Excerpt from Grace at Low Tide

- Chapter One -

Mama and the Debutramp

“Fat is not the enemy,” my mama says to me. She is sitting in her reading chair next to the sliding glass door with Easy the cat nestled behind her ankles. She sets the book down on her knee to look me over.

“So what is?” I say, grabbing one of Daddy’s peanut butter bars out of the bread basket in the kitchen.

“Shouldn’t you cover your arms?” she says. The creases on the inside of her black eyebrows deepen like the cracks in the ceiling above my bed, and a square pocket of skin forms at the top of her nose.

“Nope,” I say, “that kitchen’s hot.”

She gives one steady nod and says slowly, “Car-bo-hy-drates.” Then she spreads her fingers out over the pages. “I wish your father would read this book.”

“Love you,” I say, and as I’m walking onto the porch she says, “Careful tonight, dahlin’. They’re everywhere.” She puts her hand on her chest and wheezes, “Those deer.”

_____

Mama likes to diet and study the Bible. About a year ago she joined this group called First Place, which she describes as a “Christ-centered weight-loss program.” She drives all the way to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charleston twice a week to pray with her small group and weigh in. So far she’s lost eleven pounds, but it’s hard for me to tell.

Mama’s got a funny shape. She says God took two different bodies, cut them in half, and sewed the opposites together. Her top, starting with her elongated neck, is noticeably thin–she’s got bony shoulders, a flat chest, and a tee-niny waist. She’s short and when she’s wearing a long skirt, you’d swear she was little all over. But her bottom half is round, with pockets of flesh spread from her hips to her knees like bread rolls. It’s like this: her wrists are pencil thin, but her ankles are as thick as potatoes.

Years ago at a beach party, I overheard my mama’s brother, Uncle Bobbie, talking to my daddy while Mama (in her skirted two-piece) took some of the kids down to play in the surf. He said, “If only she was like a tube of toothpaste, then you could just squeeze some of her up.”

Daddy looked at my uncle then back to my mama as she stood in the surf, leaning over to wash something out of my cousin’s eye.

“Can’t have it all,” he said.

____

“About time for work, eh?” yells Daddy. He is about twenty yards away, in the fish shed by the dock. He’s slapping the dust out of the croaker sacks for the oyster roast as the tide empties out of the creek behind him, wide ripples of black water shaped like boomerangs hurling toward the sea. I can tell by how quick his bulky arms are moving that he’s in a better mood than usual. It’s two days before Christmas, and tomorrow the whole family–my brother, sister, and cousin–will be home. Family gatherings are one of the few events that make him happy.

“I’m off to work, Dad,” I say.

“Mama says those deer are everywhere,” he yells.

“Yep,” I say.

“The last thing I want is another dent in the truck,” he says.

I nod, and as I step carefully into the pickup, keeping my tennis socks from touching the layer of damp mud that is splayed across the door, he shouts, “DeVeaux,” and I can tell by his tone that he’s already irritated.

So I roll down the window and say sweetly, “Yes, sir?”

He walks toward me, dragging a croaker sack across the yard, his duck boots stamping the dark soil as he dodges the tire swing and shimmies between the tractor and the toolshed. He’s gained about twenty pounds since last spring, much of which seems to have attached itself to his neck and cheeks. Now his eyes become two slits when he smiles and when he yells.

As he reaches the teahouse where the truck is parked he says, “Did you get the Orangeburg sausage?”

“You said you needed it by Christmas Eve,” I say.

“That’s tomorrow, honey,” he says.

“I’ll go first thing,” I say.

“I don’t want to have to ask you again,” he says.

He turns his back and slaps the sack once, then he drags it back across the yard and throws it on the picnic table in the fish shed.

Daddy has been in a bad mood for most of my adolescence. (And you better take cover when that eerie half-grin spreads across his face, because that means he is about to blow.) Short tempers run in his side of the family, and sometimes when I get mad, I can feel my own temples pulse.

