiful. Yes - every now and then you're going to wait and Murphy's Law says that it's going to be when you're in a hurry.

But really, isn't this worth it?

Photos courtesy aikenhdr.com and historicbridges.org.

Home....and leaving it

As I've said before, Utah is my current place of exile from South Carolina. The job is in Utah. My heart is in South Carolina.


Recently, though, we spent a week in Beaufort doing the things we always love to do when we visit. We made frequent trips to the Chocolate Tree. We boiled and consumed several pounds of peanuts. We went to Walterboro and ate at Duke's Barbecue where I got my fill of fried okra and rutabagas. And my mother fed us tomato sandwiches on homemade bread (tomatoes courtesy of Dempsey Farms). We stood at the kitchen window and watched for porpoises in the creek. 

Heaven on earth.

As I write this I'm sitting on a west-bound Southwest airplane awaiting departure from the Charleston airport. Crammed between thoughts of whether or not the tire on the landing gear will hold (our flight was delayed so the "professional maintenance man" could check it) and whether or not it's physiologically possible for sinuses to explode if you fly with a cold (because, yes, I felt that they would on the way here) are flashbacks of the days of the past week that have passed so quickly. 

When we lived in Idaho I had a friend at work who was from Georgia. She told me that leaving South Carolina would always tug at my heartstrings. She was wrong. What she meant to say was that sitting on an airplane waiting to jet away from home at 500 miles an hour would be the same as fifty 200 pound men having a tug of war with those heartstrings. 

So this Thanksgiving I am grateful for my Sea Island home. I am grateful for parents who established a home of love, learning, and music and who welcome me and my little army of a family back as often and for as long as possible. I am grateful for roots that go deep into the sandy soil of St. Helena Island, for memories that anchor me to the past and a Lowcountry heritage that will provide a foothold in the uncertain future. These things - as well as pictures on walls, shells in bottles on windowsills, and bookshelves full of books about the Lowcountry - will sustain me until the time I can get back on a Southwest airplane - going east.

Little Sadnesses

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is to hit the antique stores and see what I can find.

Invariably, I will stumble across the shoebox full of old photographs - some with writing on the back, some without. As I go through them I can't help but feel a little sad over these pictures. 

Who are these little ones? And why didn't their families care enough about them to keep a picture of them - even if they didn't know their names? (My dad likes to remind me that some people don't like their families, which I suppose is a pretty good explanation.)  

The efforts that people went through "back in the day" to get a photo made is beyond our realm of Instagram understanding. These days, everyone's taking pictures of everything (even things they probably SHOULDN'T be taking pictures of).

But when these babies had their picture made, having your own photograph was a big deal. It cost money. They often had to travel to get to the photographer. Certainly, the mother of these children displayed this photo proudly in a prominent location in the home because it was a treasure.

And someone down the family line decided it was junk and got rid of it.

Fortunately, there's at least one other person like me who can hardly stand the boxes of old photographs in antique stores. He runs a website called Dead Fred where he posts old pictures that have something - anything - written on the back. His database is searchable and, if you find a long lost relative, you can purchase the photo.

A man after my own heart. 


Last year I had the flu. I'm not talking about the respiratory illness that people casually call the flu but it's just a bad chest cold. No, I'm talking about the REAL flu - the Influenza A that sneaks into your respiratory tract and starts constructing a home of nastiness that produces a fever of 103, coughing, nausea, and that generalized, unnamed feeling of "I'm pretty sure I'm gonna' die".

Fortunately, after what seemed like forever, I started to feel better but I moved from near death to total boredom - too sick still to go to work but not sick enough to lay around in bed. I was irritable. I was miserable. And I'm sure that the nice people I call family were starting to wish I'd either get better or die trying.

So in an effort to amuse myself I started thinking about food that now sounded good to eat after many days of yuck. I spent hours on the sofa surfing the internet for pictures of food that I wished someone would show up with. Coconut Cream Pie. Fried okra. And best of all - barbecue. 

When it comes to barbecue we are a blended family. On my father's side we have barbecue a la Duke's with hash, rice, okra, coleslaw, corn on the cob, etc. etc. On my mother's side we have Williamsburg County barbecue - vinegar based and the hotter the better.

