Margaret Ward McClain

The Simons House

I still walk through the house in my mind, not as much in memory as meditation. I savor each step, from the threshold schhhh of my foot scraping the sand on the back door cinderblock, to the tatty screened door smacking shut behind me as I step out to face the Atlantic Ocean. Nights when my grown-up self lies sleepless, scrubbing my feet together in the desperate itch of anxiety, I step through that door, inhale deeply, and walk body and soul into that place where I can breathe.

Because we have all been children, we all have a physical place that is a part of our being, because it was the place of our becoming. As children we are physical beings locked in the moment. The sight, sound and scent of living, the tactile presence of it, embeds itself within us. It is unnoticed but as constant and critical to our growing as oxygen that flows through our blood from breathing. As adults, we live in layers of past, present and future. When my adult present was rocked and cracked by death, sickness and separation until it split into a gaping rift, I found that childhood place. It bubbled up, unbidden, and flowed liquid into the gap. Some embedded tactile presence of living rushed into the emptiness that threatened to take my life and filled it.

This is a story about that place.

The Simons (rhymes with “ribbons”) House is an old island house, built sometime in the 1920’s on the Isle of Palms in South Carolina. In days before air-conditioning, a waterside refuge from the swelter of Charleston summers was considered a near necessity for the well-to-do. Proximity to the city meant the banker Mr. Simons could join his family when they left their house in town for the summer. The beach house is well-built for its purpose, settled under a hipped roof behind the dunes in a small strip of maritime forest. Screened-in porches run the full length of the house front and back. Double-hung casement windows connect the porches to the interior. A shotgun floor plan allows the breeze to move and views straight through to the ocean.

The house has all modern conveniences, of course, circa the 1950’s: gas stove, sink, refrigerator. Modernity, perhaps also the1950’s, enclosed the back porch to add windows facing the street and a sliding glass door to the main house. A rickety deck out front just skims the tops of the stocky pine and wax myrtle brush, allowing a broad view of the beach and the ocean beyond. A dishwasher, washer-dryer, and downstairs washrooms were added in the 1960’s. An “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” practicality has otherwise left the house and its furnishings, funky and functional, unchanged. Violent island storms have not been able to damage the sturdy-built house; it hunkered down in the pines to survive even when Hurricane Hugo scoured the island in 1989. As newer houses parked themselves in the middle of the street or were swept out to sea, the stout grey Simons house on its cinder-block foundation stood, and stands today.

In the 1960’s my maternal grandfather befriended Mr. Simons. Our family was firmly middle-class, my grandparents living in a sturdy brick ranch house on then-rural James Island, my young parents in a small house nearby. My grandparents were proud McLeods of Scottish descent, frugal by nature, children of the Depression, known to squeeze a nickel ‘til it squeaked. The very idea of a beach house was out of the question. But my grandmother, a red-hot Mama, suffered in the tropical heat. Worn out with fans, ice trays and complaining, my grandfather worked a deal with Mr. Simons. Our family (in those days a hive that included my maternal grandmother and grandfather; my mother and father; my mother’s brother and his wife; their two daughters; my mother’s sister; my sister; and me), could have his beach house for the last two weeks of June. Thus Mr. Simons was spared the indignity of renting his house to the public, our family was spared the indignity of being renters, and my Grandmother would be cool. They struck a price we could afford and the deed was done.

I still imagine that by ‘our family,’ Mr. Simons pictured my genteel grandparents. In reality, we were a horde between twelve and twenty, a volatile mix of cocktail party, day care, kennel, and commercial fishing operation. We were a Clan, decamped for our two weeks of summer. In my childhood, I imagined that real life happened only at the Simons house. Everything else was just an interruption. I was good at imagining. After some tests at school I was tagged a ‘gifted’ child (read: nerd). I was socially awkward, painfully sensitive, uncoordinated, and homely. Of course I was paired with an outgoing, bubbly, beautiful little sister. She was, and still is, a tiny porcelain doll, a perfect miniature with olive skin, huge green eyes and long, loose curls of dark hair. I was blessed with a stocky build, fair skin that crisped lobster-red at the first hint of sun, and a shock of dark hair so unruly my mother kept it cropped in a ‘too much trouble’ shag. My eyes are deep-set and pale as water, and my front teeth stuck out so far that (so I was told) I could eat an apple through a picket fence. Given those cards I preferred to live elsewhere, that “other place” being my interior fantasy worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, the green hills of James Herriot’s Yorkshire, the dramatic Brontes, and Greek mythology. When I ran out of books I read cereal boxes.

