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.