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The Art of Southern Hospitality

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

While I am much too young to remember this, my mother tells me that my grandfather had a soft spot for strays, meaning that without warning or notice he would show up with a person in tow for my grandmother to feed. It could have been a salesman he'd met; sometimes it was just someone off the street that looked like he could use a good home cooked meal. Every now and then it was someone she actually knew, but that couldn't be counted on. (Interestingly enough, my son inherited this same trait which has provided us with some very interesting interactions with boys sporting blue mohawks, a girlfriend with some of the oddest eating habits I've ever seen, and a variety of motley 4-legged animals that turned into pets.)   

At any rate, knowing this to be a regular event, my grandmother was always prepared with an extra pork chop or slice of pound cake. She once remarked, "I felt like I was running a boarding house". Perhaps she complained more vehemently in private, but she always knew when she heard the screen door open and close that she was probably going to get to exercise her southern hospitality.

The concept of southern hospitality is well-known and has framed perceptions of the south for decades. It's as rooted in southern culture as the ideas of southern belles and sweet tea. Of course, there are courteous and hospitable people all over this great land of ours but, for some reason, the south gets to wear the badge of honor when it comes to warmth and friendliness. 

I recently read that some social scientists believe the practices of southern hospitality to be a masquerade for the deficiencies of the south - slavery, discrimination, poverty. I say, with all the southern sweetness I can muster, that this is a bunch of baloney. Somebody had a dissertation to write and ran out of ideas. 

I believe the reality to be that southern hospitality is born of a general feeling of good-naturedness and kindness toward others. There are social norms in the south, taught to us from birth, that can be summarized very simply: "Be nice". I know it's hard to write a dissertation around that and I guess if I were a grad student trying hard to be an up-and-coming social scientist I might panic and make stuff up too, but really, folks - that's it. We're raised to be nice. Use your manners. Make others around you comfortable. Act like a lady. Conduct yourself like a gentleman. Behave yourself. (I could go on about not wanting to see bra straps and boxer shorts, but that's a blog post for another day.) 

Even southerners sometimes forget that life is so much better when the principles of southern hospitality are exercised. This usually has something to do with change and deteriorates into comments about (adjective) Yankees and being re-invaded by the north and other such unattractive remarks. 

To our friends from other places who have discovered the beauty of the south, let me assure you that the screen door is open and we're setting another place at the table for you. All we ask is that you understand that we're partial to our home the way that it is and we don't really want to change it. Please love and accept us for who and what we are, in spite of our quirks and eccentricities.

Thank you. 

And, in return, we will share our beautiful home with you and show you everything we love about it - the amazing sunsets, the steamy summer nights filled with mosquitoes, and the peace of watching a blue heron skim across the water on an early morning. We'll even introduce you to the critter that is called a boiled peanut, if you're game.

In the south, our culture of gracious hospitality is alive and well. As Anne Holm so beautifully pointed out, "Politeness is something you owe other people, because when you show a little courtesy, everything becomes easier and better. But first and foremost, it's something you owe yourself."  

And that, actually, probably could support a dissertation. 

Crabby about Crabs

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

When it comes to things of a Beaufort nature, I am definitely a fan. I even love the things most people don't - heat, humidity, bugs. Hurricane watches, bridge closings, sunburn. I love just about everything about my Sea Island home.

I say this first and with some emphasis knowing that my next statement will make you wonder if I'm really the southern girl I profess to be. Because there is one thing about Sea Island living that I don't love.

Crabs. 

Blue ones. Fiddler ones. Rock ones. Especially King ones whose legs have been pulled off and put on a plate. (I can feel you staring at me already.) Maybe it's their little stick eyes or their resemblance to big spiders. Perhaps it's the multiplicity of jointed legs. I don't know. (And yes, I'm very aware that King Crabs are not found in the waters around Beaufort.)

So lest you think I've seceded from the great State of Southern Happiness let me explain.

My crustacean doubt started early in life with a dream that my school (Beaufort Academy) was being overrun with thousands of blue crabs. In the dream I was standing on the porch of the high school building with a broom, delivering sweeping blows at these skittery creatures that just would not stop coming. Only a few months after that I awoke one Saturday morning to an unusually high spring tide. Apparently, the general fiddler crab population had been advised that evacuation was necessary so they left their homes in the mud and retreated to our house, about 100 feet from the creek. For lack of a more eloquent way of describing it let me just say this: THEY WERE EVERYWHERE. On the porch. In the grass. And (horror of horrors) hanging on the side of the house. My nightmare had come true.

And thus it began

Of course, once my brother discovered that crabs sent me into a panic he tortured me with them. He would catch little fiddler crabs and chase me around with them. Sometimes he succeeded in getting them into my shirt. Perhaps this was his idea of Immersion Therapy but if he was trying to cure me of my phobia it was a resounding failure. 

One lovely summer day at the beach I was minding my own business, wandering happily through tidal pools only to have a crab attack my little toe. I danced around like a mad person trying to get that thing to let go. My screams could be heard in Yemassee. My mother explained to me that "that poor little crab" was more scared of me than I was of it, but that has never actually been proven.