My parents seemed to prefer that I live elsewhere, too. I wasn’t much trouble catatonic in a book. Mom and Dad loved me; I never doubted that. But my pretty, preppy, popular and handsomely alliterative parents didn’t know what to do with their oddball eldest child. At the Simons house my grandparents were in charge and knew exactly what to do. They let me be. They didn’t give two hoots about giftedness or moodiness or mouthiness. They casually shared their gifts: his prodigious intellect and quirky inventiveness, her glamour and vicious wit, and both were generous with their humor and all-encompassing love. For two whole weeks of summer, there was a real world I could live in. At the Simons House I had a place.

Getting the family to the house required weeks of preparation. By the time school was out in early June the excitement was excruciating. Plans were made, the party assembled: my mother’s parents, my mother’s young sister, my parents, my sister and I, my mother’s brother, his wife and their two girls, everyone’s dogs. Our Clan at its core: three families, four children, and at least three family dogs. All would stay two weeks. A host of friends and relations would traipse in and out. Groceries alone filled the back of the station wagon. There was menu planning, baking, packing and more packing. Boxes of sheets and towels, suitcases, sunscreen, dog food and enough booze to float the Peninsula had to go somewhere. Most years it piled to the roof of the station wagon, filled a car-top carrier, and was lashed with rope to the inside of the Boat.

The Boat, Dad’s prized possession, had many incarnations. At its pinnacle it was a well-kept Boston Whaler with all its original parts. The Whaler enjoyed only a brief tenure before the need for cash eclipsed the need for Boat. The rest were a flotilla of scows perched on rusty trailers in varying states of restoration. The motors ran, sometimes. All performed admirably to satisfy my dad’s endless need — he was like Rat and Toad in The Wind in the Willows — to mess about in boats. My favorite was a nearly flat aluminum john-boat. She was painted the same electric blue the old-time Gullah families used on window and door trim to keep bad spirits out. She was dubbed “Plait-Eye” for the supernatural power of her ungodly blue to repel haints, hags, and the “plait-eye”– evil spirit of conjunctivitis. Gallons of WD-40, yards of duct tape, and tremendous cursing guaranteed that her motor would be seaworthy for two weeks in June.

Her first job was to get all our gear to the coast. Shrimp nets, crab traps, ice chests, bicycles, and anything that wouldn’t fit in the car was secured aboard. Plait-Eye was heaped high and hitched to the station wagon. Mama piled my sister, the dog and me in the car to fight for real estate in the back seat. Dad climbed in the driver’s seat, popped a beer, unwrapped a stick of Wrigley’s, and lit a cigarette. Chewing and puffing, he backed our multicolored paraphernalia wagon out of the drive and we hit the highway. Our one-third of the Clan was on the move. In my early childhood my parents moved us from Charleston four hours away to Greenville, red-dirt capital of the Upcountry, for my father’s job. To the broader family it was an eighteen-year exile. I presumptuously think this was a late passage into adulthood for my mother, the pain of moving away from her parents like losing a limb. She had five-year-old me and my infant sister in a new town. My father was unpredictable, volatile; one moment a kind and tender husband and father, the next moment angry and vicious.

In the early 1970’s, alcoholism wasn’t an illness, mental illness didn’t happen to ordinary people, and nobody talked about any of it. This isn’t that story, but it would be less-than-honest to leave it out of this one. It is a truth infused into every element of my childhood. We were a family, not of gods and children, but of human beings. The truth, for better or worse, made love for us more fragile, and more precious. Relentlessly optimistic and gracious, my mother made it all look beautiful. Providently her brother and his wife moved near us, and for a time we all bore our exile from the Lowcountry together. Going to the Simons House was our homecoming, each of us taking our place in the life we coulda-shoulda-woulda had.