If you asked me what Daddy likes I’d have to say the sound of the television at a high volume and filling station food. He also loves to take off his pants before supper and walk around in his work shirt and white cotton boxers for the rest of the night. And he is often getting sick with gout in his feet so he can stay in bed all day with Mama waiting on him.

He used to love parties, dances at the Carolina Yacht Club, and oyster roasts on Wadmalaw Island. He was often hosting dinner socials at our home on Tradd Street in downtown Charleston, which ended with port cordials in the parlor where he would tell deer hunting stories and, if coaxed properly by guests, sing a few Gullah spirituals that Maum Bess, his nanny, taught him during the summers he spent at Rose Hill, a decaying sea-island cotton plantation that has been in his mama’s side of the family since 1810.

Then he’d announce, “I ought to move out to Rose Hill and reacquaint myself with my heritage, feel the pluff mud settle like putty between my toes.”

Mama would shake her head and mutter, “He’s too much of a city boy for that life,” then he’d end with her favorite song, “Faddah, Len’ Me Your Walkin’ Shoe.”

____

Truth be told, my father filed for bankruptcy five months ago. He had been developing a barrier island, Otter, which sits thirty miles south of the Charleston harbor, at the mouth of the North Edisto River. I can see Otter Island from the dock of the little caretaker’s house on Rose Hill Plantation where we now live (Daddy came back to his heritage, but not the way he had imagined it), and occasionally on a calm day at high tide, my father will drive his johnboat out of the creek and into the Intracoastal Waterway where he’ll circle Otter Island, counting the pink flags of the property lines: twenty-seven lots, ranging in value from $350,000 to $1,000,000, all of which have a 180-degree view of the Intracoastal Waterway or the Atlantic Ocean.

He borrowed the money to buy the property from his boyhood friend Dinks Edings, a local businessman who had made a small fortune by investing in the development of the Charleston Hotel and other sections of downtown King Street. “I believe this is the big one,” he had told my mama and his mama, Mee Maw Rose, two years ago as he poured three glasses of sherry in the living room of our downtown home on Tradd Street, the only home I’d ever lived in until now.

I’m told that Daddy used to be a stitch. When he was nineteen and his girlfriends were making their debut, he coordinated a “Debutramp” ball where he and a group of his contemporaries rented out the Hibernian Hall and invited all the members of the Charleston Hibernian Society to view the male version of debutantes, fifteen well-heeled Charleston boys who, dressed in T-shirts and tails and black Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, strutted down the ballroom while the members of the club lined up on both sides of the aisle, chuckling in their tuxedos, their white gloves poised. When the debutramps made their way to the president of the society, Dr. Joseph Jenkins, who was seated at the end of the ballroom, they’d curtsy and lift their pants to their knees, revealing their hairy legs. Dr. Jenkins nodded in approval and led the gloved applause, which sounded like a hundred ducks flapping their wings.

Mama and Daddy got together up in Virginia during college. She was at Hollins, and he was at Washington and Lee University. His boys choir, Southern Comfort, went down to the ladies’ school for a performance and Mama, who was the social activities chairman, greeted him at the school gates. They parked that very night on the top of Tinker Mountain, looking down at Mama’s school in the valley. Mama was from Greenville, South Carolina, and she was rich (“a nouveau from the upstate” is what Mee Maw Rose used to say). Mama’s daddy was a textile executive at JP Stevens and when she left for college he sent her off in the car of her choice, a baby-blue Chevrolet convertible, with a driver named Lawrence who carried her luggage into the dormitory.

Daddy passed for what they call a Charleston blue blood. He was the typical kind because his family fortune was dwindling and about all he had was a regular-sized house on Water Street (circa 1823) with the double front porch and the cobblestone driveway, a relative’s name on a building here and there, and a lot of good manners learned at Mrs. Hillhouse’s cotillion school. And, of course, Rose Hill Plantation, which is fifty miles out of town and across the Dawhoo River on a sea island called Edisto.