And then there was the day I came home from my summer job at House and Garden Gift Shop on Lady's Island to find my parents gone, my brother off somewhere. I let myself in the back door, put my things down, and walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. Imagine my surprise when I found a blue crab in the kitchen sink (very much alive and not appreciating being held captive) which my brother had netted out of the creek and sequestered for his supper later on. Now that you know me and crabs you can probably picture my reaction. It was somewhat similar to the one I had when we were out shrimping from a little john boat in the creek and, on pulling in the shrimp net, I found that I had caught a big daddy blue crab who immediately got himself extricated from the net and dropped into the boat.

There wasn't enough room in that boat for me and the crab. So I got out. Right in the middle of the creek. At the time, it didn't occur to me that there were thousands more just like him where I had retreated to.

So here's the deal. 

Before you vote me off the island (Hunting, Fripp, St. Helena, wherever....) because I'm not a crab lover, just remember this: I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how someone ever looked at a crab and thought, "Wow! That looks delicious! Let's eat it"! So if you invite me to your next party you can be sure I won't be double-dipping in the crab dip. Your other guests will be greatly entertained if you find a fiddler crab and chase me around with it. And if we're ever in a seafood restaurant together I promise that I will never, ever (ever) ask you to share your crab legs with me. They're all yours.

Because you'll never catch me taking a picture of a crab, I had to borrow. Thanks to the following for their crustaceanly pics:

The Hunting Island Lighthouse

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

At sunset on July 1, 1859 the Hunting Island lighthouse emitted its first beacon of light to mariners, protecting them from the perils of sandbars and treacherous currents near the coast. The lighthouse was fitted with a Fresnel lens, a giant beehive of concentric glass prisms that was so amazingly efficient that every 30 seconds the focused light from the simple oil lantern cast a beam 17 miles into the darkness. 

In 1861, the original Hunting Island lighthouse was blown up by the retreating Confederates to slow the Union Army down, so the lighthouse we cherish today as part of our home is actually the re-built lighthouse, completed in 1875. Supposedly, the re-builders of the lighthouse looked at the ever-present erosion on Hunting Island and thought to themselves:

"You know - one of these days we might have to move this thing. Let's make it easy." 

So they constructed it out of cast iron plates that could be dismantled. And sure enough, in August 1887 a storm took away enough beach that the lighthouse stood only 152 feet away from the ocean. While it took two years to get the funding, eventually all they had to do was unbolt the steel plates, move the pieces on a tramway, and reassemble it a little over a mile inland.

Piece of cake.

(Not really. It actually took six months to take it apart and put it back together and the workers all had malaria but the lighthouse was successfully re-lit in October of 1889.)

My first memories of the lighthouse are far before people got smart, realized what a treasure it was, and started a campaign to protect and restore it. As teenagers, of course we spent our share of time at the beach and almost always climbed the lighthouse while we were there. It was great fun but at the time (1970s) the lighthouse was in a sad state of disrepair. The Fresnel lens was in the bottom of the lighthouse - broken, dirty, and neglected. Graffiti had been painted on the brick walls around it.  

But climb we did. 167 steps all the way to the top. The last few stairs were a bit treacherous, given there was no handrail. We knew we were up high; we could hear the wind blowing through and around the lighthouse. Claustrophobics and those afraid of heights didn't do well.

But, just as you can today, we stepped out through the steel door and were greeted by the most magnificent view of the ocean.

I have often wondered what it would have been like to be the lighthouse keeper. Isolated from civilization, the lighthouse keeper's job required him to ensure the integrity of the light all night long. If it was cold - he had to keep the light going. If it was stormy - he had to keep the light going. No excuses. Too much was at stake. 

I don't think I would have been a good lighthouse keeper. I complain about having to get up and let the dog out at night.

Climbing the lighthouse when visiting the beach continues to be one of our family's traditions. It's a delightful experience - full of anticipation for the view from the top, but it's also a little unnerving. (As my Aunt Kay once said, "It scared me and I liked it!!) The steel steps are perforated with large holes so the higher you climb the farther you can see to the bottom of the lighthouse. You know you're safe but it can still be a little intimidating. And because the lighthouse is just a big hollow brick and steel tube every sound is magnified and echoes. Climbing the lighthouse at night while listening to my brother and his friends make ghost sounds is an adolescent memory that's pretty etched in my brain. Just thinking about it gives me the creeps. 

Today, the lighthouse stands as the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina. You only have to pay a small fee and up you go, step by step, round and round to the top, where you can be treated to a bird's eye view of the beach and catch a glimpse back to a time when a lonely lighthouse keeper on Hunting Island protected people he'd never met by keeping the light shining bright.

This piece of the Fresnel lens from the Hunting Island lighthouse was picked up by Sonny Bishop in the 1960s when the lighthouse was in disrepair and the lens was broken. He used it many times when teaching at Beaufort Academy to illustrate how prisms work.

Hoppin' John and a trip to Shoney's

Get the original Yard Farm recipe here

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

As we wind down from Christmas (am I the only one who thinks "Wow! I'm glad that's over??") my little southern heart turns to one of the best meals of the year - New Year's Day.

For those who might be unfamiliar with southern New Year's custom, a traditional meal of Hoppin' John, collard greens, some kind of pork, and cornbread is eaten.

Not only are southerners very much like Chinese people (we eat a lot of rice and worship our ancestors), we also tend to be somewhat superstitious. So the components of this meal have meaning, as such:

Hoppin' John is eaten for good luck. The black-eyed peas swell when they're cooked, indicating a growth in posterity.