Charleston in the 1970’s still suffered the ravages of Reconstruction. Industry never took hold and many South-of Broad mansions were all collapsed verandas and peeling paint. Downtown streets now packed with chic boutiques were rows of boarded-up storefronts and broken windows. One hundred years stopped the city still. It rotted inside from the generational poverty, crime and violence that were the legacies of racism. The grand old city and its inhabitants were ‘too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash,’ and many middle-class families like mine had little choice but to move elsewhere. The caravan was on its way.

We traveled in a convoy with my uncle, aunt, and cousins, their car similarly piled high with provisions. “Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine” and the miracle of CB radio connected us like an invisible string down the highway. Mounted under the dashboard, it crackled and squawked for the four-hour journey, allegedly to keep Dad from getting a ticket. It didn’t work. More than once we saw the bubblegum popping in the rear-view mirror then heard my dad curse and pull over. Conveniently he could pay the ticket, in cash, to the trooper right there on the road. Mostly my dad and uncle played walkie-talkie going down the road: “Breaker-one-nine, this is the Witch Doctor, copy?” “Go ahead, Witch Doctor.” Constant communication was necessary. Inevitably a beach towel started flapping, a cooler threatened to jump ship, or heaven forbid, the trailer blew a tire. My sister and I were perched as lookout in the back seat, trained to alert my parents at the first sign of a flapping rope or a fishtailing trailer.

We had about a fifty-fifty chance of making it all the way without shimmying to a swerving, swaying halt along the shoulder of the interstate. Serious cussing and fussing ensued. Dad would strip off his shirt and bang away at the trailer, frying himself to a crisp in the heat rising off the asphalt. My mother would bring down the car windows as the heat built up, the dog panting between my sister and me as we started to sweat and stick to the vinyl seats. After an hour or so of sweating and cursing and a medicinal beer or two, Dad would have the trailer back in commission and with a, “We got the hammer down to Charlie-town!” we’d be cruising down the road. After hours cramped in the wagon, broken up by a Coca-Cola and bathroom break, we’d finally roll in to the Holy City.

Heavy, sulfur-laden air from the paper mills west of the Ashley River proclaimed our arrival. Even asleep we couldn’t miss it. Dad would roll the windows down and announce, “Ahh, the smell of North Charleston!” as my sister and I squealed and covered our noses. Over the next hour we’d roll across the lattice of bridges criss-crossing the city, the scent gradually fading from paper mill to the salt exhalation of the marsh. As we crossed the causeway to the islands, lined on either side by rows of full-blooming oleanders and a vast expanse of salt-marsh, I’d imagine the road knitting itself closed behind us, shrinking the world to a speck. The island spread out before, a narrow road suspending us between the sloe-brown waterway and the silver whitecaps of the inlet.

We drove over the Breach Inlet bridge, past the Grim Reaper sign warning of deadly currents in the waters deceptively calm at the crescent of beach. We made a right turn into a green tunnel of maritime scrub, and finally a break in the brush and the leaning wire fence marked the sandy yard. The car came to a stop. In a second of stillness before the explosion of arrival, the sweet smell of the sun on a giant bay tree suffused the air. The big gray barn of a house hunched behind the bay tree, half obscured from the street, sloped roof tucking back into the brush. We were home.

Moving-in day was controlled pandemonium. Children and dogs tumbled from the hot cars and scrabbled out of the way as the men maneuvered cars and boats in the tight postage-stamp of yard. My grandmother’s bum hip and seniority earned my grandparents the coveted single parking spot under the carport for their pea-green government-issue K-car. “Here we are!” she’d sing out in a musical tone reserved for us children and Christmas. She’d open the passenger door and swing her legs out, giving us a glimpse of hot-pink toenail polish and white Bermuda shorts. My grandmother rarely wore trousers and never, ever wore shorts, except at the beach. At the beach her once-glorious gams were liberated, long dancer’s legs displayed between white bermudas and bright sandals with giant flowers on the toe. Her banjee shoes, she called them, a Gullah word for ‘ridiculous’. It fit.

