Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is It Really Lost?

I came late—but with abandon—to the wound that Pat Conroy calls “geography.” And while Conroy wrote about his beloved South Carolina low country, I left my heart along the sandy white beaches of Northwest Florida. Or maybe I should say I’m finding it there again, fifty-something years after my first visit to the Gulf Coast in the 1950s. Unlike many of our fellow Mississippians, my family didn’t make beach trips an annual thing, mostly, I think, because of my father’s avocation. We followed him around golf courses all over the South during our summer vacations, watching him play scratch golf and win quite a few trophies. Not a bad life, but it wasn’t the beach. (That's me with my brother, Mike, and our father.)

Not sure why I didn’t get back to the beach much during the first three decades of my married life (70s, 80s, 90s)…. In fact, I’m pretty sure we only took our boys to the Gulf once, in 1984. And later, we took all three kids to the beach en route to Disney World, some time in the summer of 89, I think. Two more beach trips with our youngest two—this time to Hilton Head and Kiawah, over in Pat Conroy’s turf—happened sometime around 1992. But there was no sense of tradition or place in those disjointed vacations… no returning again and again to a beloved location.

Until November (yes, it was chilly) of 2007, when we took our oldest son and a few of his friends to Seagrove Beach, Florida, to celebrate his graduation from flight school at Fort Rucker in Enterprise, Alabama. It was love at first sight for me. And now I’ve returned 9 more times (three times a year) to those magical shores, sometimes with family. Other times with friends. And once or twice alone—to try to center myself, or to write. But it’s always, always, magical.

And now my daughter and I are working on plans for her wedding next spring, on the beach in Seagrove! Maybe we’ve started a tradition and instilled a sense of place in our family after all. And of course we’re hoping that the area will be in full recovery from the devastation wrought on its shores by the BP oil spill. Yep, we’re hoping.

Rick Bragg has an essay in the August/September issue of Garden & Gun Magazine called “The Lost Gulf.” And while it’s not clear yet that the Gulf is actually “lost,” Bragg paints a vivid picture of just how much is at stake as he remembers his old childhood adventures with his family on the beaches of the Gulf Coast:

“My whole life has been bathed in these waters. I lived though a thousand undertows, ten thousand hush puppies, two honey-moons, five hurricanes, a never-ending sunburn, untold jellyfish stings, a dozen excellent drunks, two Coast Guard interventions, a hammerhead as long as a Boston Whaler, and one unfortunate misunderstanding in the Breakers’ Lounge.”

Bragg’s essay in Garden & Gun is both heart-warming and gut-wrenching. Well worth the read. (Not to mention how beautiful the magazine is, issue after issue. This one’s got a great section on “Southern Style,” featuring 21 architects, artists, designers and craftsmen, including the interior designer on the cover, Rachel Halvorson. Rachel landed a dream job last year: designing a custom bar and other interiors for Ronnie Dunn’s guest house on his farm in Tennessee. Nice work if you can get it!)

What are you favorite memories of the beaches on the Gulf Coast? I have so many, but I love this picture of me with my first grandchild, Grace, on her first trip to the beach, at age 10 months. Please share your memories here… or a link to other articles about the coast. I’d love to read them.


Emma Connolly said...

My Aunt Emma (yes, I was named after her) lived on the Pass Road in Gulfport. My family lived in Hattiesburg, only 45 minutes away. When I was a pre-schooler, I was sent to stay with Aunt Emma every summer for a week. She was retired by then as head of nursing at the VA in Gulfport. Several times during that week she took me to the seawall. Concrete steps. No sand. This was in the early 1950s and I was still little and the waves splashed upon that wall. I remember Aunt Emma holding my hand tightly as those waves rapidly hit against those steps. In my little mind, those waves held so much power. Fear took over, and I would not let go of my aunt's hand. Years later, perhaps when I was in my early teens, my aunt died. I remember returning to the 'beach' with my family, my cousins. The sand was new. I was so surprised to see sand, and those waves flowing up on that white sand seemed rather puny to what I remembered, and my fears from my childhood had faded away. Later, in my teens, my friends and I sometimes drove down to Biloxi on Saturdays, just for the day, and play on the beaches. Jump ahead to the 1980s. My then-husband and I opened a restaurant on the Pass Road, just down the road from where my Aunt used to live. Getting to know the people of the coast, the Keesler crowd, the old Biloxi families, the seasonal tourists - all this gave me a new beginning on my love for that place. The restaurant did not make it - closed after a few years - but I still have fond memories of riding Highway 90, feeling the salt breezes drift over me. Even though there was no regular tradition about going there, no family reunions, no reason to go back that made for a regular trip, those beaches still have a pull on me. It never goes away. Thank you for sharing that story.

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for that story, Emma. (btw, my grandmother was Emma Sue, so they named me Susan after her, but I've always loved the name Emma.) Love hearing about the concrete seawall in the 50s... I don't remember seeing that. We honeymooned at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in 1970. Boy have things changed!

ficwriter said...

Lovely post, Susan. And this one had a bonus: Rick Bragg, one of my favorite writers. Thanks for the heads-up on his latest G&G article.