How awesome of the Fourth of July to fall on a Thursday, giving us a four-day weekend and a chance to try out something new: a stay-cation. Normally by July we’re swelteringly in need of a break from 100% humidity. But after a week in Santa Fe last month I’ve actually developed a renewed appreciation for humidity (a broken down air-conditioner at the moment notwithstanding) So instead of hitting I-95 ourselves for a getaway, we invited some friends down from Washington DC. I can’t remember a nicer four days staying in one place, so I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for anyone else hanging close to home this summer.
1) Invite out-of-towners to join you. It’s so easy to take your hometown for granted and the best cure is to see it through fresh eyes. It might take some convincing – most non-Southerners would rather slit their wrists than face the sizzling heat and oozing humidity we’re famous for. But tell them to check the weather stats. Right now I’d argue we’re having the best weather in the country. Eating at Duke’s BBQ in Walterboro never tastes as good as when two friends sitting across from you are groaning in ecstasy. I’d forgotten how quirky and hospitable antiquing in the Lowcountry can be, or how sumptuous and eccentric the squares of Savannah appear to outsiders.
2) Invent a signature cocktail for the stay-cation. Think about it. When you go stay at a hotel in some resort destination you probably don’t sit around the pool drinking the same old cheap beer. You try new cocktails and find yourself reminiscing for years about the perfect habanero margarita you had in Tulum. For our stay-cation, I adapted the signature martini of a famous New York restaurant: The Indochine. It required some preparation: infusing a bottle of vodka with the core of a pineapple and a plug of peeled ginger and not touching it for two weeks. But when I filled the silver-bullet martini shaker with 3 oz. of the steeped vodka, 1 oz. of Cointreau, 1 oz. of fresh squeezed lime and a gulp of pineapple juice it was the beginning of a new story for me and my DC friend Marlene.
3) Go camp. As in, remember all the best parts of summer camp when you were a kid and recreate them. Here in the Lowcountry we have winding tidal creeks to explore by kayak and loggerhead turtle beaches to comb for hours. But even if your stay-cation is in a big city I bet you’ll have a blast tooling around it by fat-tire bicycle.
4) Stay up way past your normal bedtime and sleep in like a slovenly teenager. It’s all about breaking the routine and indulgence. Now I’m usually nodding off by 11pm so this was tough for me. The solution was another Beaufort treat: the drive-in movies. Nothing says you’re on vacation like lawn chairs under the stars while you congratulate yourself for not paying full price to watch Lone Ranger.
5) Finally – unplug. It will never feel like a vacation if you’re checking emails and tweeting your every thought and observation before you’ve even experienced it. Here’s a game to get you started. Have an Indochine martini or two and then throw out a theoretical question. Actually banter back and forth with conversation instead of looking it up on your phone or I-pad. I bet you’ll remember those answers and conspiracy theories long after Wikipedia becomes cliché as the word “stay-cation.”
Summer is when I miss Byrne Miller the most. Maybe it’s the flowing clothes that catch the breeze, or the near nakedness of swimming in the creek outside her house. It’s the season for abandoning pretensions and inhibitions and the heavy, sticky heat of it reminds me of the woman who freed me. Until I met her, I was a little ball of guilt, trying to fix or placate my far-from-perfect parents. She was already in her 80s and had given up on that foolishness since before I was born.
“Blood relatives are simply people you were born with,” she always said. “Not necessarily people you should stick with. If they can’t make you happy, or vice versa, then I say choose your own family. It works for me.”
I was one of the daughters she chose. She showed me I didn’t have to grow into my genes, that I could pick and chose the traits I would preserve. There’s a bit of armchair psychology in all of this, I realize in looking back. “When the student is ready the teacher shall come” is only a cliché because it is so easy to confirm. My parents are grown-up runaways, suspicious of anything resembling roots or connections. There is nothing I crave more. I plant myself wherever I am and let rhizomes slither out, unseen, below my feet. In the sandy soil of Beaufort, South Carolina they touched something solid and I grafted onto it. Byrne taught me in ways my mother never could – without any genetic responsibility to steer me away from harm. I wasn’t so much a blank slate as photosensitive film. Just by exposing me to other worlds — her worlds of modern dance, writing, radical pacifism — she transformed me.
Children are instinctively aware of the nuances of family biology, how traps are set and reactions triggered. Expectations between parent and child are muscle memories, best unquestioned. Not so with parents we hand select. They have the capacity to catalyze thoughts, challenge assumptions. It can be uncomfortable, this process of discovery. And so writers, who like to pick at scabs, write about it. It doesn’t have to bleed through in memoir form, like it does in my Byrne Miller story. Novelists work it into the characters they imagine.
I have long suspected that writers re-parent themselves, that perhaps even the act of writing is part of the process. I don’t mean the old-school, Transactional Analysis spin on re-parenting. I have no desire to imagine my favorite writers sitting on the knees of their psychoanalysts, calling them daddy. Nor do I mean the Self-Help version of re-parenting: the mantra that we had no control over the stability of our parents but we can give our inner child the love they never gave us. I don’t know if it’s positive, regressive, dissociative or pathological. I have simply observed that writers latch on to people who are the polar opposites of their actual parents and never let them go.
Pat Conroy, the writer who adopted Beaufort as his home town when he arrived here as a military brat, finds delightful coincidence in the way my re-parenting began – with Byrne Miller. The story of his abusive childhood is known to every fan of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. What isn’t as well-known is how he survived it: by finding gentle men and women to replace those who were brutal and broken. One of the earliest women he unconsciously selected belonged to another teenager on the Beaufort High School baseball team. That boy dropped dead on the pitcher’s mound, and Pat met Julia Randel at her son’s funeral. He started checking in on her, and gradually she became the mother he wished Peg Conroy could have been. I asked him about it over lunch not long ago, as part of an interview about re-parenting for an essay I’m working on. He told me he doesn’t believe his picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit; she had six other children to manage.
“Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect. If I had to accept that my mother was as much of a jerk as my father was, I’d have killed myself. It’d have been too much.”
Pat’s upbringing, if you can call it that, is a horror I recognize only in the way he coped. He navigated by the radar of need, pulsing out invisible signals to almost every sane adult who crossed his path and listening for the echo. His clinging to all these surrogate parents is how I know the truth in what he writes, even though I’ve never been beaten, berated or otherwise brutalized. Re-parenting is the echo-location of acceptance, the chance to reinvent your personal narrative. Surrogate mothers and fathers don’t trade in the currencies of your failures, counting the ways you don’t measure up to genetic code. In your admiration of them they see promise more often than problems.
To find these parental replacements it helps to be socially awkward, more comfortable with elders than peers. Being a loner is a plus since revisionist history is a singular endeavor. Developing a sixth sense for loneliness will get you through doors closed to the over-confident or prematurely successful. Writers tend to notice tender interpersonal details like genuine interest or curiosity without judgment. Re-parenting yourself is surprisingly non-exclusive. You could be the child of wanderers, over-procreators, under-nurturers or simply selfish breeders. Re-parenting is not restricted to children of awful parents. It is a dance anyone can learn. Julia Randel taught the steps to Pat Conroy just as gracefully as Byrne Miller showed them to me.