We’d only been in the rental house a minute when Douglas bent over to inspect something on the kitchen floor.
“Here’s a dead cockroach,” he announced cheerfully. I was standing at the sink and could see him out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t even turn around.
“It’s not a cockroach; it’s a palmetto bug,” I said. “They live at the beach. Just put it in the trash.”
And so began a few sweet days of vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. My older son, Jackson, who just turned 31, has been living there for about a year and a half, along with his girlfriend, Avery. My younger son, Luke, flew back east from his home in Oregon to help celebrate his brother’s birthday.
I don’t get to see any of them as often as I’d like, so I’d been looking forward to this visit for a long time. And Douglas, to whom I have been married for just over a year, is always glad of a chance to spend time with my sons, the way I’m delighted to have his two grown daughters in my life. The value of family runs deep for both of us, and we hope that over time our tribes will merge in some new, supportive, affectionate configuration.
Charleston is not exactly a tough place to visit. A gracious, walk-able coastal city, it boasts homes, gardens, parks, churches, public buildings and whole neighborhoods dating back to before the Civil War and earlier. It has in the past few decades become a popular destination for tourists, food lovers and retirees. Even Douglas, whose liberal New England sensibilities bristle whenever he crosses the Mason-Dixon line, finds it hard to resist the layered charms of the Holy City.
On the other hand, I was born and raised in the quasi-south (northern Virginia), and though I have no illusions about its shortcomings, I always enjoy a sense of homecoming when I visit. Also, it’s fun to try and explain it all to Douglas, including the difference between an innocent palmetto bug and a nasty old cockroach.
Actually, there is no difference. They’re pretty much the same thing.
But staying in downtown Charleston is pricey. So for this visit, we rented a three-bedroom cottage on Folly Island, about a half hour from the city limits, just down the block from a lively beach strip and two streets back from the beach itself. For four days and nights, we came and went in various combinations, taking in the best of the city, enjoying the friendly, off-season vibe at the beach and making the most of this opportunity to strengthen family ties.
We shared lots of great food – lightly steamed oysters harvested that afternoon off their muddy beds in the Folly River; chewy bruschetta smeared with tangy pimento cheese and layered with paper-thin slices of country ham; a spicy-hot jambalaya thick with local sausage and seafood; fresh, batter-fried shrimp with smoky cheese grits; and much more. Yes, we drank, too: local craft beers, small-batch bourbon, high-octane coffee concoctions and that sugary southern specialty, sweet tea.
One day, we hired a boat and a guide and went fishing in the winding waterways of the Wadmalaw River, spying brown pelicans, great egrets, oystercatchers and other shorebirds along the way. We grilled our modest catch back at the beach house that night – one lovely, silver-spangled sea trout, two eye-spotted redfish and two humble whiting – before going out to a local bar for some live music and more conversation.
Back in Charleston the next day, we ambled through block after block of historic architecture and inviting gardens, stopping for sustenance at a small corner café, then on to the fabulous weekly farmers market and craft fair in Marion Square.
We visited the Mother Emmanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street, the site of a horrifying shooting last year, hoping to pay tribute and disappointed to find it closed up tight on a Saturday afternoon. “Thank you for your many acts of kindness,” read the sign outside.
Over at Liberty Square, we hopped on a boat that carried us out to Fort Sumter, an island fortress that played pivotal roles at the beginning and the end of the Civil War. (The Civil War is often referred to as the “The War Between the States” down this way, and even, sometimes, “The War of Northern Aggression.”)
Our last night in Charleston, we dined at a fancy downtown courtyard restaurant that puts an elegant spin on traditional low-country foods. Then, Douglas and I said goodnight to the younger set and drove back to Folly Beach to prepare for our early flight home the next morning. But it was a soft, balmy night, and we were drawn outside again by the strains of live jazz music wafting across the town.
We followed our ears to the public park and enjoyed the final set of the 3rd annual Folly Jazz Festival, joining a small but dedicated audience of jazz fans of all ages. We ordered up a last little bit of bourbon and drank it all in, dancing tipsily in the shadows and celebrating the conclusion of a great family vacation.