The family and I just got back from our annual pilgrimage to the ocean. I’ve been going to North Myrtle Beach on vacation nearly every summer since I was eight years old – more years than I care to share in a public forum. This year in a four-bedroom house, oceanfront, we had my dad; me and my Max; my sister, Sarah; her husband, Derek; and their 5-year-old daughter, Katie; my youngest sister, Rachel; and her husband, Tally, all week long. Then for the juicy center of the week, we had my best friend Petey and her mom, Alice. My friend Tammy and her family live down there, but we didn’t get a chance to see them this trip. My aunt and uncle were staying in a condo right down the beach with my cousin’s child and her best friend, a pair of 13-year-old girls having their first Ocean Drive experience – we totally forgive them for not getting in touch; they were busy. My boss and his family stayed in a house right up the beach from ours the week before we were there. And when I got back and posted on Facebook where I’d been, I found out that a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, Matt, was there the same time we were at the other end of the Grand Strand – if we’d known, we definitely would have all hooked up.
I suppose the point is, folks in South Carolina love the beach.
Like I said, I was eight the first time I went. My immediate family had spent the weekend before the Fourth of July at my mother’s parents’ house in Colonial Heights, Virginia. My Grandmama and Pawpaw Wylie (my dad’s parents who, incidentally, lived right next door to us) had just started their yearly week at the beach with my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley and their kids, and they suggested that we come down on Sunday, spend the night Sunday night and the day on Monday, then head back to Chester so my parents could be back at work on Tuesday after the holiday. I was beside myself with excitement. I had been to the Isle of Palms near Charleston lots of times, but my cousins had assured me that I knew nothing of the ocean, that the Grand Strand was another name for paradise. For twelve hours as my dad drove steadily southeast, Sarah and I bounced in the back seat, watching the signs for South of the Border go by and planning all the glorious adventures we would have at the beach the next day. (For my darling kittens who’ve never driven south through North Carolina on I-85, let me explain. South of the Border in Dillon, SC, is the world’s most elaborate truck stop, complete with amusement park, but I promise you, the billboards beat the destination by a mile.) We finally got there close to midnight, and the house was literally bursting at the seams – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my Aunt Miriam, who was still just a teen-ager, at least two of Miriam’s friends, and my cousins, Andy and Richard. The house in question belonged to my Uncle Ainsley’s Aunt Pearlie, a woman I never met in my life and never heard tell of beyond the mention of “Aunt Pearlie’s house at Windy Hill,” and I believe it may have had three bedrooms. I slept in a reclining lawn chair at the foot of my grandparents’ bed; I have no idea where my parents and sister slept that night. I know Miriam and her friends all slept on a huge pallet on the living room floor.
The next morning early while we watched Grandmama make breakfast, Richard and I listed out all the things we needed to get done that day so I would know I’d been to the beach – swimming in the ocean, fishing off the pier, crabbing at Murrell’s Inlet, putt-putt and skee ball at the arcade down the street, ice cream at the Dairy Queen, and a trip to the big Pavilion in Myrtle Beach proper to ride the rides. Grandmama just listened, but by the time my parents were awake, she had a plan – she told them to leave me with her when they went home, to let me stay the week. I had never been away from my mama for more than a night or two, but Grandmama and Aunt Sarah promised her that they’d keep a careful watch over me, and I begged shamelessly to stay – I suspect I may have even made an end run around Mama to appeal to Daddy, but I don’t remember. In any case, we had a much more relaxed day that day than Richard and I had planned, and late that afternoon, my parents and Sarah drove away and left me at the beach.
For the rest of the week, I revelled in more freedom than I’d ever had in my life. Grandmama and Aunt Sarah were as good as their word; they took excellent care of me. But it was a different kind of care. Grandmama took me to the dime store and bought me a football jersey teeshirt and a pair of cut-off shorts to replace all the cute matching outfits in suitcase that could so easily get ruined, and my Aunt Sarah unbraided only one side of my pigtails every day to brush it out – two was more than she could face in a 24-hour period. Somebody always knew where I was; somebody always made sure I was fed and washed and went to bed at a reasonable hour. But for the first time in my life, it was assumed that I could amuse myself. I was welcome with anybody in the house, even the teen-agers, but nobody made me go much of anywhere or do much of anything but what I felt like doing.
Grandmama was an old school beach bunny – she made breakfast every morning and dinner every night, but the day in between was her own. She packed a picnic of pimento cheese sandwiches and iced tea in a thermos after breakfast every morning, then hauled it the three blocks to the beach along with an umbrella, a stack of towels, and any of her relatives who cared to tag along, including me. We spent the entire day at the ocean, and I learned to adore it the same way she did. I learned to ride my float and to survive when it flipped over and dumped me head first in the waves. I learned to love homemade pimento cheese. I learned that the best naps in the world are taken after lunch on an inflatable float under a slightly-damp beach towel under an umbrella. Most important of all, I learned that my grandmother was the closest kindred spirit I might ever know. One of my fondest memories is standing in the surf with her, jumping the breakers and laughing like loons. And even now, whenever I think of her, the first picture that comes to mind has her standing at the edge of the water in her floral print bathing suit with the straps tied together across her back with a shoestring for extra support and her white canvas Keds with holes cut out for her corns. These days I have her big boobs, and I have her corns, and I promise you, she was magnificent in every way.