Mama and Daddy have two cardboard boxes filled with scratched-up 45 rpm records from their courting days. They say that in the summertime they used to park downtown at the Bayside Battery late at night with the radio turned up, take off their shoes, and shag down the sidewalk while the harbor lights blinked on and off.

Daddy’s little sister, Aunt Eliza, who died in a boating accident off the Edisto River just before I was born, would steal their shoes, sneak into the car, and quickly reverse it out of sight just as my parents noticed the music fading. On these occasions, they would walk across the White Point Gardens to Mee Maw Rose’s house on Water Street, their bare feet dodging the summer cockroaches that scurried in and out of the cracks along the road.

There are these old home movies of Daddy and Aunt Eliza that Mee Maw Rose used to show Virginia, Eli, and me when we’d spend the night at her house. We’d all pile into her bed, under the covers, and watch my father and aunt when they were barely old enough to walk, jumping naked over the sprinkler in Mee Maw’s garden. Or riding their bikes barefoot down Water Street, waving to the camera before zooming by.

There is only one movie of them when they are teenagers and it’s my favorite to watch, though nothing much happens in it. It is of the day Aunt Eliza went off to boarding school in Virginia for the first time and Daddy is driving her. He is thin and handsome, already a high school senior and number one on the tennis team, and just about to receive a scholarship to Washington and Lee University. He’s got a crew cut and a broad smile, and he’s dressed all preppy in an argyle sweater, khakis, and winter-white bucks. He is gracefully loading her luggage into the trunk and looking, every so often, out of the corner of his eye at the camera. Soon Aunt Eliza is beside him, her thick brown hair curled out and up around her shoulders. She’s dressed in pedal pushers and a cardigan and she’s looking excited, switching her weight back and forth. As Daddy comes up and puts his arm around her shoulders, she looks up at him, then looks back and mouths good-bye toward the camera. Then Daddy, his arm lightly on her elbow, walks her down the porch and into the car. He looks up just once with a grin before taking his own seat.

As they pull out of the driveway, Eliza puts on a pair of round, dark sunglasses and says, “Bye, Mama!” And then all you can see is the back of the car as it drives down the quiet street, their heads bobbing in conversation in the rearview mirror.

I like this movie because it allows me to see Daddy in a time when he had no burdens. When he was optimistic and capable and sure of himself. When his whole life was laid out before him like that highway to Richmond he carried his sister down, delivering her safely to school.

I used to imagine the rest of their trip to Virginia. I’d picture him kissing her good-bye at the door of her dormitory, and just as she starts to weep he says, “Sister, you are going to be just fine.”

Just before Daddy declared bankruptcy, Mee Maw Rose passed away, leaving him all that she had: her home on Water Street and Rose Hill Plantation. But he had to sell it all right away in one last attempt to save his shirt. Within three months after Mee Maw’s death, he had sold our home on Tradd, then her home on Water Street, and finally Rose Hill Plantation, which, as I said, has been in our family for more than one hundred and eighty years. He sold the plantation to a Japanese family, the Shuzukis, who live in Michigan and make cars. He arranged for our family to live in the four-room caretaker’s house that sits on the creek, adjacent to the main house. That’s where we are now, but Daddy says it won’t be for long. And I’m hanging on to his words.

Daddy’s job is to maintain the property, restoring the grounds and planting corn and okra to lure in the quail and deer. He’s also supposed to take the Shuzukis on boat rides and teach them how to fish and hunt.

He arranged for Maum Bess, his nanny, and her son, Chambers, to have an official title to the property in the woods behind the plantation where they have always lived. He hired Chambers, who has been farming the fields for Mee Maw Rose since boyhood, to be his right-hand man.

“You’re the agricultural consultant,” Daddy said to Chambers. “But I’ll hand my job over to you once I work out my next business venture.”