Collard greens (actually, any kind of greens will do) will ensure you have money for the year.

Pork (your choice of kind) is eaten because pigs root forward while chickens scratch backwards therefore, pork symbolizes growth and progress through the year.

Cornbread symbolizes gold (and at the price of gold right now, I'm going to eat a lot of cornbread!)

This tradition is so engrained in me that I think my soul would explode if I didn't eat Hoppin' John on New Year's Day. And I have an indelible memory of Hoppin' John that I must share.

One year, when I was about 14 or so, my parents, brother, and I were traveling back home on New Year's Day from some destination, the location of which has now left me and isn't really important to the story. For supper, we stopped at a Shoney's to eat. Because it was New Year's Day, the restaurant was serving Hoppin' John but if you didn't want a whole serving they were giving out complimentary medicine cup size servings because, you know, they probably didn't want to be responsible for anyone's bad luck for the coming year. You got a complimentary serving whether you wanted it or not. 

At some point near the end of our meal a man and his teenage son came into the restaurant. For some reason the man's son had decided he didn't need to wear shoes in the restaurant. Of course, they were stopped at the hostess desk.

A disagreement ensued and the man and his son decided to take seating into their own hands and proceeded to stake out a table next to ours.

The manager was summoned and a bigger disagreement ensued. Words were exchanged. Tensions mounted.

For some reason, still unknown to me many years later, my brother (16 at the time) got up from our table and stood beside it - an icon of strength and intimidation at 6'0" and 120 pounds. I guess if nothing else he could have used his bony elbow as a weapon if he had to enter the fray.

The man and his son were finally escorted out. As for me, I had not moved a muscle in the 10 minutes since the pair had entered the restaurant. My brother may have had a super-hero image of himself but I knew my place at 5'0" and 70 pounds. I honestly don't remember what my parents were doing but knowing my father, he was calmly sipping his coffee and planning what his strategy would be if things got really bad.

So every year when I eat Hoppin' John I think of that Shoney's. I picture my tall, skinny brother trying to look tough and I remember how still I sat.

And yes, I ate the Hoppin' John that was given to me in that little cup. We all did.

We didn't dare not to.

One of the great mysteries of life is how a place - a building, a spot of ground, a restaurant, a school - can become so intertwined with who we are. Perhaps it's because at those special places we leave a little piece of ourselves behind. When we go back to visit or even just see a picture we find the little piece of ourselves that we left there.

For just a moment we become a little more whole than we were before.

This is the way I feel about this building. For those of you who didn't grow up in Beaufort, this is the original building for St. John's Lutheran Church. Located on Ribaut Road, it was dedicated on June 17, 1956 with a charter membership of 52. 

When my parents married they realized that going to the Presbyterian church one Sunday and the Methodist church the next was going to be a little disruptive when they had children, so they followed my great-grandmother to the Lutheran Church. There they became actively involved and taught my brother and me that church was where one was supposed to be on Sunday (fever and vomiting were potential reasons for not going, but couldn't be counted on). Being in the choir or behind a musical instrument was preferable. 

At St. John's Lutheran Church I learned the goodness of people. I learned that church was a place where I could be an awkward, weird, grumpy teenager and the grown-ups around me would still act like they loved me. (I'm sure they rolled their eyes but I never saw it.) The people I saw every Sunday (and every Wednesday at choir practice) became like family - adults like aunts and uncles; peers like cousins.  

I learned that balance in my life would always be found in taking a few hours on Sunday and singing a hymn or two, because that's what my parents did. I found joy on Easter Sunday when the sun, streaming through the stained glassed windows, lit beautiful arrangements of azaleas, lilies, and dogwood blossoms in every windowsill of the sanctuary. And, to this day, Christmas Eve just doesn't feel the same if I'm not at a midnight candlelight service.

I believed that in this place I was safe and the regular Sunday church attendance our family engaged in created a beautiful and reassuring rhythm to our lives that I still dance to. 

The sanctuary of St. John's Lutheran Church

at its former Ribaut Road home (picture circa late 1960s)

In 2001 the congregation outgrew the building on Ribaut Road and moved to a beautiful new site on Lady's Island. The old church was sold to Lowcountry Technical College so the building is still there but I can't go back. Oh, I could walk in but it wouldn't be the same. Anyway, I want to remember it the way it was.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to go to church at St. John's Lutheran Church in their (relatively) new building on Lady's Island. Fortunately, the stained glass windows, wooden cross, and other sanctuary elements were carried over to Lady's Island so there are many things that make it still feel comfortable. But when I walked into the sanctuary, there stood the tree bearing Chrismons, each ornament a symbol of Christ and his ministry. It couldn't have been a more perfect connection back to my childhood since one of my favorite parts of Christmas was always looking for the twirling angel Chrismon on the tree.

The little piece of me that I left at the old building on Ribaut Road cannot be revisited in person, but I frequently re-visit the memories - the hymns, the good pastors, my mother at the organ, the sound of my father's voice in the choir, the peace found in that simple little building - and am grateful that home includes such a treasure.

