Since one of my children died in January 2021, I have begun a tradition of taking a vacation in late October over his birthday. During that week or so, I unplug from the world. It’s a time for reflection, for memory, for grieving, and for filling my mind—or distracting my thoughts. I’m no adrenaline junkie, so my adventures are mild. This year, I went with my best friend to Charleston, South Carolina.
I enjoy these historic cities. They have such interesting stories, such colorful characters. Our days were filled with immersion into historic sites, seeing the beauty and the horror, and acknowledging both the good and the bad of what came before. We indulged in local cuisine. We basked in the warm sunshine and ocean breezes. We walked along the beach.
Our first excursion was a trail ride at the former Middleton plantation. Now a boarding stable and equestrian center, the property offers guided trail rides through the wooded areas and around a defunct rice pond. We learned about the unending toil and hardship of rice production, the slaves who were imported from western Africa and forced into service using the knowledge they brought with them from Africa to enrich their owners, the diseases the slaves brought with them (e.g., malaria), and the dangers they faced (alligators, venemous snakes, etc.). I rode a draft horse cross named Bella retired from a career as a police mount in Savannah; my friend rode a pony of indeterminate lineage. Both were faultless on the trail, inured to the hapless incompetence of inexperienced riders who had never been on a horse before. I learned that the alligators which like to bask on the sunny stretches of trail circling the rice pond were actually afraid of the horses and would not confront them. That was good, because I really didn’t want to come close to an alligator.
Next we visited the Magnolia plantation, originally 2,500 acres, and still owned by the Dreyton family. We took in the “Slavery to Freedom” seminar in which the speaker spoke frankly about the horror of a slave’s life on a rice plantation. We toured the remaining slave cabins which were continually occupied until 1990, long after the Emanciptation Proclamation was issued.
If I recall correctly, the Dreytons are again attempting to farm rice on the plantation, this time using paid labor and industrial machinery. Our tour guide emphasized that the plantation was and continues to be a for-profit operation. We saw the “big house,” the family’s third, but did not go inside. Instead, we toured the gardens and saw egrets, herons, turtles, and alligators. It’s a beautiful place originally built on the blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved persons. So, you see what I mean by seeing and acknowledging both the beauty and the horror of history.
We went on a carriage tour of Charleston. The intricate wrought iron railings and garden gates reminded me of New Orleans, Louisiana. Again, we heard more of the city’s colorful history, gawked at the magnificent architecture, and cooed at the Belgian named Curtis who pulled our carriage. We learned that the horse-drawn carriage industry is the most strongly regulated in the USA. The horses all looked content and well cared for.
We went on a sailing tour of the harbor. You can bet that experience will find its way into a story. I got a few things wrong in my books. The sails didn’t snap in the wind; but the block and tackle did clank. The water didn’t slap at the boat’s hull. The journey in the calm water of the harbor was surprisingly quiet. Peaceful. We rode in a schooner, a three-masted ship. Captain Andy entertained us with his patter. We saw dolphins and pelicans. I’d put this as the highlight of my vacation.
We also toured the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that saw service into the 1970s, and the USS Laffey, a WWII Navy Destroyer that also saw service until the 1970s. Both are permanently berthed at Patriot’s Point. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic; he kept the patter interesting and moved at a quick pace for a 72-year-old man who was a former sailor. The snippet of military history and life aboard a naval vessel was insightful.
Our evenings were spent in the condo we rented on the Isle of Palms. Last year’s vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia showed us that a two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with kitchen and living area works perfectly for us—much better than two separate hotel rooms. We saved a bit of money by dining out for lunch rather than supper. (Lunch prices tend to be less expensive.) We cooked supper for ourselves. We visited shops and art galleries. We wandered through the historic City Market and purchased items for ourselves and gifts for loved ones. I bought pralines for my husband. (He loves those.) We went to Mass on my son’s birthday.
On October 27, we attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The outside of the church is dark and gothic. Prepare for the shock when you enter: it’s bright and airy, simply stunning with gilding and stained glass. Attending Mass on the anniveraries of my son’s birthday and death has become a tradition, too. It seems a fitting way to cherish his memory.
(Excuse me while I blink away the tears.)
I’m back at my desk now: butt in chair, hands poised on the keyboard, eyes focused on the monitor. I’m ready to get back to work. The break from social media and email allowed my mind to relax and enabled me to focus on other things, to simple experience life for a brief time without the encumbrances of routine, work-a-day life. It’s a break everyone needs occasionally.