In Way Back When
A portrait of the island that shaped my family and the house we lost to the sea.

I don’t think I completely understood that we were going to eat the crabs. They were expensive and they were fun. I liked their blue legs, clicking together as they crawled over one another in their brown grocery bag, and the way they smelled—muddy, soft, organic.

I remember giggling as I poked at a smaller one with a pencil. He stole it from me, snapping it up and animatedly tugging it out of my grasp before waving it around at his paper bag companions. Clara and I laughed and laughed about that. He was like a tiny, flat knight with his yellow sword. I remember being surprised at how very, very alive he was.

He was also very, very alive a few hours later as he dangled over a boiling pot, his claw shut in a death grip on the metal tongs my dad was operating. Dad and Clara were laughing. Mom was taking pictures. I felt party to some sadistic cruelty, a senselessly savage act against an innocent who’d done nothing to nobody, except maybe the theft and wielding of a wooden pencil.

He held the other tiny blue claw out, waving it frantically in search for another grip as Dad scraped the other off the tongs with a wooden spoon and made comedic sound effects for the crab.

“Ahh, don’t put me in that water! No, don’t put me in there, I can’t swim!” His voice was goofy and high-pitched, and interrupted by giggles.

The little crab hit the water with a plop.

I did my best to try not to imagine his horrific end as I stared at his red shell on my plate minutes later. Dad was apologizing for his jokes, trying to quell the waterworks a little.

Mom still likes to bring out pictures of me sobbing in my spaceship pajamas, ears plugged and snot running down my face as I experienced my first Christmas atrocity.

“So cute!” She says, “You were so upset.”

This was the first of many Christmases we spent at Driftwood, along with some summers for good measure. I don’t remember how many, just that it was always there for us when we needed it, a short plane ride and half a world away.

We almost always arrived at night, Dad driving whatever too-small car we had rented from the airport through the narrow, winding roads. Beyond the headlights, the black palmetto forest crowded inward, thick as soup and constantly churning. Once we pulled to a stop at the end of the gravel drive, a mad dash from the car to the stairs for my sister and me was a matter of life and death—our parents were more casual about the living tangle of trees and sand that surrounded us. They would take their time hauling duffels and grocery bags out of the car.

We’d have stopped at a roadside market along the way—we had a favorite, not much more than a rusty shack covered in blue tarpaulins set just off the baked asphalt of the county highway. There, a few locals gathered to sell what they’d grown in their gardens and caught off their boats. If it was summer, we’d brave the stiflingly muggy air to hoard watermelons, squashes, cucumbers, zucchini, and okra. If it was Christmas, collard greens, sweet potatoes and homemade jams. Regardless of season, we’d always snatch up as many shrimp and blue crabs as they had to sell.

Once these spoils and our store-bought groceries sat safely at the top step—the entire house rested on stilts, halfway consumed by the waves at high tide, a drafty cavern full of spiders and monsters underneath—Clara and I knew it was our job to put them in the kitchen. From the plastic bags we would pull loaves of bread, dozens of eggs, an imported coconut or two, gallons of milk. Our groceries were far from casual snacks and cream for the morning coffee. The nearest Piggly Wiggly was too far away for any unplanned craving, so we stocked up. A mistake as bad as forgetting to grind the coffee in-store would be a day long ordeal. In the later years, Publix breakfast bread became a staple, and Mom would make sure to get two or three loaves every time we made it all the way to town so we would never wake up without it.

Mornings on the island were always somehow more special than at home. The sun was always softer, the wind kinder. As much as the sound of waves breaking on the sand became white noise for us at night, the cold, grey morning drove it whispering back into the front of our minds.

After he came back from his daily newspaper run, Dad would have his coffee (black aside from a pinch of sugar) and Mom would have her tea (with milk—or cream, if we were spoiling ourselves) and Clara and I would have our toast (with strawberry jam, of course). For my parents, those early hours when we kids were either asleep or too tired to make noise were probably not too far south of heaven.