Oysters - a Beaufort Delicacy

by Elizabeth Bishop Later

As we move into the autumn months, we hail the return of Safe Oyster-Eating Season. Through the summer months we refrain from harvesting local oysters from the tidal creeks for two good reasons, one being that the oysters need a little breather which helps prevent over-harvesting and the other being that eating locally harvested oysters in a month that doesn’t have an “R” in it will result in certain death.

OK, you won’t really die but rumor has it that you could, quite possibly, get so sick that you wish you would die. And that’s pretty much the same thing, only worse. 

Personally for me, oysters fall into that category of “Things Someone Must Have Been Really, Really Hungry to Eat For the First Time”, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating that other people like them. So here are a few fun facts to know and tell about oysters that will make you sound smarter at your next oyster roast.

1. The first thing you could throw out to your oyster-shucking friends is the word “terroir”. Loosely translated, the word means “a sense of place” but, technically, it means that food takes on characteristics of the environment it’s produced in. There are distinct flavors imparted to oysters by the waters of the rivers they grow in. Some oysters are mild, some are salty-sweet – all depending on where they grow. For example, you could say something profound such as, "The high quality of Lowcountry pluff mud creates the terroir of these oysters." 

Or you could just say, "Dang, Billy, these oysters are great! Hand me another beer." (But you won't sound as smart.)

2. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning that they suck in water, filter out plankton and detritus (dead plant and animal matter) to eat, then spit the water back out. You can witness this process by standing near an oyster bank at low tide and watching the oysters. Every now and then you’ll see a little stream of water come squirting out of an oyster shell. The process is very similar to the one you participate in when you eat an oyster – you eat the good stuff and discard the shell. Same theory. However, while eating oysters, I would not recommend thinking about this procedure since thinking about what oysters eat and, thusly, what you're eating definitely ups the ick factor and oysters already have enough of that going on.

4. Baby oysters (called spat) are born by a process called called broadcast spawning. See? You sound smarter already. They enter this life as tiny, needle-point sized larvae and float around, free as a…..um….baby oyster…..until they grow up a little, decide to settle down, and attach themselves to something sturdy in order to start growing a shell. They prefer to attach themselves to other oyster shells (called clutch) and I heard from a reliable source that existing oysters emit a chemical that attracts the babies. It’s an important choice these little ones have to make because once they attach themselves to something, they’re there for life.

Given that baby oysters thrive better if they attach themselves to existing oysters, there’s a need for restoring oyster beds with old shells. With the decline in oyster canneries and shucking houses, most oyster shells are ending up in landfills but there’s a robust and healthy program in the area where you can take your oyster shells post-roasting and donate them to the cause of oyster shell recycling. If you’re interested in recycling your shells, there are many drop-off locations in Beaufort County

As Andrew Carnegie once said, “The first man gets the oyster; the second man gets the shell.” But in this case, the second man is taking the shells and making more oysters so he actually wins.

Oyster seeding on Wallace Creek, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Oyster shells are loaded on a barge and washed off along the river banks by a high pressure water hose. The empty shells provide a place for the larvae to adhere and start growing. The only ones that will live are those between the low and high tide levels. It takes about 4 years for a larvae to grow into a harvestable oyster. There are no male and female oysters, but each oyster can produce the eggs and fertilize them within the shell. (Sonny Bishop said it, so it must be true.)

3. If you’re wanting to harvest your own oysters, there are plenty of places to choose from as long as you have a license. The harvesting season is October 1 through May 15 and, while there's a limit on how much you can collect every day, you should be able to get plenty for an oyster roast of your own. You’ll definitely want to check this map to ensure that you’re harvesting from a safe location and you're not getting fecal coliforms bacteria along with your supper.

If you're new to the area and haven't tried an oyster yet, just know that the first one is tricky. Don't look at it. And definitely don't chew it. Just put it on a saltine cracker, douse it up with some tabasco sauce, and swallow it whole.

And that, folks, is fine Lowcountry eating.

Photos of oyster roasts used with permission from eatsleepplaybeaufort.com.

The Mountains

It's fall leaf season in the mountains and I couldn't resist reminiscing a little about our visits there.

I have such beautiful memories of our semi-annual visits to the mountains. I'm old enough to remember people feeding the black bears on the side of the road (OK - not such a great idea - but it does provide a unique memory). My dad had his favorite stops - Bridal Veil Falls, Grandfather Mountain - and we almost always went at least to Cherokee and sometimes on to Gatlinburg. I have to say I'm a little sad when I see what Gatlinburg has become. 

At any rate, our breakfasts were cold cereal in the motel room and lunches usually consisted of pimento cheese sandwiches and little cans of Donald Duck brand orange juice and apple juice, eaten by a gentle mountain stream. I delighted in the names of places on the Blue Ridge Parkway; around every turn was another knob, gorge, cove or gap.

One year it snowed in the mountains while we were there and Bridal Veil Falls created a little patch of ice that we enjoyed sliding around on. For Sea Island kids who went on the trip with beach sand in our shoes, a little snow and ice was the most exciting thing that happened to us all year!

The highlight of every trip was driving through Bat Cave where we were allowed to roll down the car windows and yell to hear our voices echo. This was accompanied by my dad honking his car horn. And, of course, every valley we passed prompted a discussion about whether or not that particular valley was the home of the Jolly Green Giant.

One year the Hipp family graciously offered us the use of their cabin. I will only say this - I have never been so cold in my entire life. I was so excited to get in the warm car the next morning that the relief of it has become a memory permanently etched in my mind.