When my grandmother passed away we went to Kingstree to deal with her belongings. In her recipe box I found that she had written down the recipe for Williamsburg County Barbecue. What a treasure! What a find! I was so excited.......

.....until I found out that the recipe was for a 60-80 pound hog.

I was pretty sure I didn't have a pan that big. And I was pretty sure that she had never barbecued a pig of that enormity so I'm not sure why she had ever bothered to write down the recipe, but there it was along with more reasonable culinary activities such as Lunchbox Cookies and Office Sweet Potatoes.


Fortunately, I did learn something about math at Beaufort Academy so I started dividing. I got that recipe down from a 60 pound hog to a 5 pound pork butt. Without a smoker I have to cheat and use the crockpot. I've been tweaking that recipe for years, trying to get it just right and I'm pretty close, but it's not really right. It probably never will be. But if I close my eyes while I'm eating it I can almost feel that I'm back at my grandmother's house, eating the real stuff. 

Oh, what I wouldn't give for one more time at the table...... 

The Library

The other day I asked someone what the best book she'd ever read was. After staring at me blankly, she said, "I don't know. I don't read. I've never been a reader". 

I couldn't believe it, really. I have such a love affair with books. Perhaps it's because when I was growing up on St. Helena Island there was nobody else around my age (other than my brother) so my friends were books. They were always there. They took me to places I'd never been and introduced me to some very interesting people. And they never argued with me. 

Who could ask for a better friend?

Pictured above is the old Beaufort County library on Carteret Street, established in 1918 and moved in 1964 to Craven Street. Even though the library moved when I was three, I can still vaguely remember it. After the library moved to Craven Street, my Aunt Emma Ellen Bishop was the librarian and she always let me climb into her lap as she sat behind the big librarian's desk and help her check out books. My job was to stamp the card with the date. 

I loved it.

Every Wednesday for all my growing up years, we stopped at the library on Craven Street on our way to choir practice at St. John's Lutheran Church. I learned how to use the card catalog (for anyone under 20, I suggest a Google search) and I learned that if I wanted to read story books I had to search by the author's name but if I wanted to read about volcanoes in the Philippines I had to go for the numbered section. These weekly excursions to the library instilled a passion for books into me that is, as Lionel Richie put it - endless. 

Side note: The lyrics to the song "Endless Love" - all about forever and being a fool for you and all that good stuff - are really better sung than read. Why? Because a whole section of the printed lyrics goes like this:

Boom, boom
Boom, boom, boom, boom, booom
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom 

But I digress.

Everywhere I've lived one of the first things on my list to do is get a library card at the local library. There's something so peaceful about roaming among the shelves of books; so many new friends waiting to be made. 

For Christmas last year someone gave me a Kindle. I thought it was pretty cool and I do use it sometimes. I can appreciate it's slim little figure and it's "give it to me now" spirit. But my preference is a real book with an eye-catching picture on the front that says "open me! read me!". I love the smell of a new book. I love the feel of it - the weight of it in my hand. 

So to my friend who has never been a reader and couldn't think of the name of a book if her life depended on it, I say what are you waiting for? I'll even let you borrow my library card if you promise not to tell the librarian. 

Picture courtesy of the University of South Carolina Library 


Favorite Things Sunday

Ah......the green tomato.....

This Sunday's favorite thing is the unassuming green tomato.  Which we will soon fry.

In Utah, my current place of exile from the south, the tomatoes are "coming on" (as they say). Yes, I know that everyone in Beaufort finished eating tomatoes in mid-July but we were just starting to see little flowers on our tomato plants in mid-July, thus the September "coming on" of the tomato. 

I've had a pretty good crop of tomatoes this year. Basking in the western sun they've dreamed tomato-ey dreams of turning a deep, rich red and being plucked for salsa or maybe even a little tomato-mozzarella salad.

Imagine their surprise when, at the height of their greenness I have plucked them from their branches, sliced them up, dredged them in eggs and corn meal, then fried them to a golden brown.

