I was born in a beautiful place with a haunted past, and consequently I’ve spent most of my adult life homesick and geographically ambivalent.
I write these lines from Land’s End, Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. I’m staying at the same funky beach cottage I loved to visit as a child. Like so many Southern houses, it’s mostly porch, and I look out on a lush and watery landscape: live oaks, palmetto trees, a placid gray stretch of sea. Down on the beach, where the Beaufort River meets the Port Royal Sound, fiddler crabs scurry past an elegant egret. In November 1861, the island’s planters gathered at Land’s End to watch the Battle of Port Royal Sound. When it became clear that the Confederate cannons at Hilton Head couldn’t even reach most of the Union fleet, the white citizens of Saint Helena fled—but most of their slaves refused to go with them and stayed on, free at last.
I abandoned the Carolina low-country in 1969, when I was barely 17. I was hell-bent for Manhattan, but every time I came home to this landscape I was filled with longing. I’m filled with it still. The sky, golden and purple by turns, has changed a hundred times today. In the distance a low rumble sounds: It could be one of the islands’ razzle-dazzle electrical storms, or it might be the Marine rifle range at Parris Island, across the river. My difficulty perceiving which is which mirrors the way I’ve always confused the geographical and political landscapes of this county.
I grew up in the nearest town, Beaufort, on Port Royal Island. It was, and is, a picture-postcard place. My siblings and I spent long afternoons tramping through piney woods, picking honeysuckle and blackberries, deliciously terrified by the possibility that we might meet wildcats or alligators. We came home flushed and drugged from the dense damp heat. We lived in paradise—unless we were sunburned or covered with bug bites, which we invariably were, and then our long night was spent in purgatory. When we went to the beach, we might swim with porpoises, or the lifeguards might call us from the water as a shark approached. The light on the sea oats was otherworldly, the sea breeze sublime. But we were always braced for storms, and in 1959 my family took shelter from Hurricane Gracie in the high school gymnasium, where the roof collapsed.
You see the pattern of my ambivalence.
I was the middle child of seven but the first born in the South, and I claimed the role of Southerner despite my cultural ignorance. My Yankee parents were tickled by Beaufortonians: the old men in the Ocean View Café who spent the morning flirting, cackling, telling stories; the society ladies who chatted with exquisite false warmth. And they were frustrated by the exaggerated accents, the slow-motion strolling, the way they couldn’t buy a cocktail unless they drove to a restaurant in Charleston that had paid its bribes.
Beaufort, some 7,500 souls when I was growing up, held rich and poor at a short arm’s length from one another. We lived in rude shacks, wobbly trailers, sweet cottages, grand mansions. Nearly every afternoon I rode my bike along a stretch of tiny tract houses rented by enlisted Marines. The houses grew bigger the closer I got to Beaufort Bay where, beginning in the 18th century, planters and cotton merchants built big pillared houses angled to catch the breeze, their verandahs gracious and imposing in equal measure. Because these islands were occupied so early in the War Between the States (as my social studies teacher called it), the great old houses were spared the destruction that befell much of the South. Downtown Beaufort looked like a movie set, and when I stopped on the bluff under a live oak festooned with Spanish moss, I was an actress, playing a drawling, worldly Southerner.
If I was acutely aware of wealth and poverty, I was also pretty sure my family’s identity wasn’t based on economics but on religion. We were Catholics in the Protestant South. My father, a civilian psychologist who screened recruits at Parris Island, drove to work with a carpool of Catholic men, including my godfather J. Carroll Stevenson, a 1946 Notre Dame alumnus and a charmer. Our little church, Saint Peter’s, was the center of our earthly existence. Along the coast Catholics were plentiful enough to thrive. Though we were officially designated a mission parish, we had three nuns imported from New York and three priests—a pastor and two curates—all witty and sophisticated enough to leave me with the mistaken impression that Catholics were by definition intellectuals. We were a jolly, social bunch: Catholics drank and smoked and danced, and my Baptist friends were scandalized by our raucous ways. In the summer we bunked at Camp Saint Mary’s, on the Okatee River, where we recited the Magnificat at picnic tables and met Catholic kids from upstate who told us they tried to keep their religion quiet, on account of the Klan. My mother insisted on the opposite: We must let people know we were Catholic, and if we accidentally wore a bit of orange on Saint Patrick’s Day, back we went for greener clothing.
Saint Peter’s graveyard was full of Irish names, and between local and Marine families we covered a good range of romantic foreign forebears. But we didn’t have a single African-American family, and neither did any other white church in Beaufort. Segregation was baffling. We all shopped side-by-side in the Piggly Wiggly, but when we went to the doctor we huddled in separate waiting rooms. I was ashamed when we sat downstairs at the movies—no wonder the boys in the colored balcony threw popcorn at us. The only puzzle was why they didn’t throw down worse. Behind our piano teacher’s house sat the squat slave quarters. Ghosts roamed our town.