This postcard I found reminds me so much of that little cabin.

I was always a little sad to leave and go back to our home at sea level. After being in the mountains, our Sea Island home seemed so flat and sandy. Of course, I wouldn't trade my Sea Island home for love nor money, but the mountains.....ah, the mountains......

The Road to Home

Nothing inspires the imagination of a romantic southern mind than a view of an old plantation avenue. The tree-lined road leads temptingly to an end that is usually hidden from sight; the inability to view the final destination making the journey toward it that much more intriguing.

The favorite image of a southern plantation avenue is a long dirt road lined with ancient oak trees, their limbs covered with Spanish Moss, their branches creating a cathedral-like ceiling which only allows the occasional sunlight through the leaves. A walk down one of these roads causes one to talk a little quieter and listen a little closer for whisperings from times gone by. The connection with the history of these places grows stronger when strolling down their paths.

However, Fuller Plantation on St. Helena Island had a unique feature. Unlike most oak-tree lined avenues, Fuller Plantation’s avenue was lined with magnolia trees. Robert Waight Fuller, grandson of Thomas Fuller who built Tabby Manse in Beaufort, owned Fuller Plantation (sometimes called Fuller Place) and took the idea for magnolia trees from his family’s country home in Sheldon:

"From the public road to the house, and all around it, was one of the noblest avenues of magnolias in all that land of stately forest-trees. The overhanging and interlacing branches formed a perfect archway; and when the trees were in bloom with large white flowers, it was a triumphal arch. As years added to their stateliness, they seemed to be the presiding genii of the place. As night came on, they were vocal with the wild concert of owls that flocked there from the surrounding swamps.”

The avenue to Fuller Plantation is now the road to Yard Farm, where the Bishops have lived for four generations. We call it “The Lane” and as soon as I make the turn off of Highway 21 I know I’m home. Not only has it served as a passageway to our house, but it evokes sweet memories of strolls with my grandmother where we discussed important world events such as what it’s like to live through a hurricane and whether or not my latest 7th grade crush would ever call me on the phone. (He never did.) At night it provided the perfect backdrop for Ghost Walks with my brother and our friends, a camera flash acting as our only source of light when someone heard a noise that needed investigation, which was often. “Flash it!” someone would yell, evidence that this person had become spooked enough to require a little light to make sure something of a supernatural source wasn’t about to grab us from the bushes.

In the 1940s, when O.H. Bishop,my great grandfather, acquired the Yard Farm from Ross MacDonald (MacDonald-Wilkins Company) he wanted to dress up the road to Yard Farm a little so he built a gate at its entrance. In its day, it was quite impressive. He even put statues of animals on the posts but someone else liked those animal statues too and it didn't take long for them to disappear. 

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A glance down the dirt road today wouldn’t tell anyone that it was a plantation avenue if they didn't already know it. While beautiful in its own way, it isn’t pretentious or striking. Someone passing by on their way to Hunting Island won’t put the brakes on and turn around to get a picture. But that’s why I love it so much. It’s a hidden treasure; one of many on the Sea Islands that are overlooked by the crowds but very much appreciated by those who take a moment to know its history and feel the spirit that resides there.

It is the road to home.

Prom Dress Perpetrator

(A "Sonny's Story")

In 1957, my bride to be was a first year school teacher in Beaufort. Being a single female, she was required to stay at the Teacherage, a dorm type large home run by the district. Back in the day, a single female of good reputation did not rent an apartment alone. That was a time when having teachers of sterling background was important. The Teacherage is now a bed and breakfast called the Two Suns Inn on Bay Street. (She could have stayed with her family if they lived here.)

Since I was finishing school, she worked the year before we married. One holiday, all of the teachers and the housemother left for the weekend, so she would be alone in that huge house. I offered to ask my grandmother, who ran a boarding house in town, to let her stay there, but she refused.

So after a date at the local drive-in movie, I was to drop her off at the dark building. She didn’t refuse my offer to check the house out before leaving. So I made the rounds, checking doors and windows and closets.

I got to one closet and the hackles raised on my neck. I went into combat mode thinking with all senses on alert. I grabbed the doorknob with my left hand, had my right fist balled up if needed and pulled the door open very quickly.

Something suddenly flew out the door and landed on my face and chest. I heard a crackling noise and instinctively started pounded it with both fists. Short one-two punches as hard as I could. Then the perpetrator fell away onto the floor.

My bride showed up as I was still panting and asked, “What was all that noise?” I explained that when I opened the door, IT suddenly flew out and I started hitting IT.

We both looked at IT on the floor. IT was a girl’s pink hoop style formal prom dress with a tattered paper cover. She laughed first and then I did. Apparently when I opened the door quickly, the air rushed in and blew the dress off the hanger into my face.

We decided to keep it a secret. I could see the headline in the then weekly Beaufort Gazette,

“LOCAL MAN UNINJURED AFTER BEING ATTACKED BY GIRL’S PROM DRESS.”

She found another paper cover and we checked the dress for damage and there was none, not even one torn seam.

You know, they just don’t make prom dresses that strong anymore.

Mary Bishop and her hero, Sonny.

