I remember last week, we were pulling out of Uncle B.’s driveway. Mom and I were both clean, showered, and shorn, but already drenched to the bone with Georgia humidity. “Oh, Passion flowers, you should get a picture of those,” Mom said. I tried to peer over the edge of the Benz window to see what she was talking about. Low and flat to the ground were these starbursts of purple, the likes I had never seen before. Passion flower. The leaves around them were a broad, deep green, providing a little yoga mat for their luscious blooms. I hopped right out of the car with my Canon.
Mom waited while I took a few shots. I found myself wanting to spend most of the time in Georgia inside in the air conditioning of cars, motel rooms, and my uncle’s new home on Clarks Hill Lake. But the trip demanded that I experience the dogged heat of July in Georgia. I wonder if those dog day afternoons come from the way animals lie in the shade or drape over anything cool they can find so they don’t have to move. That’s the way I felt most of the time we spent outside in the Deep South.
Except by the Atlantic on St. Simons Island. We spent only one day on the beach, two on the island. Mom sat on a blanket high on the sand while Liz and I rolled up our pant legs and traipsed around in ankle deep salt water. It was low tide and all the beachcombers were searching for shells. Liz happened to find the most beautiful conch shell (she’s lucky that way) and pulled it up for all to see. A young girl about 12 came over to see what we had found. Her dad was quick to tell us that we’d have to boil the critter who was living in it out of the shell or it would stink to high heaven.
He also said there were very few shells on St. Simons so Liz was lucky to find one so beautiful with not a crack or chip in sight. After running the shell up to show Mom, we decided to return the conch to the sea. Liz wandered out a ways from shore and dropped her back under. Later that night, we ate at 4th of May on a little shopping strip street that runs into the pier. Afterwards, we took the pier walk and checked out the lighthouse. The salt air was blowing across the Atlantic. It was the coolest I had felt in days.
It felt good to travel somewhere new, to get out of my own environment and drop into Summer. The next night, my second cousin came down to St. Simons from Midway. Mom had not seen her in something like 40 years. I turned on the tape recorder while the two of them talked about family history. Some I was too young to remember. But I had seen the photographs. Their perspectives on my great grandmother varied with their childhoods. One’s ceiling, the other’s floor. I was fascinated. We whipped out the queen-sized family tree I printed out before we left Pennsylvania. And Liz talked to my second cousin’s husband about the sci-fi book he was writing.
I kept thinking about how different our experiences are, even in the same family. I thought of my brother and everything he was going through in Pennsylvania, the stress on him, the stress on the family. I thought of the cool 92 degrees in Minnesota, the home I had left a week before. I thought of the rural drive through small towns in Georgia, the Claxton Fruit Cake people, the record breaking catfish caught by a local Georgia angler. I asked Liz if she liked catfish. “I don’t like to eat bottom feeders,” she said. I thought about the huge carp my step-dad caught when I must have been only 8 or 9.
Was he in Yamasee with my grandfather? Or fishing Clarks Hill Lake where he swears he once saw an alligator. After that, when Liz and I were sitting on the dock, reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit Of Being, I could swear she was keeping one eye open for gators. It did make me a little leery of dipping my pinky into the lake. But the kids jumped in headfirst. They are fearless. A water moccasin once swam by me when I was about 10, swimming in Clarks Hill Lake. I was paddling along shore while Mom was out waterskiing. I guess I used to be fearless, too.
I have noticed how much more fearful we get as the bones move up in years. But Passion flowers keep blooming, alligators keep snapping, conch shells still swim the 7 seas, and I can’t change the history of the past. I can only learn to know it. Keep writing it all down. My interpretation. Another layer of cracked clay and burnt orange sediment at the bottom of a life.
-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, August 9th, 2008
-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – SUMMER