Like all good things, the quiet didn’t last.

By midday, we were banished to the beach, where we could be rowdy and reckless without consequence. The half mile or so on either side of the house was our domain, and we combed it countless times. The grey, chilly beaches of Hunting Island were, in a way, a better place to spend a long, TV-less fortnight than any white-sand tropical paradise. There were no endless, flawless stretches of sand here, no sunbathing tourists or striped umbrellas. Instead, the ghostly bleached skeletons of driftwood trees, some taller than the house even on their side and half-buried, jutted out of the flat shoreline. When the fog rolled in, the silence of that twisted, barnacle-encrusted graveyard made us uneasy, guaranteeing we wouldn’t stray far from the house.

In the bright sun, though, it was an endless, tangled jungle gym full of little wonders. Every time we went to the island, more trees had been claimed by the shifting of the sands and the relentless waves. We never considered the implications of this reclamation of the island—no more than a glorified sandbar, really—we just knew that every vacation brought a new landscape and new opportunities for adventure. Terms like “longshore drift” and “coastal erosion,” so often on the tongues of our geologist parents, were of no consequence to us as long as the sun was shining and we were out on the sand.

Clara and I approached these warm days with very different attitudes—I rambled without purpose, but full of curiosity. I stopped at every clear tide pool that gathered around the buried trunks. I tried to make sense of the strange rippling patterns of black clay under the sand and chase the sandpipers that would skitter madly away from the waves, then retreat right back into the surf to peck at the silt with their long black bills.

For Clara, the beach and the forest were full of opportunity. She was the inventor of tree-bouncing, which is exactly what it sounds like. A few of the branches rested a foot or so above the ground, and the salt-soaked wood was springy enough to bounce on without snapping. We had tree-bouncing Olympics. In addition to the source of this innovation, she was also the mastermind behind our forts—magnificent palaces built in the skeletons of those derelict trees, often multiple stories tall. She’d block three sides of an empty space with dried-up Palmetto fronds or fallen branches and station plastic lawn chairs inside of the rooms. There were special knocks to separate friend from foe, and special knots for storing different types of shells. We had a system.

Every sunny afternoon we got, we’d retire to one of those forts with our peanut butter and jellies and Ruffles and talk about what the next one would look like. We passed long hours in the shade of these elaborate dwellings, and only came in once we got hungry.

Our nights on Hunting Island were spent in the kitchen. Driftwood cooking was different from home cooking: it was a ritual. Every meal was a work of art and cooperation, and each one was an event.

On Christmas, we’d have ham. It was usually uneventful, but I vividly remember the Christmas that we got wild and picked out a salted ham rather than honey-smoked. And boy, was it salted. It was, in fact, nearly inedible—the kind of salty that made you gag, not necessarily because it had an inherently bad flavor, but because it was the sort of pure mineral concentration that seemed to trick your body into thinking it was being poisoned. Mom likened it to jerky that had been tied out in the surf for a month. We used the leftovers to bait a rusty crab trap we found under the deck, but even the scavengers stayed away.

On New Year’s, we’d have Hoppin’ John, collard greens and hog jowls. The Hoppin’ John (brown field peas and rice, served with a penny under the bowl) was for luck. The collard greens would give you wealth in the new year—the more you ate, the richer you’d be. To this day I’m not sure what the hog jowls were supposed to give you.

When we weren’t choking down briny ham or working on our luck, we almost never strayed from seafood dishes. My sister became the expert at peeling and deveining shrimp—there was a method to it that I (the squeamish kid) never cared to learn. It had something to do with thumbs, and spindly legs, and intestinal tracts, and popping the heads off, and I would have nothing to do with it. There were, of course, more live crabs, and I learned to hide in the other room until the ordeal was over. It still bothered me to see their little dead eyes staring at us as we tore their limbs off and cracked them open, but I learned to ignore it, because the full, beautiful smells of fresh crab meat and melted butter would thoroughly scramble my brain functions until I gave up and dug in. There were oyster bakes for Dad, but none of us girls found bivalves appealing. There was gumbo for days—the typical exchange would consist of me high-grading all the kielbasa and Clara high-grading all the shrimp, and our parents making us pour our shares back and start over. Puttanesca was my Dad’s specialty. There were few complaints around the table on those nights. There was the occasional caper fight between Clara and I, but they were usually shut down quickly—the little bulbs would get lost in the floor’s grain all too easily.