This wasn't what they signed up for. This wasn't in the contract. But they were purchased as baby tomato plants by a southerner (they have those in Utah?)  who wants to clog up her coronary arteries with as many fried green tomatoes as she can get before the first frost comes on.

Of course, there is merit in a red tomato as well. One of my favorite memories is going to work at the House and Garden Gift Shop on Lady's Island with my grandmother and being supplied a lunch of a tomato sandwich made with luscious red tomatoes, Duke's mayonnaise, and Captain John Derst's bread.  She used the bread bag as the lunch bag. 

So don't get me wrong. I love a good red tomato. How could I not? My dad was a tomato farmer and all. But if you've got a green one, let's eat it now! 

"Mrs. Matty"

(Watercolor portrait of Augusta Matteson, 1938, by her brother, Richard Morrison Lofton)

At 4:00 on any Thursday afternoon in the 1970s you could find me sitting at Augusta Matteson's grand piano at 901 Prince Street. She would be standing over me, making sure that my fingers were curved, I was following the music, and I wasn't sliding up and down the piano bench when I reached for the keys at either end of the piano.

Mrs. Matteson, or "Mrs. Matty" as her students called her, was my piano teacher from the beginning of 5th grade to the end of my senior year. In those seven years she instilled in me the discipline to play well and the tenacity to stick with working at playing well.  She turned 80 years old the summer I graduated from high school.

She had good material; I loved playing the piano. She seemed to also think she had good material. A note I found recently from her said that she "found it a pleasure to teach such a talented student". 

Regretfully, I appreciate that note now much more than I did when I received it. 

I remember my very first lesson. At this point she was teaching in "The Studio", which was a small cottage behind her house but for some reason I had my first lesson at the grand piano in her sitting room.  She sat my 9-year old, wiggly, very-excited-to-be-taking-piano-lessons self on the stool in front of the old piano and said, "You must always sit right in front of Middle C". Then she put a small music manuscript book in front of me, in which she had written a simple song for the right hand. As she showed me the notes she sang:

Let us build a house, (C, D, E, F, G)
Room for horses three, (C, D, E, F, G)
First the walls and then the roof (C, D, E, F, G, F, E)
And then the door you see. (D, C, E, G, E, C)

In the week that followed I practiced that song more than I've ever practiced anything since. Over and over and over again. I'm sure I drove my parents nuts.

My brother also took piano lessons from her so we traveled together - being dropped off by our mother after school and picked up by her an hour later. While my brother got his lesson, I did homework or read a book. I finished Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" while waiting for him and her old house was the perfect atmosphere to get completely creeped out over it.  Sometimes I would venture down the street just a little bit to hunt down a doughnut at the old bakery that existed there but is now gone. 

At 5:00 the neighboring Baptist Church of Beaufort's bells rang out Westminster Quarters followed by five tolls of the bell and the hymn "Now the Day Is Over". There was something very safe and satisfying about hearing those bells. (You can listen to Westminster Quarters here.)

It wasn't all fun, though. The old house was cold and kind of dark. If I didn't play right she grabbed my fingers and put them where they needed to go. She got after me if I didn't practice. She wasn't forgiving of mistakes she had corrected last week.

But I learned to play. And I learned to play well. 

Mrs. Matty died in 1988 - six days after my third child was born. Once I graduated from high school I only saw her a couple of times and I regret not visiting her and playing her piano, just one more time. 

But she's with me; I think she listens when I play. I'm certainly listening to her when I play.  I can hear her voice correcting my technical errors. I can hear her praise at the end of a song long practiced and perfectly executed. 

I like to think she's proud of her efforts in my behalf. I hope she is, anyway.

(Watercolor portrait of Augusta Matteson, 1938, by her brother, Richard Morrison Lofton)

10 things you should never say to a southerner

I've had the wonderful opportunity to live out west for a number of years and it's always interesting what people will say when they find out that I'm from South Carolina. For those of you who have had these experiences, well....you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. And I promise I'm not making these up. You can't make up stuff like this. 