I don’t recall racial segregation ever being mentioned in a sermon at Saint Peter’s, but it was discussed often enough at our dinner table. My father didn’t preach—he was too much the psychologist—but he let us know he regarded civil rights as the moral imperative of our time and our place. We were stunned when workmen removed our beloved soda fountains from the drugstores downtown, so they wouldn’t be integrated, and one Saturday we gaped at a pathetic little gathering of the Klan. In the back streets, and out on the islands, the poverty was as striking as the sunset on the salt marshes: Many descendants of slaves lived in shacks that lacked plumbing or glass windows or both. Beaufort County, with its antebellum mansions and plantation houses, was also so poor that it was the subject of the first congressional hearings on food stamps.
We had no sit-ins in Beaufort—the counters, after all, had been removed—but in 1960 the first African American elected to office in South Carolina since Reconstruction joined the Beaufort County Council. Martin Luther King Jr. paid visits to the Penn Center, the thriving community center on Saint Helena’s. And when our segregated schools were finally placed under a “freedom-of-choice” plan in 1963, a brave teenager named Roland Washington integrated Beaufort High School all by himself. White townspeople raised funds to open a segregated academy and asked my father if he wouldn’t consider sending his large brood. He answered that he wouldn’t dream of sending his children to a private academy, just when we’d have the privilege of attending integrated public schools, and he said it so graciously he might have been a Southerner himself.
The first African-American students at Beaufort High were paragons of dignity and converted more than a few segregationists—but I’m still not sure how they kept their patience or their sanity. I remember a shy, wan boy who claimed he’d “shot him a nigger” and vivacious white girls chiding “nigger lovers.” I also had white friends who were transformed, utterly, by integration. But when I graduated, my school was still disproportionately white and deeply conservative about all matters social and political, ranging from the approved fashion label to the conduct of the Vietnam War. If I chafed against the ongoing lessons in How to Be a Great Lady (lesson one: bat those eyelashes) and railed against the Small-Mindedness of the South, I suppose I secretly rejoiced that my little rebellions looked outsize in Beaufort. It didn’t appear that I was doomed to be a Southern belle anytime soon. Besides, Beaufort attracted its share of artists and eccentrics, all merrily defining themselves against a rigid social code. And much of the town’s easygoing warmth was not false at all: Beaufortonians had learned how to roll with the tides and the winds and the changing times.
When I imagined leaving Beaufort, I already missed the light, the gnarled old trees, the creeks and marshes and ocean. I even missed the disapproval. As I packed for New York, a friend’s mother said, sweetly: “Now, Val, don’t let us turn on the television and see you marching.” I would remember her words a couple of months later, when I looked into a camera’s eye at an antiwar demonstration. I felt a little guilty, a little smug. Those early years in New York, I thought I was fast-forwarding through life, catching up on all I’d missed in the South (foreign films! bagels and lox! Greenwich Village!). But I longed for Beaufort.
After college, I dawdled in New York for one long summer, deciding whether to return. My father had died suddenly a couple of years before, and surely one of the reasons I finally moved back was to mourn him properly, to contemplate his own ambivalence about this place. The year he died, he was working on a manuscript about Parris Island, where interviewing 17-year-old Marine recruits preparing to ship out to Vietnam had made him seriously consider pacifism for the first time in his life.
That year of my return to Beaufort, I taught at a brand-new technical college, where my classes were almost evenly black and white and full of frank, angry, forgiving talk about race. It was a hopeful time to be living in the South, possibility crackling everywhere. I was trying to write fiction, struggling with it every night after teaching, and beginning to imagine a lifetime in South Carolina. But I hedged my bets, and when I was accepted to graduate school I headed back to Manhattan. Ambivalently.
If I weren’t going to live in Beaufort, I would have to write about it—so I did, in five novels about a town called Due East. I still write about Beaufort, a little compulsively, though it isn’t my place to claim anymore. The population of town has doubled now, and the county is bursting with military retirees. Natives cringe at the carriage tours rolling past the big houses, but the annual Gullah Festival, celebrating the culture of African-American sea islanders, is a hit. My favorite bumper sticker reads: We really don’t care how you did it up North. There’s more money than ever in Beaufort, and less dire poverty, thank God—but you can still drive down most any country road and see a rattletrap trailer next door to a dream house out of Southern Living. The novelist Pat Conroy—who taught me at Beaufort High in a classroom full of adoring students—helped make this town famous, and now it really is a movie set: My family members have been extras in more films than I can count. I was dumbfounded when Showtime made a film based on my first two novels and filmed it in North, not South, Carolina—didn’t they know I’d promised everybody parts?
I’m still drawn to my hometown, still fighting my attraction. When I come, I spin fantasies involving funky cottages and old age. I stand on the shore, listening to the rifle range where young recruits train to go to Iraq, and can’t help but think of my father’s dilemma during his last war. Geography is not just topographical—a place is social and moral, too, history and politics and landscape all tugging at each other, and our birthplaces can bring us solace and drive us to distraction. Beaufort still haunts me, and so I imagine it over and over, recreating it till I think, for a moment, that I’ve made my peace.
Valerie Sayers is a professor of English at Notre Dame. Her five novels include Due East and How I Got Him Back.