My grandfather would emerge from the driver’s side in similarly natty attire: madras Bermuda shorts, embroidered guayabera, and a broad-rimmed Panama hat straight from Panama. “Hi, babe!” he’d wave to me and call out as my sister and I sprinted across the yard. Then he’d turn and offer his arm to my grandmother. She pushed and pulled her way out of the car, exclaiming “Oh, Lord, it’s hot as the hinges of Hades!” Thus began her two-week verbal assault on the heat. If creative cursing made it cooler, she’d have been in the Arctic year-round. We children were well-trained. First item of business: find her fan.

After mobbing my grandparents with hugs, we took fan, suitcases and laundry baskets of linens from the back seat and headed for the door. The joyous bucket brigade of moving-in had begun. We invaded the house like the Viking horde. The cars and boats disgorged their load armful by armful. We children ran up and down the stairs and in and out of each room, making sure that the previous year had not altered a thing and each stick of furniture and knickknack was intact. We offered loud reports of anything new: “Mama! They got an os-illating fan!!” Fortunately, the Simons’ didn’t believe in change. Every year, every plastic lobster, every collection of seashells, every deck of cards remained in its proper place, having somehow survived our summer conquest. The house fit us all like a favorite pair of jeans, broken-in just right.

Within the hour we had each found our proper places. My grandmother perched on the vanity stool in front of the window air conditioner in her room, fanning and praising the Lord in relief. Later she would line the vanity with little containers of poudre , umpteen lipsticks in reds and corals, and her glass bottle of Shalimar. My mother and aunt fluttered from room to room with thrilling efficiency, first filling the refrigerator and pantry, then unpacking sheets and making beds. The men unloaded the fishing gear, shrimp nets, rafts, bicycles and beer, clanking around loudly downstairs until the work upstairs was done. We children ‘helped’ first one and then another, running out onto the porch, up and down the stairs, into the yard, tracking in sand and pestering people. Finally, after what seemed like an interminable delay, my uncle would yell, “Let’s go beach!!” He’d already be halfway down the narrow path between the dunes to the ocean, towel flung over his shoulder. Bathing suits? We’d had those on since six o’clock that morning.

Hot, sweaty, sticky children bolted through the house, out the screened door of the front porch, down the concrete stairs and took off after him across the dunes. Older than the rest, I tried to maintain a pretense of dignity and walk until I could claim hot sand burning my feet. Ignoring the prick of a sand spur or sharp shell, I’d run to the first lap of foam on the sand, plow into the surf up to my knees, and fling myself headfirst under the waves. Blissful shock of cold, then dark, then down and down to rush upward again, break the surface and breathe deep. With the taste of the salt and water streaming down my face I emerged, fully awake and new.

In the evening, after supper had been prepared in the tiny kitchen, eaten on the back porch at the long wooden table, and cleaned up after, the family repaired to the front porch. Each found an accustomed spot on the mishmash of furniture, claiming a front-row seat for the evening’s entertainment: a cooling breeze scented by wax myrtle and bay, light deepening from gray to darkest blue at nightfall, appearing pinpoints of buoy lights marking the harbor channel, blinking specks from ships at anchor miles out to sea. My spot was the hammock strung at one far end of the porch. I sat curled around my books there, reading until darkness obliterated the words on the page. Then I just lay low, hoping to escape discovery and bedtime for as long as possible.

I sat quiet and still, listening as the adults talked and laughed into the night. The rhythm of their voices rose and fell in waves, laughter and joking, impassioned discussion of politics, funny and tragic stories that wove together into history and identity, into us. Gazing out at the ships’ lights in the darkness, I listened until the words disappeared and only sound remained in the rising fog of sleep. Later, carried to bed and feeling the cool of the sheets on my skin, I would rouse enough to feel a current of joy. Tomorrow I would still be here. I would wake in the morning and be home.

This is a story about a house.