1. Where's your accent?

It seems that people are always disappointed not to hear a country drawl when they learn you're from the south. I tell them that, contrary to popular belief, we don't all talk like Forrest Gump or Dolly Parton.  A southern accent is easy to pick up and easy to lose, so what little I had leaves me until I get around it again and then I'm back to normal. But if you listen closely you'll hear southernisms - y'all, Yes Ma'am, fixin' to, and cut off (the light, the oven, the water....). It's just not what people want so I am for the most part a grave disappointment to them.

2. Have you ever eaten squirrel?

Not that I'm aware of and if I did I think I'm better off not knowing about it. Neither have I imbibed moonshine, grilled roadkill, or choked down a chitlin'.

3. Were you a debutante?

Being a debutante requires two things: an upper class standing and an unyielding adherence to outdated social customs. In 1978, when I hit the age of being formally presented or not being presented at all, I had neither. Being escorted to Senior Prom by a guy who wore a light green tux with six inch lapels was as close as I ever got to a cotillion. But don't worry.....I don't count it as a great disappointment in my life. (The debutante thing, that is. Going to the prom with a guy in a green tux could possibly be something I'd do differently if I could do it over again.)

4. Did your grandfather fight in the Civil War?

While I can proudly boast enough ancestry to warrant a membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy, I'm afraid that my grandfather was born in 1918 - not 1818 so no, my grandfather did not fight in the Civil War. (History book anyone? Anyone?)

5. Why don't you want any of this shrimp (insert name of dish) we're having?

Because once you've eaten shrimp right out of the creek, Red Lobster just doesn't quite cut it. I'm a shrimp snob. If it didn't come off of one of the Gays' shrimp boats I will pass. Also, we're in the west for crying out loud. Steak and potatoes, please.

6. I've been to North Carolina! What's the weather like in North Carolina this time of year? Are you a North Carolina fan?

Seriously, people get the two states mixed up ALL THE TIME. It's South Carolina, folks. Just to the south of North Carolina. (And no, I'm a Clemson fan.)

7. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is one of my favorite songs.

It was also a favorite of General Sherman's troops as they tromped through the south setting everything on fire. I suppose that activities such as this would require a rousing patriotic song to buoy spirits and maintain esprit de corps. But that's OK. My mama taught me to be a lady so I'll just smile sweetly and quietly whistle Dixie as we go our separate ways.

8. Does your mother cook like Paula Deen?

Horror of horrors. Absolutely not. If she did I'd weigh 500 pounds. This is similar to the accent question. No, we are not all stereotypes in the south.

9. I tried grits once, but I couldn't put enough sugar on them to make them worth eating.

Sugar???? Heavens, no.  Butter, salt, and mix them all up with your eggs. That's how you eat grits. 

10. Do you miss the south?

Every second of every minute of every day.  

The Teacherage - a "Mary's Story"

Note: Mary Bishop has her own lifetime of Sea Island stories; we thought we'd share this one about the old Teacherage which is now a bed and breakfast in Beaufort called the Two Suns Inn. Also, Mary has never called her husband by the name everyone else calls him, which is Sonny. She has always called him Bishop, as you'll see below.

In the fifties, the huge population of "war babies" from World War II was just hitting the school systems, and schools everywhere were horribly overcrowded. Until Mossy Oaks Elementary was built in 1956,  Beaufort Elementary had been the only elementary school for white children in northern Beaufort County.  To give you an idea of how serious the overcrowding was, I had 45 children in my first fourth grade class, but at least we had a room (much too small, of course, and the whole building was in terrible need of repair.) There were classes being held in storage rooms and on the stage - everywhere, in fact.

Teachers were in great demand, and there was a major shortage of "suitable" living accommodations for all the teachers that were being hired.  The Teacherage was at least a partial answer to places for the teachers to live. 

Side note: Teacher qualifications were not very strict during this time period. They hired me when I'd never done a day's teaching in the classroom. All my "experience" was in teaching music, particularly individual piano lessons. Mr. Morgan Randall, who was the Superintendent of Beaufort Schools, interviewed me for the job. He had tried to teach me algebra in Kingstree, and I think he knew that I'd be conscientious, whether I knew anything about teaching or not. Mrs. Carson was the teaching supervisor, and she had all these green young women to try to turn into teachers. We were all terrified of her and her strict rules, but she made teachers out of a lot of us. Some of us were lucky enough to find some experienced teachers and learn from them. I remember Mrs. Ashley Webb, Miss Eliza Bostick, and a few others who, even though their classes were overcrowded, too, never were too busy to help us. I was also fortunate in that my class was full of well-behaved children, even though their ability level went from about first grade level to some who could read high school science textbooks and understand them I had no behavior problems all year. Sweet kids.