Thank you, Mrs. Barnwell

When Beaufort was occupied by the Union Army in November 1861, residents of Beaufort and the surrounding islands evacuated so quickly that many left their dinners sitting on the table. Imagine the panic of these people as they hurriedly packed as many belongings as they could while the Union troops advanced on them. What to take? What to leave behind? Sarah Caroline Barnwell faced this dilemma.

But first - some history.

In the 1700s, South Carolina was divided into parishes. Many of them you've probably heard of such as Prince William Parish, home to the Old Sheldon Church ruins, and St. Helena's Parish, home to the much-loved St. Helena's Episcopal Church as well as the Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island. There was St. Andrews Parish which you've driven through if you've been to Charleston, also St. Paul's, St. Michael's, St. Matthews......yes, you're seeing a biblical pattern.

The propensity for biblical names stems from the fact that in the 1700s the state church of South Carolina was the Church of England, or Anglican Church (although its prominence in southern society dwindled some in the post-colonial period). Parishes of the church existed throughout the state to serve as election districts and were responsible for community matters such as taking care of the poor, developing roads, and providing education. Registers were kept of parish goings on - births, marriages, deaths, etc.

So you can imagine that a Parish Register would be an extremely important and valuable record of the history of that community.

Once the Union troops got to Beaufort they packed up all the records they could find and sent them elsewhere; eventually, they were burned. Very, very little of Beaufort's pre-Civil War records survived the war. Certainly this wasn't the greatest tragedy of the War Between the States but it can be listed among the things that happened that just make your heart break at the thought of all that rich history - gone. Just gone.

Enter Mrs. Barnwell. 

Mrs. Sarah Caroline (Richardson) Barnwell was married to Captain Edward Barnwell who was, for many years, the warden of St. Helena's Parish. His job was varied but one of his tasks was to keep the Parish Register. Captain Barnwell died before the Civil War, but Mrs. Barnwell was still in possession of the Parish Register when the "Day of De Big Gun Shoot" sent everyone fleeing from Beaufort and the sea islands in advance of the Union Army.

She knew the importance of the register, but there was only so much she could take with her. I can only imagine the pain of this decision-making, especially in the panic and hurry of trying to get out of Beaufort. Fortunately for us, she decided that the Parish Register couldn't be left behind, so she packed it up with her other cherished possessions and took it with her. I wonder what precious family treasure she had to leave behind so that the register would fit in her trunk?

After the war, she eventually gave it to Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper and he eventually gave it to the Charleston Library Society.

And now....be still my heart.....the register has been digitally archived and you can read THE WHOLE THING online. If you apply a little imagination, it's actually riveting reading and the dates are mind-boggling - 1700s Beaufortonians, long gone, coming alive in your mind through simple entries made about births and baptisms, marriages, and deaths by fever and dropsy. There are old Beaufort names; a whole mess of Barnwells, of course, but also Albergotti, Bull, Pinckney, and Fuller.

A description exists on the front page that includes this:

Done at Beaufort in the 25th year of the reign of His Majesty George II and is

most humbly inscribed unto the Reverend: the minister, the church, wardens

and Gentlemen of the Vestry and the other, the Gentlemen freeholders of the Said Parish, by their most humble and obliging servant, William Gough, St. George, 1752.

Can you picture Mr. Gough in 1752 (1752!!) in his breeches and buttoned coat, sitting at a wooden desk in St. Helena's Episcopal Church, the very building we know and love in the year 2014, writing this down with no idea that people would someday be reading it on a computer via the internet?

Therefore, we must appreciate Mrs. Barnwell for her quick thinking, her attention to heritage, and her (perhaps) impulsive decision to include the St. Helena's Parish Register in the limited space in her trunk as the Yankees descended upon her home. With her actions she preserved a precious piece of Beaufort history that would have otherwise been lost. Her decision gave us one more opportunity to ponder our connection to these people who also loved Beaufort and called it home.

So thank you Mrs. Barnwell. What a gift you gave us.

The Miracle of Returning Home - A Turtle Story

Nestled in the warm, protective sand on Fripp Island is a little turtle nursery - nests, created by mama turtles and populated by many soft, round eggs. Just the fact that these nests exist is, in itself, somewhat of a wonder because recently a small miracle took place. It happened while we weren’t paying attention, as miracles have a tendency to do.

Here it is. Far away, perhaps hundreds of miles away, a female Loggerhead Turtle felt a little tug. I’m not a turtle, so I can’t explain exactly what that tug felt like, but whatever the sensation was, it caused the 250 pound turtle to set her internal navigation system and start swimming toward Fripp Island where, some 20 years or so ago, she hatched from her egg. Humans are such proprietary creatures; we think we’re the only ones who feel a longing for home but, apparently, we aren’t alone in that somewhat inexplicable feeling. For, you see, the female Loggerhead Turtle also feels that little pull that draws her back home. She remembers the place from which she came and, even if it means swimming a very long way, will return to the beach where she herself hatched to make a place for her little ones to start their lives.

I must say that, for a turtle, this seems pretty remarkable and there’s something about it that makes me feel kind of small and, well, reverent in a way. I, too, have often overcome many barriers to follow an internal tugging of heart strings and make a trip home from a place thousands of miles away. They are, of course, different barriers than our turtle friend and none were life-threatening, but they were obstacles nonetheless and sometimes seemed dauntingly insurmountable. I feel that we’re a little connected, she and I.