Today, my walk in meditation begins as it did then, and I am as physically present in mind now as I was then in body. I take a deep breath, then up the concrete step to the heavy wooden front door. The door swings open to the ground level, a cinder-block and concrete first floor that anchors the wooden structure of the main house upstairs. The air is still, slightly musty, cooling without the chill of air conditioning. I start down the narrow hallway, past the laundry, past the dormitory-style ladies’ and men’s shower and dressing rooms. A green beaded curtain separates the main living space from an extra fridge, a rusty freezer and piles of fishing equipment and hardware. I pause to run my fingers across the smooth wooden beads, smiling at the click and shimmer of the absurdly avocado green strands. Décor is a jumble of vintage yard-sale furniture and a cheery green-and-orange color scheme, best of the 1960’s floor-to-ceiling.

I move on past the brown-and-gold plaid polyester couch to the twin-bedded downstairs rooms: sky-blue for my parents, orange for me and whichever itinerant family member would occupy the other twin bed. Slightly curling posters and paint-by- number portraits of horses and ships line the walls. A box fan sits in the window, turned backwards to pull the hot air out. I turn the knob and a cross-breeze fills the room. I sit for a moment on the narrow bed against the wall, drinking in the scent of salt, scrub pine and bay. I would linger here, lay my cheek on the cool cotton sheets, drift off to sleep to the hum of the box fan and the murmuring ocean, but I have another place to go.

In the middle of the downstairs space sits the staircase. The narrow wooden stairs are almost a tunnel, rising steeply and emerging abruptly from the floor on the second story into the main house. My feet fall into the grooves worn on the stair treads by decades of flip-flops and sand. Upstairs is a different world, all dark wood with bright borders of porches and windows. To my left, three small bedrooms with creamy floor-to-ceiling bead board line up like soldiers, doors opening to the shotgun passage from front porch to back. To my right is the small kitchen with its cracked linoleum floor and rickety butcher-block prep table. Leaving the kitchen behind I turn for the open passage leading past the bedrooms to the great room and front porch. The first bedroom has bunk beds (bunk beds!) for the children, first me and my sister, later my younger cousins.The middle bedroom, a room just large enough for the double wrought-iron bed, sheltered my aunt and uncle and let them keep an ear out for the children. The front bedroom, for my grandparents, has twin beds and a window-unit air conditioner, then the only air conditioning in the house.

On my way down the passage I am caught, as I always have been, mid-stride, captivated. A tall oak curio cabinet stands against the wall, honey-colored wood intricately carved, glass-front doors revealing shelves piled with a wonderment of shells. There is a collection of hundreds, some carefully labeled with a Latin name on a tiny strip of paper, others stacked to overlapping. Conch shells, purple striped urchins, varicolored mussel shells spread like wings. Some are familiar, like an entire shelf of pale lettered olives, the South Carolina state shell, sometimes found on the island by the sharp-eyed and lucky. Others are messengers from exotic shores: giant conchs with porcelain-smooth pink centers, a curving cream-and brown nautilus, and tiny wentels spiked and whorled. My mind is pulled past my horizon to another shore, where the life of these creatures begins, the thousands of watery miles of life and death between, the wave that carries them, the hand that carries them here.

I could spend hours here, gazing, but I move on.

Beyond the curio cabinet the passageway opens onto the great room, connected to the front porch by a door and a wall of double-hung windows. It is paneled floor-to-ceiling with dark cypress furnished with white wicker, a Morris chair, and a lobster trap with a glass top serving as a coffee table. I move to the center of the room, letting my glance drift across the walls decorated with netting spangled with shells, yellowing Audubon prints of brown pheasant, a rowing oar above the passage to the upstairs bath and kitchen. I step through the small doorway and let my fingers brush the knob to the pantry door, but I do not open it. Across the narrow passage is the upstairs bath, a small space filled with a pull-chain toilet and massive claw-foot tub perched on the bead-board on elaborate feet, enameled a spectacular shade of orange. The passageway ends in the small narrow kitchen, connecting to the back porch with a door and a double hung window behind the stove.