“Yes, suh,” Chambers said.

“We’ll find a way out of this soon,” he said to Mama and me the other day as he sent us to fetch the Shuzukis from the airport. “Don’t you gals fret.”

____

Now, I grew up in the city of Charleston and life was just beginning to take shape for me there. I’d survived my freshman year of high school without getting in any trouble, the first in our family who didn’t drink and have to go before a judge for the charge of possession of alcohol by a minor. My church had just gotten Bethany, the first female youth minister they’d ever had, and I was meeting with her and a group of girls for breakfast once a week and going to coed youth group on Wednesday nights. Sasser, one of my good old friends who is also the PK (priest’s kid) from my neighborhood, had taken me into his confidence over the mysterious and much gossiped about breakup of his parents’ marriage. He even got me praying, too, for the one request that seemed to permeate his every waking moment: that his mama would come to her senses and return home to him and his father. He has this vision that involves sitting around the dinner table again sharing the best and worst parts of their day as they had done for so many years.

So, I’m bored to tears out here on this dead island while I wait for Daddy’s plan to get us back to town. Not to mention that the tap water tastes rusty and the pluff mud from the creek manages to find its way onto everything, staining my T-shirts and attaching itself to the crevices on the bottoms of my shoes. And then there is Daddy’s temper, which has increased in its unpredictability over this last year. Mama and I have learned to navigate our way through him like a boat channeling a narrow creek at high tide, inching our way along in anticipation of the oyster-bed banks, their sharp shells poised just inches beneath the dark water.

But as I drive down the dirt road on my way to work at the restaurant, passing beneath the avenue of the gigantic, moss-covered live oak trees whose limbs stretch down to the ground like lazy fingers, even I have to admit that the sight of Rose Hill is grand. Sometimes, when I’m walking through the fields, I get stopped in my tracks and think that if it weren’t for my neon Nike tennis shoes and my Cooper Hall Class of 1999 sweatshirt, the year could be 1820 and my great-great-great-grandfather Edmund Seabrook Rose could be on the dock, loading his steamboat with bales of superfine cotton.

Edmund Seabrook Rose built the main house, which sits on the edge of a wide tidal creek. It is made of white clapboard with a two-story front porch and an iron railing bordering the portico and the double front steps, with the name Rose molded across the ironwork where the steps meet. And some historians think that the house was designed by the same man who designed the White House.

Between the creek and the house is a garden with a multitude of walkways that are bordered with boxwood and Cassina berry trees. Beyond the garden is the gall, a pond surrounded by palmettos and magnolias and azalea bushes that bloom in an abundance of pink and fuchsia each spring. Also on the property is a teahouse for dining and a ballroom where Edmund and his family hosted fancy dances in the golden days before, as Mee Maw Rose would say, the boll weevil and the Yankees invaded.

____

Just as I cross through the gates and onto the dirt road that leads to the restaurant, I spot a group of marsh myrtle-berry bushes in the middle of a plowed-down cornfield to the right. I leave the truck running as I walk into the open field to pick up a few branches, which the waitresses can use as decoration for the plates at the restaurant where I work. When I reach the bushes I hear the quick whisper of gunfire in the trees ahead like a one-word secret. Christmas marks the last weeks of deer hunting season, and I picture the tall, camouflage hunting stands that Daddy hides in the pines around the open fields at Rose Hill. I quickly turn and run back to the truck.

Thing is, I can’t deny that there is a hand on my life constantly steering me to safety. And I believe the hand is God’s. But as I’ve told Bethany and Sasser, I have a sense there is this thick barrier that keeps me from fully knowing Him the way they do. I don’t know what the barrier is or what I can do to remove it, so after a momentary blip of danger passes on the screen of my life, it is all too easy to forget about Him and His seemingly invisible hand. Sasser says it’s like a kind of amnesia that I contract over and over again, and I need to find a way to wake up from it.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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