So she makes this significant trip overcoming who knows what – strong currents, predators, all the power of the sea and the things in it – and finally makes it home to Fripp Island to lay her eggs. She makes her way out of the surf where, again, her instinct comes into play and she chooses a place on the beach where she thinks her babies will be safe from marauding raccoons, hungry ghost crabs, and curious beach visitors.

And then she does another seemingly difficult thing. She covers her eggs with sand then turns around and heads back to the ocean, leaving her babies behind. She won’t ever see her little ones. She’ll never know if they actually hatched safely and made it to the ocean. She can only hope that, even if they do make it into the surf, they live long enough to tell about it.

It must be really hard to be a mother turtle.

Fortunately, though, while fate will always have the upper hand because that’s just the way nature works, her little ones will at least have a fighting chance to make it to the ocean. Enter the Fripp Island Turtle Team, a group of volunteers who work to protect the nests and the hatchlings so they have the best chance possible.

And there are rules to govern our somewhat thoughtless and bungling human behavior. Starting May 1, it’s "Lights Out" on Fripp Island, in keeping with county and city ordinances. Through October 31, no artificial lighting can be visible from the beach at night, in an effort to help moms and hatchlings stay oriented to the ocean. Their instincts tell them to follow the light which, in this particular case, is a good thing since celestial light guides our reptilian friends to the surf. But they’re easily disoriented by other types of lights and, in their inability to discern natural light from artificial light, may head the wrong direction and end up in someone’s back yard instead.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for guiding a baby turtle away from the ocean after all its mother did to give it a good start in life.

All in all, it’s a pretty noteworthy process and you can’t help but want to cheer the little ones on as they emerge from the sand like so many actors from “The Walking Dead” and, shaking the sand off, immediately start actively inching their way to the water. No one taught them to do this. They just know, in the same way their mother just knew she had to go home.

There’s a lot we can learn from the story of the Loggerhead Turtle; lessons on persistence, courage, and remembering our roots. And how fun it is to cheer the little ones on as they start their lives in the vast and scary ocean, hoping that their predators will have already eaten lunch when the little guys finally make it to the water's edge.
 Because as Dr. Seuss so wisely wrote, “And the turtles, of course….all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be."

Photos: credit eatsleepplaybeaufort.com and used with permission.

Watch videos of hatchling turtles making their way out of the sand and into the surf at Fripp Island here

A Moment of Wonder

Slowly, the traffic crawls across the Woods Memorial Bridge. Closed for ten minutes to let a boat go through, the bridge has successfully backed traffic up to the Factory Creek Landing on one side and Bellamy’s Curve on the other. The stoplight at the corner of Bay and Carteret Streets enjoys a cool and contemptuous sense of importance since its timing now controls the destiny of all those people sitting in their cars, air conditioning blowing full blast to keep the Lowcountry heat from baking them in their SUV’s. On both sides of the bridge people are waiting…..waiting…… while ice cream melts in a grocery bag and dentist appointments start to get rescheduled. Babies fuss. Bladders wish they’d been emptied earlier. The good nature of fine southern folk is tested.

At moments like this, it’s best to follow instructions my parents gave me when, as a teenager, I was bored with waiting. “Just sit and think beautiful thoughts”, they’d say. At the age of 14 when it felt my world was a little claustrophobic and I was sure that all the good stuff was happening to other people, I didn’t do very well with just sitting and thinking beautiful thoughts. But, given there wasn’t much else to do, I developed somewhat of a knack for it and I can now highly recommend it. The thinking of beautiful thoughts can open up the possibilities of experiencing a moment of wonder; possibilities which abound in our beautiful Sea Island home and which are easily missed when we’re busy trying to get something done.

So I’d like to invite you to drop the deadlines for a minute and cultivate a sense of Sea Island wonder with me.

Take a stroll through the cemetery at St. Helena’s Episcopal Church. Envision the tombstones being lifted off the graves then carried inside and laid across the pews to be used as operating tables during the Civil War. Can you imagine it? Today the church grounds are a serene and peaceful place; a place to go to think beautiful thoughts, as it were. But can you stand in awe at what the church grounds must have felt like with Union soldiers bustling about among women in hoop skirts who worked as nurses?

Early in the morning, find a place by the side of a tidal creek and wait. Everything is still and peaceful as the tide comes in and the only sound is the morning songs of whippoorwills and mockingbirds. But if you’ve been living right you’ll be rewarded with a porpoise sighting. Just watch. Be patient – and - there! The brief sight of a shiny gray back as the porpoise comes up for a breath of air. Can you believe you’re in a place where this happens all the time?

At the other end of the day you stand a good chance of receiving the gift of a Lowcountry sunset over the water. They’re so beautiful you’ll just have no choice but to stop what you’re doing and wonder at the sight of it. Take a picture if you need to, but then take time to just sit and watch. Remember to breathe.

Some wonders are easily overlooked, like these little fiddler crabs that go about their fiddly business while we deal with important human affairs like bridge closings and dentist appointments. Did you know that these tiny crustaceans have an uncanny and completely reliable sense of time? They know when the tide’s coming in and, when the feeling is right, they climb into their holes and close up the opening with a mud ball. There they wait patiently (much more patiently than we do on the bridge) until their internal alarm clock tells them the tide has gone back out again and it’s safe to un-barricade the door and go back to doing what fiddler crabs do best – eating stuff and looking for girlfriends. Now that’s just extraordinary.