Barbeque nights were plenty, of course, and Mom could make a cornbread so sweet it’d make you cry. There’s a little smoke shack in Beaufort with the best pulled pork south of the Mason-Dixon (although, as we eventually learned, pretty much every small southern town has a little smoke shack with the best pulled pork south of the Mason-Dixon). They sold swamp water behind the counter—the first time we got barbeque there we had a sort of cultural showdown, wherein the lady running the shack insisted on calling it swamp water, and Mom insisted on calling it an Arnold Palmer. Mom conceded eventually, and only after the lady introduced us to—you guessed it—the best slaw south of the Mason-Dixon.

The crown jewel of our repertoire was the low-country boil (everyone in town called it Frogmore Stew, and loved to claim it was invented in Beaufort). For the most exciting meal, it had the least to it. We threw corn, crab, shrimp, potatoes, and sausage into a big pot, boiled them, and tossed it all out over a tablecloth of old newspapers. We always ate our boil out on the deck, happy faces illuminated in the light of the kitchen windows and sweaters wrapped tight around us. It was a free-for-all, a little aggressive and frenzied, but always the best way to end our stay at Driftwood.

Those nights were the best, the ones we spent breathing in the salty wind and watching the moon cast itself, shimmering, over the sea as the tide crept in toward the house.

And as much as we breathed in those nights on the island, that house breathed us in more. We left pieces of ourselves there—the red bead that rolled under the couch when Clara broke her bracelet, oil stains on the kitchen wall from throwing spaghetti to see if it would stick, dried-up capers and grains of rice pushed too far back into the corners to reach with a broom.

When we walked south along the shore, we would always stop to acknowledge the older houses, teetering on their pylons so far out to sea you could never imagine they, too, were once hidden in the trees. When we were younger, Clara and I would play games underneath their hollowed shells, finding little artifacts and barnacle-encrusted chunks of concrete. Later we were quiet as we walked past them. We knew the magic of the island was wearing thin.

As the years sailed on, the high tide mark drew in closer. Every sea-stripped tree trunk that thumped against the pylons of our little yellow house, pushed forever forward on the advancing ocean, was a reminder that Driftwood’s good luck wouldn’t last. The island was eroding, and nothing would be spared. One by one, the lights of the other houses we passed on our way through the forest were replaced by darkness, rusty mailboxes and screened porches swallowed up by the beautiful sea.

We rented another house a couple years back, a little brown thing on the north end with a clean kitchen and a big TV, where the beach was still wide and lovely. Mom and I picked strawberries and dad made the low country boil, but we didn’t quite get around to blue crabs.

When we walked south this time, we walked toward Driftwood.

The sea didn’t leave a perfect, hollowed shell like it had the others. It didn’t leave anything. We only knew it was our house by the address plaque on the road. Clara and I looked for artifacts where it used to be: a coat hook, a broken mug, not much else.

But then again, everything we needed, we had already taken with us. We have pictures in our spaceship pajamas and buckets of seashells, Clara has her architectural prowess and I have my rambling curiosity. And as trivial as it might seem, we have our food. All the recipes we fell in love with in that house have stayed with us, scrawled hastily and with constant uncertainty on notecards and envelopes as we went. The stories we collected in that cramped, busy kitchen at Driftwood remain largely unrecorded, but they seem to resurface every New Year’s over our Hoppin’ John and greens. The house may have crumbled, but the meals we recreate in our kitchen at home—our ingredients store-bought, but nonetheless full of character and spice and heart—never fail to bring us back to Driftwood, if only for a few moments at the end of a long day.


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