All teachers had to have a physical exam before they were hired, and one of the funniest parts was that we had to have good feet - no corns, calluses, etc. One of Mrs. Carson's strictest rules was that we were never to sit down when the children were in the classroom. Teachers also had to have good reputations, and in a small town like Beaufort, everybody knew everything about the teachers. (That's a subject for another dissertation.)

Now to the Teacherage:

I don't know how long the Teacherage had been in operation before I lived there in 1956, but I know it had been there for some time.

I think the Beaufort County School District owned the Teacherage on Bay Street (now Two Suns Inn), and the property included a large cottage just behind the big, three-story house. Many, if not all, the unmarried teachers lived in the two houses - thirty or more women, many just out of college as I was, but others who were almost old enough to retire. Most of the really young teachers lived in the cottage, but a few of us were in the main house. 

As far as I remember, there were no private rooms - at least two to a room and in one large room on the third floor four women (I think)  lived. My roommate was Miss Gertie Hammond - a lovely lady about fifty years old. (Gertie's and my room was the second floor room that was over the porch on the left side of the house.)  The first floor of the main house was a living room, large dining room, and kitchen that served both the cottage and the main house.

The one thing that the Teacherage lacked was a piano, so another teacher (Kay Felder, who was also from Kingstree) and I rented one that had been converted to a "mirror" piano. Ugly, but it served the purpose. We played every day.

We had a live-in hostess (Mrs. Lake when I lived there) who lived in a small apartment just off the living room. She planned meals, supervised the cleaning of the "public" areas of the houses, and generally kept the place pretty and pleasant, etc.

Since we ate lunch at our various schools, we just had a light breakfast and a delicious supper at the Teacherage - always served beautifully on a white tablecloth with cloth napkins. We had an outstanding cook that I'm sure Mrs. Lake had hired.

Several of the teachers served on a committee to pro-rate our living expenses. All the bills (food, cook's salary, Mrs. Lake's salary, housekeeping, etc.) were collected, and at the end of each month, this committee added them and divided by the number of people living there. As I recall, we also paid a small sum for rent, but I don't remember how much it was. It was a most economical place to live. (My year's salary was $2500, and I saved $900, so you know I wasn't paying much for living expenses.)

One Sunday afternoon, Bishop helped me move my clothes into the Teacherage just before I started teaching fourth grade at Beaufort Elementary in 1956. Mrs. Lake was welcoming all of us as we came in, and she warned Gertie and me that there was a wasp nest just outside our window, and to "be careful" about opening that window. Being the helpful man he is, Bishop volunteered to remove the wasp nest, so Mrs. Lake found him a broom as a weapon. He opened the window and screen and knocked down the nest but one of the wasps stung him on his wrist. He put cold water on it, and we went on to his parents' house on Lady's Island. In just a short time, it was obvious that he was having an allergic reaction to the sting. His mother told him to go take a bath in baking soda water, but that did no good, so I volunteered to drive him to meet Dr. Keyserling. who gave him an antihistamine and adrenaline shot, which quickly began to take effect. Then I drove him back home - at night, across that scary old bridge, and with him shaking from the adrenaline.  

Some introduction to living at the Teacherage.

For me, one of the advantages of living in the Teacherage was that I could stay in Beaufort during vacations when Bishop came home from Clemson and not feel like I was inconveniencing his family. A disadvantage was that when all the other teachers went away for vacations,  I was by myself in that big house, and it was a little lonely at night.

During Christmas vacation, MaMa  Steinmeyer (who ran a boarding house on New Street, behind the Beaufort Elementary) told me that she had an extra room at her house and "would I like to come live there?" Having lived in a dorm for four years and then in the Teacherage, I thought having a room of my own sounded like heaven, so I quickly took her up on her offer. Since I didn't have a car, I enjoyed being that close to Beaufort Elementary.