If you really want to stand in wonder, sit quietly on the grounds of the Penn Center and envision former slaves getting an education, acquiring new skills, learning to be free. Even the huge oak trees seem to stand in awe of it. Can you picture schooners on the creeks around Beaufort, carrying cotton to Savannah and Charleston?

If that’s not enough, consider the magic of tides. As someone once said, “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” Or maybe take a short detour off of Boundary Street for a few minutes and wander the tombstones of the National Cemetery. Think of the honor, the patriotism, the sacrifice.

When I was younger and the internet didn’t exist yet for me to visit places with the click of a mouse, I used to stand on the beach at Hunting Island, look to the horizon, and think to myself, “Across there lies England.” The thought of it! Now I know that I was a little too far north in my estimation of where I would be if I could travel quickly and easily across the ocean – I’d actually be pretty close to Marrakech – but still! The thought of it! And maybe there’s someone like me standing on the shores of Morocco thinking “Across there lies America”. Cool.

Walt Whitman said, “Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.” The trick is seeing the moment, touching it, and acknowledging it. In this beautiful place we call home we have the opportunity to literally be stopped in our tracks by one of those moments on a daily basis.

So the next time you’re sitting on the bridge, consider it a blessing. You have no choice other than to stop what you’re doing for a moment and think beautiful thoughts – and in the process perhaps you’ll be touched by a moment of wonder.

Picture of St. Helena's Episcopal Church cemetery from tripadvisor.com

Picture of people on the Moroccan coast from peregrinetravelwld.com.au

All other pictures credit Elizabeth Bishop Later

The Beaufortonian's Guide to Visiting Beaufort

Tourist season is in full swing in our lovely home town. Folks from all over are driving down Highway 17 and up Interstate 95, taking a little detour on Highway 21 and ending up in one of the most beautiful places in the country.

World. 

OK - the universe. (Bias is an inherited southern trait.)

We love and welcome visitors to Beaufort and are so happy they've chosen to spend some of their precious vacation time strolling down Bay Street and riding in carriages through the Old Point. There's a lot to see; a lot to do. And it's great fun.

However, for those of us who grew up in Beaufort, live elsewhere, and visit regularly, we admit that we have a very serious character flaw. They say that admitting it is the first step to recovery, so here goes: we are snobs about being native Beaufortonians. It's a pride thing, really. So when we visit, the very last thing we want is for someone to mistake us for tourists. Once I was walking down Carteret Street with my dad, who had a camera in his hand. He said, "I probably should have put this camera in a bag. Walk like you know where you're going so no one will think we're tourists."

The only thing worse than being mistaken for a sightseer is someone thinking you're a Yankee. Heaven forbid. 

Rest assured that you will never catch us in a t-shirt that says, "It's a Beaufort Thing." We avoid the stores on Bay Street between the months of May and September unless we're wearing dark glasses. And just in case we do have a real need for carrying a camera downtown, we've got our bases covered with car decals like this one, which eliminate any confusion. The decal's message: "We're in the cool club. We were born here."

Of course, we enjoy all the great things Beaufort has to offer, too. We just don't do it when anyone's looking. So if you want to visit Beaufort like a native Beaufortonian, here are five suggestions:

1. Eat at Duke's BBQ. Eat your BBQ with several slices of Sunbeam white bread from the loaf on the table along with a double helping of fried pork skins. Wash it all down with a big glass of sweet tea but don't use a straw.

Straws are for tourists.

2. A visit to the Chocolate Tree is a must, but put on your best southern accent when talking to the chocolatiers. "I just LOVE these darlin' chocolate sand dollars! I just can't get enough of 'em."

Pay in cash. Credit cards are a dead give-away.

3. If you get caught on the bridge, stay in your car. Opening the door and resting your feet on the door handle is acceptable. However, if you absolutely must lean on the railing to watch the boat go under, go with the nonchalance of Robert Mitchum and make sure you don't point at anything.

4. Take a ride to Frogmore and eat lunch at the Shrimp Shack. Get the Shrimp Burger but do not, I repeat, DO NOT ask if the Shrimp Burger has shrimp in it. My schoolmate Julie will stare at you like you've got a head growing out of your left shoulder. 

5. Grits are a thing here. But if you ask for milk and sugar everyone's going to think you're from New Hampshire. (A very nice place, but remember the goal here....) Butter and salt, mix it all up with your eggs and bacon, and eat it with a spoon. 

And while we're on the topic of Lowcountry food, if someone offers you a boiled peanut just pop it open and eat it. Choke it down if you have to and, for heaven's sake, don't say "Ewww....it's soft!"

So there you have it. Our top five ways to visit Beaufort like a native. Of course, you can always throw caution to the wind, forget what everybody thinks about you, and just enjoy it. Take the carriage tour. Wander in and out of the little stores on Bay Street and buy lots of stuff adorned with seashells. Walk on the waterfront and gaze at the sailboats. Stroll into the Chamber of Commerce and pick up some postcards and brochures.

You never know what might happen. You might even find a new Facebook friend from New Hampshire. 

Photos of The Chocolate Tree and bowl of grits courtesy of our friends at eatsleepplaybeaufort.com. All other photos credit Elizabeth Bishop Later.

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