Passing through the kitchen I end where I began, at the staircase. Doors and windows honeycomb the upstairs. Solid wooden three-paneled doors with round glass knobs connect each room with at least two others, windows open to the exterior, doors and interior windows open to the porches. With doors and windows open, the lightest breeze has run of the house, ruffling bed sheets, stirring the sea-oats plucked and propped in containers for decoration, flipping cards on the table, sending paper napkins fluttering. Closed up the house is a hollow tree, dark wood enclosing sturdy wooden doors and shuttered windows batten down to keep out the tropical weather. In summer we lived with doors and windows flung wide, open to the light, open to catch the cooling breeze off the ocean, open to the beautiful sight of a distant storm.

I return through the upstairs the way I came, through the great room to the front porch. I step through the door into bright space, gray painted wood under my feet, sky-blue bead board above, ahead a lattice of white-painted wood and screen and beyond it the ocean. The hammock hangs at the far end, a white curve of rope and wood against the gray, the rope’s open weave casting a patterned shadow on the floor. A small green lizard napping underneath startles and skitters off to a shady corner. Inhaling deeply, I smell salt and the ozone coming off the water, wax myrtle and bay and sand baking in the sun.

Sheltered for a moment under the crooked eave of the porch, I allow myself to think of my son. Already half-grown, his long-limbed body would span the length of the hammock on this porch he has never seen. He won’t know this house. The voices that flowed through me many long evenings on this porch are as still as the summer night. The losses began one by one, far from here, and rolled on unrelenting for year after year. Now dates file in like headlines: 1989: My parents’ fragile marriage finally crumbles. 1993: my aunt dies of colon cancer at the age of 44, leaving my uncle widowed, my two cousins motherless. 1998: my grandfather dies a painful death from bone cancer; two weeks later, my grandmother suffers a stroke that takes her movement and her voice but does not kill her until two years later, 2000. 2003: my own marriage does not survive. 2005: retired five years and remarried for only four, my uncle dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, and my cousins are orphaned. My mother and her sister have lost their nuclear family, alone but for my sister and me and my cousins, now two young ladies they have pledged to love.

The Clan is much diminished, and we who are left will never be the same.

Many families have the same story. For us somehow it should have been different, because of the Simons House. The house remains, unchanged, a physical place of us, where we were and became. It should have done as it always did: stopped the world beyond, shielded us, sheltered us together . Today, when I walk through the house in meditation, I am alone.

What story will I tell my son? That the price of love is grief and loss? That lesson will come unbidden soon enough. That precious memories of time spent with loved ones can fill a hole in your soul? No, my darling, they cannot. I breathe in deeply again, place my hand on the screen door, and push it open. In a step I am outside on the deck above the trees, facing the ocean. The door bangs closed behind me. I lean against the deck railing and see the view as it was: no new road, no row of million-dollar mansions between the old house and the ocean. Just bare dunes crested with sea oats, blooming with mallow and lantana; a wide swath of creamy sand beach curving to the inlet; huge vertical towers of white cumulus clouds over a slate-gray ocean; low tide, a few whitecaps barely breaking, flat and calm to the horizon. A splinter from the wood rail bites my palm.

Through layers of past, present and future, the tactile presence of living in this place urges me on. There isn’t time; I have another place to be. Maybe it is another beach house, on another island. Maybe it is a house on a lake, cool and green and blooming with flowers in the summer heat. Maybe it is a log cabin above the river, the slow-flowing water the very color of my son’s hazel eyes. There is a house where there is a family, where my boy is a child for a moment. I must be present. I must make sure: when he is grown and lies awake at night, when the price of love is paid in grief, there will be a door for him to step through, a place he can enter body and soul, and breathe.

Margaret Ward McClain was born in the miasmal swamp of Charleston, South Carolina, and spent her childhood dividing time between the Holy City and Greenville, the red dirt capital of the Upcountry, where she was raised and attended school. She received a B.A. in English at Davidson College and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law, practiced domestic law and spent many years at IBM. Today she is a recovering lawyer residing in Chapel Hill with her wonderful husband Tim, her son Will, and two very spoiled dogs. “The Simons House” is republished with permission from the Essays on Childhood project. It is considered an exceptional example of what we want to publish at Longridge Review.