Living in the Teacherage wasn't a perfect place to live - no real privacy -  but it was a safe and pleasant place, and I know Mama and Daddy were relieved not to have to worry about me. I was glad to have a chance to get to know Bishop's family before we got married, too.

We went to South Carolina

Those of us who call South Carolina home love sharing it with our children. My kids have lived in South Carolina but they've also lived out west and when they did the highlight of the year was visiting Grandmama and Papa in South Carolina.

This is Joshua who decided to write about one of his trips. Obviously, he's older now but he (and his siblings) still look forward to every chance to be in South Carolina. 

Here's his story, written when he was in 4th grade:

We were going to visit my Grandma and Grandpa in South Carolina.We got everything packed then we started to drive to South Carolina.

As we were driving it got hotter and more humid. It also made you very sleepy. I fell asleep. We drove for three days.

When we got there my Grandma and Grandpa helped us take our stuff inside. After we got all the stuff inside we talked and hugged each other.

This is my list of stuff I did on my trip.

I went to go crab fishing. I took a string and tied a dead shrimp to it because crabs like rotten shrimp. Then I put it in the water and waited for a minute. A crab hooks on it and you can pick the crab up with the string so you can see it. You can eat crabs but we don't usually do it because we eat shrimp. I liked looking at the crabs and seeing how big they are.

I swam in the water. It's pretty warm and not cold. Swimming is exciting because alligators live in the marsh and you might see one when you're swimming. We went in the boat, too. The boat is made of metal so it gets really hot. Sometimes we get the motor from my Uncle Rudy but when we don't we have to paddle with a stick (called an oar).

I climbed the dragon tree. The dragon tree is a big tree that is shaped like a dragon and my Grandma says a dragon lives under it at night. I think she said its name is Phil, but I'm not sure.

I played computer games with my cousin and watch movies like The Mummy Returns.

We stayed in South Carolina for a week and then we drove home. I didn't want to leave because it's fun, but I was pretty glad to be home and sleep in my own bed.

We will go again in the summer and I can't wait to swing in the tree, eat shrimp, and see my grandparents.

Unna bile 'em and bile 'em (A "Sonny's Story")

Back in the '60s we hired a Gullah woman from our farm labor to help out in the house and look after our two preschool children while we worked. She was an excellent cook, and told us that she worked one time for a man named Capt'n Bo Sam, a shrimp boat owner and local person of interest.

He shot a great blue heron and brought it home for her to cook. She told us:

" Unna pic dem feathers til the whole bak yaad be full. Unna cut de nek off cuz dey ain't hav a pot big 'nuf to put de bird in. Unna put de nek in de pot and unna bile an' bile em. Unna chek de meat and 'e be tough. Unna bile em and bile em sum mo'. Capt'n Sam cum in de do' and axe bout de bird. Unna tellum it be cook all dey long. Capt'n. Sam set to de tabul and unna take de nek out and win' roun' and roun’ on de plate. Capt'n. Sam look and look an' study dat nek fo' while and den say "' Gib dis nek to de dawg."' Unna sthro' the nek out de do to de dawg and dat dawg smellum and run an' hide in de woods. Unna had to bury dat nek and de bird fo' dat dawg come home. Unna tell Capt'n. Sam dat if 'e bring somp'in home lak dat 'gain, yunna cin cook fo heself."

Here's the King's English translation:

"I picked the feathers until the whole back yard was full. I cut the neck off because they didn't have a pot big enough to put the bird in. I put the neck in the pot and I boiled and boiled it. I checked the meat and it was tough. I boiled it and boiled it some more. Captain Sam came in the door and asked about the bird. I told him it had been cooking all day long. Captain Sam sat at the table and I took the neck out and wound it around and around on the plate. Captain Sam looked and looked and studied the neck for a while and then said, "Give this neck to the dog." I threw the neck out the door to the dog and the dog smelled it and ran and hid in the woods. I had to bury that neck and the bird before the dog came home. I told Captain Sam that if he brought something home like that again he can cook it for himself."