Photo: I spent my week in South Carolina’s “Low Country” which is, as many forbidding places are, achingly beautiful. The 2 1/2 hour drive between Charleston and Hilton Head brings me through a spectrum of emotions.
I spent my week writing and working. The Husband was working, too. We were away, but we were working. It was a “working vacation” which is the biggest oxymoron I can think of right now.
This was my second visit to Hilton Head. I am absolutely in love with the lush island with its Spanish moss and its magnolia trees. I spent the entire week wondering out loud if I can bonsai a magnolia tree so I can have one here in Massachusetts. Hilton Head hits me right in my writer’s spot for many good reasons, some positive and some negative. I’m going to be very candid: I wondered last week, as I struggled to write fiction because I spent so much time working on church stuff, if maybe I should walk away from the blog. But I’ve come back with stories to tell. It feels good to be back. This week, my posts will have a Quiet Thoughts feel because, well… I’m full of them.
If you’ve never been to Hilton Head, one of the first things you’ll notice is that every community is “planned” and gated. I’ll talk about the gates of South Carolina on Wednesday. The hotel where The Husband and I stayed was in the middle of a grand planned community built in the ’70s. The datedness of the place really showed, but it was well-tended and tenderly loved by the droves of people who were there for their timeshare or for their retirement. The hotel is of a pricey brand with many nice amenities. The Husband and I love it because we always get a room directly next to a magnolia tree.
The folk working at the hotel where we stayed were mostly Black. The working folk were Black of all sorts and the managers were mostly white or Asian. There was a mix of different people staying at the hotel while we were there because of our conference. That being said, I think that you could probably have counted the total of all the Black guests who were staying there on both hands. This dynamic isn’t new, but noticeable. It made my interactions with the valets and the housekeepers and a few waitresses fun and interesting. My favorite thing to do was ask the employees I spent time with where they lived (on or off the island) and try to discern the fascinating legendary local creole (Gullah) and seeing if I could tell who was speaking with a Caribbean accent or with a local one. (I quickly learned that I suck at telling the difference. I am committed to doing better next time I go!)
I made friends with two housekeepers in particular who were extremely nice to me. They wanted to know a bit about me and that’s fine because I’m always happy to run my mouth and hear a stranger’s story. This friendliness unlocked a most unexpected situation for me and my husband on Thursday afternoon.
The Husband and I had decided to go for a walk on the beach. His conference was over and I had finished a chapter. We were celebrating with toes in the sand. It seems that all of the beach part of Hilton Head is public and owned by the town, not the resorts. We walked north a ways, got bored, and decided to dump off at the nearest beach entrance, thinking we were still within our planned community, though away from the hotel. As soon as we got to the street, we realized we weren’t in our planned community, but instead among some sort of other houses (that were plenty nice and fun to gawk at!). We walked back in the direction of our hotel and quickly found the back side of it. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be an easy way to get in.
We happened upon a parking lot with a sign that said “Human Resources Lot.” It featured a monstrously large propane tank, generators or water filters or something making a hell of a lot of noise. Cars of all types were parked in the sun, some coming and some going. The Husband and I figured we would find a door in the fence or maybe a door to the hotel… some way to get in. We were looking and wondering, when I hear a voice: “Now how did you find your way back here?”
I turned to find one of my housekeeping friends… I’ll call her Sally here, though that’s not her real name. She was sitting with a gaggle of other Black women, all in their uniforms, under a gazebo. The day was done. This was their space and time before heading for home.
“Oh, we were so stupid,” I said. “This man right here wanted to go for a walk and next thing I know, we done turned around twice and couldn’t find our way home!”
Sally laughed and laughed. Some of her friends did, too. They looked us over with pitying looks. Silly Northerners.
“We figured there would be a place to get back. Is there a way to get back?” I asked.
“Sure, yes… Lemme see if Gloria is still here.” Sally said. (Gloria, of course, isn’t her real name, either. But Gloria was my other friend who I chatted with during the week. She specifically cleaned our room a few days. I loved speaking with her.)
We went up a ramp and found Gloria sitting on a bench squeezed between other uniformed workers. They sat under a big fogged window, a blue sign reading “Loss Prevention Office” over it. “Girl, how’d… what are you…?”
“We were stupid Northerners,” I explained. I thanked Sally and followed Gloria, who crossed the threshold into a whole new world. Narrow hallways with cinder-block walls covered with announcements and posters were filled with all sorts of people and things: Lockers with employee names printed on them. Bins filled to the brim with used towels. Men moving carts of catered food. Housekeepers on their way in or on their way out. There was a lunchroom done up like an old diner, “Eat at Joes” in an old-fashioned neon sign above the door. I can only guess that this was the employee lunch room. Here and there, there were those familiar double beige doors that opened a crack to conference rooms and common areas The Husband and I had been sitting in all week. We turned a corner, another and another… then finally, two beige doors opened and there we stood, back in the lobby. As if we were spirited there. It was uncanny.
“Well, here you are! You know how to get to your room from here, right?” Gloria asked me.
“Oh, uh… yeah, we can get there!” I said, bewildered. “Thank you, thank you! I’m sorry about that!”
“Girl, don’t even worry about it.”
A little exhausted, sweaty and confused, The Husband and I sat at the bar and enjoyed some drinks after our adventure. It wasn’t until my second glass of chardonnay that I really began to feel the weight of what we’d experienced.
I’ve never had the experience of having to walk through the back door of a house before. The “help” entrance of a place. My great-grandmother did. My grandmother did, too. I’m very aware of this, but I’ve never done it before. It was a heavy thing to have that experience, to have a quite literal moment of seeing the thin beige separation of my experience as hotel guest and their experience as hotel employees. The heavy clunk of those beige doors in the conference rooms and the hallways for the rest of my stay made me physically flinch. Not from fear or trauma, but from newly introduced knowing… admittedly shallow and brief. But a knowing. It’s a small, thin separation between me and those women I so loved to be with, who were so kind to me, who heard and saw me last week. Two beige doors.
I had a moment of facing myself and my very privileged life. I felt an aching appreciation for Nanny and Grandy, who had known doors and halls like the one I so briefly stepped through. It was a strong, strange lesson. One I’ll carry with me way up here, so far away, and hopefully for a good long time.
Thank you for gifting me with the time and space to breathe. I love this blog. I love writing. I’m sincerely grateful that so many of you come to my little blog and read my little words. Thank you. I’m always hunting for new ways to make this blog “bigger” to make it do “more” and to turn it into “something.” Frankly, I think I found the folly in all of that during my time away. I’m going to breathe into the beautiful simplicity of this space, knowing that there is a small, thin line between a blog that’s worth writing and a blog that’s just built to sell you stuff. I’m not going to chase the rabbit anymore. I’m going to listen to the whispers, write the words of the spirit that inspires me, and do this simply because I love it and I so deeply appreciate you and your time.
Thank you for the grace and the freedom, Dear Reader.
Until Wednesday, peace be with you, and take care.