Southern Nights

Nearly every year since I was 12, I’ve spent April vacation in (at?) Hilton Head Island, S.C. I thought about it, and realized that cumulatively I’ve spent an entire year on this spit of land overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

At one point, there were parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, in-laws, friends and nieces and nephews on our annual spring exodus out of New England. But this year, it’s just the three of us in our rented condo overlooking Calibogue Sound.

That’s OK. There’s plenty to do. And if we get tired, there’s always a nap by the pool or on the living room couch before our late afternoon bike ride on our rented beach cruisers.

There are years I’ve left here more tired than when I arrived. Between tennis, golf, swimming, walks along the beach and bike rides, I’d return to work feeling like an exercised race horse. But things are different this year.

I don’t want or need to be busy. I need to relax and be still – to hear waves lapping the shore and notice the dolphins’ fins breaking the surface of the Sound. I need to walk the beach at sunset and watch the southern sky turn to orange and pink behind the pines. I need to pause and assure three deer in the dunes that I mean no harm, that it’s safe to pass.

My daughter Maura took this photo during one of her solo walks on the beach.

Some people crave adventure on their vacations and I get it. Exploring new places is invigorating and good for the soul. One of our best trips was a cross country trek along the northern route of the United States. With no agenda and a month in front of us, we were as close to nomads as we’ll ever be.

My neighbors love adventure, and it’s hard to keep track of where they’ll go next. One year they spent New Year’s Eve gazing at the Northern Lights in Iceland, and now they’re in Uruguay, which I had to look up on a map.

But there’s something to be said for returning to the same spot every year. Like hummingbirds returning to their backyard feeders, there’s comfort knowing you can return to the same place every spring for rest, renewal and nourishment, even if that happens to be grits and boiled peanuts.

A lot of people look at me quizzically when I tell them I’m headed to South Carolina for vacation. “Oh, there again? Have fun,” they’ll say. It lacks the cache of the Caribbean and the sun, surf and frolic of Florida. I don’t expect them to understand.

But the barrier islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coast are incredibly beautiful, tranquil and in some cases, remote. There’s even a nearby sea island inhabited by 3,000 rhesus monkeys, though in my mellowness I passed on a chance to see it by air this year.

Singer John Cougar Mellencamp has an oceanfront spread just across the sound on Daufuskie Island that I peeked at during a helicopter tour a few years ago. And don’t forget of all the places in the world, JKF Jr. and Caroline Bassett got married on Cumberland Island, a remote barrier island off Georgia.

My parents discovered Hilton Head by chance. With my mother’s deep-seeded fear of flying and seven children to contend with in a station wagon, my father looked for southern vacation spots within a reasonable drive of Connecticut. He found Hilton Head, which was rural, undeveloped and lined with tar-paper shacks and rusted cars when we first visited in 1970.

A blue heron stands tall near a creek.

At the time, there was one plantation – Sea Pines – designed as an eco-friendly vacationland for wealthy executives. Today, there are dozens of plantations, golf courses and shopping centers lining the island, which is too commercialized if you ask me.

We’ve tried other resorts – Kiawah near Charleston, as well as Ponte Vedra and Amelia Island in nothern Florida, but have always returned to Hilton Head – perhaps because or in spite of its familiarity. There’s something nice about knowing the lay of the land, and being able to point tourists to South Beach and the Salty Dog Cafe as if we were natives.

One of my father’s biggest regrets in life was missing an opportunity to buy a beach front lot on Hilton Head, which he could have bought for about $50,000 in the early days. But my mother nixed the idea, saying managing a second house about 1,000 miles away was impractical with so many kids.

She had a point, as she usually did. My father was the dreamer and she was the practical one, or as he used to call her, the Kibosher.

So they rented places, mainly on the beach because that’s what my father wanted. My father loved the wide beaches with “squeaky” white sand and the sound of the surf, but he loved golf more. And it’s hard to come down here without thinking of him and how much he loved it.

He’s been gone 10 years now, a major milestone that’s hard to comprehend. The early years of someone’s passing are easy to track, but 10 years? How did that happen? I missed the anniversary when it came in early March, though I suppose it may explain some things like my achy joints. Perhaps they reflect the ache in my heart, which by the way, never really leaves when a parent dies.

One year down here, he was having a devilish time with his golf swing, which he picked up after reading Ben Hogan’s book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. After listening to him moan and groan, I offered to go to a nearby driving range with him to see if I could spot any kinks.

To my surprise, he accepted my offer to be his swing analyst. Boy, he must’ve been desperate to consider tips from such a duffer. And though there was no miraculous cure, he listened to me and made a few adjustments, eventually regaining his groove.

He was a 5 handicap at his peak, but he was more comfortable in the 8 to 10 range. His swing was smooth, and he worked on it with a weighted golf club in our backyard. He was a student of the game, often buying new clubs and shelving them in the garage when they didn’t pan out. Particularly disappointing: a set of Lee Trevino clubs with snazzy white and black patterned grips that he ditched after about a month.

He played golf by the rules, and had no patience for people who didn’t. He didn’t understand people who took multiple mulligans, kicked balls out of the woods or “sandbaggers” – players who purposely kept high handicaps so they could win. He taught me that above all, golf is an honorable game.

I think of my father most when playing golf. We spent so much time playing that it’s hard to finish a round without echoing one of his lines about swinging like a rusty gate or having a touch like a gorilla around the greens. He called traps “trapezoids” and when I’d hit a good shot, his biggest compliment was “you’re capable.”

He had so many lines, so many expressions about golf that I feel him when I’m playing. Perhaps that’s why I picked the game up in earnest again about five years ago after a long hiatus. Part of him is very much with me when I play, and I care about that much more than my score. (That’s probably a good thing, all things being equal.)

We were adventurous two years ago, taking a helicopter ride around the island.

We never know who or what will spark memories of our departed loved ones, and most of the time they find us. About a year ago, I met an older woman who reminds me so much of my paternal grandmother that I sometimes want to call her Grandma. She acts and looks like my grandmother, right down to her teeth.

Knowing her is such a gift because she reminds me of my grandmother, who has been gone for about 20 years. We discuss food, and the need for buying green bananas so you’ll have some decent ones for later in the week. We discuss the merits of different brands of bread and ice cream – the things my grandmother obsessed about (remember, this is the woman who used to ask me what I wanted for dinner as soon as I’d wake up).

It’s like that with Hilton Head and my Dad. Looking up into the pines the other day, I felt him so strongly that I welled up. That doesn’t happen too much any more – 10 years is a long time after all – yet there they were. Tears and that awful catch in my throat.

I can’t come to Hilton Head without thinking of my father because he’s very much the reason I came here. He was his best self here – relaxed, funny and free of the burdens of home and work for two weeks every April. I understand why he loved it so much because I do too.

I guess that’s why I keep coming back, and probably always will.

8 thoughts on “Southern Nights

  1. Love this post. I can relate in multiple ways. I vacationed on Hilton Head, only once, but it was a great time. I lost my father over 50 years ago, and you’re right, the pain never completely goes away.
    I never met your father, but I feel that I know him because you talk about him so much when we play golf. You are no longer a gorilla around the green, as evidenced by that chip in birdie you pulled off yesterday on the 15th hole. Your dad would have loved that shot. You’re capable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely reflection and so true. The pain never goes away, but remembrances such as these help. Also, it is always amazing to see someone—a stranger—who looks so much like him and quicken my step only to realize, it’s not him of course. But it is a gift to meet someone who reminds us of someone we’ve cherished and lost, such as Grandma, and experience them again. I have such a friend, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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