We did go to Murrell’s Inlet, and we ate a cubic ton of soft serve vanilla ice cream, and Richard and I played enough skee ball and putt putt to bankrupt a Third World nation. On Friday night, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley took us kids into Myrtle Beach proper to the Pavilion, and that was a whole new world of wonderful. Miriam and Andy and the rest of the teen-age crowd rode all the scary rides, including what surely must have been the creakiest, most terrifying wooden rollercoaster the world has ever known – Richard rode that with them and said it was the best thing ever, but I wouldn’t get on for love or money. Andy won me a teddy bear at the arcade, shooting a high-powered water gun in a clown’s mouth, sealing his fate as one of my favorite humans ever for all time. Richard and I played dime arcade baseball and the pinball machines, and he even deigned to ride the carousel with me so I wouldn’t have to ride it alone. But best of all was the German Baden pipe organ – a massive, surreal thing, all cherubs and Grecian goddesses and little guys in lederhosen that came to life every hour to music that was gorgeous and layered and scary as hell. I adored it – Aunt Sarah and I agreed it was far and away the best thing at the Pavilion.
We went home the next day, and my mama barely recognized me. And I think in a lot of ways, I really was a brand new child – tanned and confident, reeking of sunscreen and ocean water. I loved being that girl, and I’ve tried to be her again for at least a week every year since. By the time I was a teen-ager, my dad was out of the Army Reserves and able to take a week’s vacation every summer, and we started renting houses of our own. My sisters and Petey and I have tracked our path into womanhood by these weeks at the beach – the year we all slept in one bedroom with a creaky AC unit and the world’s noisiest cricket; the first year we went out drinking together on our last Friday night; the boys we met in the arcade.
Myrtle and North Myrtle Beach have changed a lot over all those years and not, to my mind, for the better. What used to be a charmingly seedy resort for South Carolina families has grown up to be a sleek, well-programmed, garishly marketed golf and ‘attraction’ playground for rich Yankees. Ocean Drive, the birthplace of the Shag, is now shadowed by South Beach-style condo towers. And Dolly Parton has pirates doing battle three shows a night for tourists who need that sort of thing to enjoy overpaying for their dinner – like my daddy says, I just don’t know that I could eat $40 worth of corn on the cob. There’s an awful lot of Vegas in Myrtle Beach these days.
But it was the craziest thing. One cloudy afternoon this past week, we decided to take in one of the most Vegas Yankee ‘attractions’ you can see for free – Broadway at the Beach, a shopping and dining complex with a Hard Rock Cafe and no sign of either the ocean or Broadway in sight. We bought some overpriced penny candy at a store that made a fetish of gummy bears and walked around in the stifling heat and had just about decided we were done with the whole concept when we rounded a corner and saw it. The old Pavilion closed down in 2006, but the Broadway at the Beach people saved some of the rides – Katie rode the old carousel last year. But this year, they’d added something even better. The old German Baden pipe organ is there, restored to all its creepy glory. We didn’t get to hear it play this time – I suspect they only crank it up at night. But I love that they have it there. I love that Katie got to see it, and next year, we’ll go back at night so she can hear it play, and I bet she’ll love it, too.
The beach has changed a lot for me in ways a lot more profound than losing the Pavilion. Standing in the kitchen of the beach house making breakfast last week, I missed my mama so much it hurt. And I can’t stand in the surf without missing Grandmama Wylie, promising myself that she’s somewhere in the universe doing the same thing and hating that she’s not there doing it with me even so. But there’s still an awful lot to love. The old Grand Strand is still there if you look for it. I got to stayed in a ramshackle duplex on the water with gray cedar shingle siding on the outside and dark pine paneling on the inside with an army of my nearest and dearest around me. We sunned on the sand surrounded by families just like us. We ate sandwiches and drank iced tea and went out for ice cream. My niece had an absolute ball – someday she’ll remember what it was like to wake up to the smell of bacon, tingling with the knowledge of the Atlantic right outside her bedroom window and uncles ready and eager to carry her into the waves. My dad spent days sunning on the deck overlooking the ocean – I like to think God is kind of like that, having a ball watching us have fun and making sure none of us gets hurt. My sisters and Petey and I fell back into that same old closeness, talking and laughing and playing contract rummy. And this year, I had my Max, my husband, and that was it’s own special kind of amazing. No year at the beach is just like any other, but in its own way, each is the best vacation I ever had.