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Heaven is a Beautiful Place and
Other Inlet Tales
Keynote Address by Genevieve Chandler Peterkin
delivered at the 65th Annual Meeting
19 May 2001
A few years ago, Billy Baldwin came from McClellanville to the Inlet to see me. I'd known Billy for years. We hadn't talked in a while. He had just completed a book that I thought was delightful and charming, Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden, which Billy wrote with a lady in Charleston named Emily Whaley. So I asked, "What are you working on now, Billy?" and he said, "Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. I've talked to the publisher and I've talked to my agent. I want to write about you." I didn't plan to curse here, but I said, "Billy, you're crazy as hell. I'm not another Emily Whaley." And I wasn't, but I'm glad Billy talked me into working with him on what is now called a memoir.
I want to read to you first a couple of pages from the book, because if you haven't read it, this sort of gives the setting and says something of the two women I want to mention today, who influenced my total life. The first chapter's called "Two Worlds."
Lillie Knox fried corn breads she called her Little Red Horses, and the hush puppies of this present time don't compare in any way. She fried them on a flat iron griddle with not much grease. They were an inch thick and she'd flip them like pancakes, and when they were golden red brown they went on our plates. This was during the Depression. We had seafood, but meat was a rare treat after Daddy died, and I have the clearest memory of being at the kitchen table, asking Lillie for meat to go with my field peas and rice, and her answering "Darling, my little red horses is what you get today."
In my own heart I always had two mothers, because Lillie Knox was always there. This black woman was such a warm and sweet and loving person. Of course, my white Mama was there too, but Lil was plump and I could crawl up on her lap. That was the most comfortable place in the world to be, especially if I'd stumped a toe or had my feelings hurt.
Lillie always had on a clean white apron. She pressed our clothes with an old flat iron that had to be heated on the wood stove. She would go into the yard and break off a branch of a cedar, a branch with blue berries growing on it, or she got berries off a myrtle tree. Then she ran that black iron over those waxy berries from the cedar or myrtle so everything she pressed just smelled wonderful. Such a clean scent.
Back at the beginning there were only my mama and daddy, my older sister, June, and my infant brother Tommy and me-who was named Genevieve for my mother but called "Little Sister." My two youngest brothers hadn't been born yet, so those first four of my family were the only white people in my life. We were living in a cottage at Wachesaw, which was a portion of an old plantation and a riverboat landing. Yes, they still had riverboats in those distant days of the early 1930s-paddlewheel steamboats. We were about five miles inland from the seashore community of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and except for our black neighbors we were very cut off for most of the time. I was literally in a black world, and as a child I must have gotten things pretty confused. Mama talked about Lillie's grandmother, Aunt Kit, and hearing the word Aunt, my childhood mind became very confused about who was my aunt by blood and who wasn't. Now, Mama said that Lillie's Aunt Kit had long, straight, black hair and sort of greenish-gray eyes and a reddish cast to her skin, more bronzy than black. So when I was in third grade I think I invented the first Show and Tell. We were studying South Carolina history in a little country schoolhouse and learning about the Indians along this part of the coast. I didn't tell Mama but I took her tomahawk, her best tomahawk.
She had quite a collection of Indian artifacts. At Wachesaw we would follow the plowmen and pick up arrowheads and all kinds of pottery. The high bluff on the river had obviously been the site of an Indian settlement. Anyway, I took Mama's finest tomahawk, which was actually a stone axe. On a thread she had strung beads taken from the Indian graves at Wachesaw (the graves are a subject to which I'll be returning). I took those beads and some pottery game pieces. I sort of went among Mama's relics and took what I wanted to school and showed them in my class. Now, I had very dark brown eyes and very long dark brown hair that I wore in two long pigtails down to my waist, so I probably looked as much Indian as Lillie's grandmother. And I stood up in front of my third grade class and told them that the beads belonged to my grandmother. I didn't mean to be telling a lie. I thought that was the truth. About two months later Mama came to school for something and my teacher Mrs. Sanders said, "Mrs. Genevieve, I didn't know you all were Indians." Mama said, "What?" By then it was all over the community about how my grandmother had the long black straight hair and the greenish-gray eyes.
When Mama died in 1980, our friend Dr. Charles Joyner, who's here today, wrote a tribute to her that was published in the local newspaper, the Sun News, down in Myrtle Beach. Dr. Joyner said, "A remarkable woman died in Murrells Inlet last week. Genevieve Willcox Chandler was an artist, an historian, a folklorist, a linguist, a short-story writer, a teacher, and a museum curator. Her achievements in any one of those careers would warrant a claim on our attention. That she was a success in all of them is extraordinary."
Read more about Ms. Peterkin and her memoir, Heaven is a Beautiful Place (published in 2000 by the USC Press) in this essay published in the Spring 2001 issue of Caroliniana Columns.
The strongest, kindest, and most courageous women and mothers that I've known were my mother and her friend, companion, and, yes, her servant, Lillie Knox. Lillie was only fifteen years old when her mother died. Her father had died a few years earlier. My grandmother moved Lillie with her younger sister, Geneva, and their little four-year-old brother, Elijah, into an old slave cabin that had been abandoned for some years behind the Hermitage in Murrells Inlet. So began a lifetime for Mama and Lillie of sharing their strengths and their sorrows with each other.
One of the most heart-warming experiences I've had since Heaven Is a Beautiful Place was published happened last July. Lillie's oldest son, Paul, served in World War II. He came home only briefly after the war, and then moved to New Jersey where he was able to get a good job. His widow, their grown children, and grandchildren were visiting his nephew Richard Knox III to whom I'd given a copy of the book. Paul's family called and asked to come to see me. On their first visit we talked about three hours. There was so much I could tell them about their family. One of them told me, "You've given us a family we knew nothing about." When they were leaving, one of Lillie's granddaughters asked, "May I call you Aunt Sis?" I said, "Of course you may. When I was young I called all of the older women in your family 'aunt.'"
When my mother-in-law, Julia Peterkin, married and went to Lang Syne Farm in Fort Motte to live, an elderly man asked her one day, "Miss Julia, you know 'bout lies?" She answered, "Of course I know about lies." Then he said, "Well, I makes 'em and tells 'em." Well, I've been accused by some of my family, especially my sister June, here with me today, of "making 'em and telling 'em"-but I've noticed that most families do have someone called "the rememberer," or that's sometimes what I'm called-and that's certainly fallen my lot in the Chandler family.
I'm quite certain this happened because right after my father's death in mid-November 1936, when I was eight years old, I became ill. I really stopped walking, and my poor mother had to take me to the doctor. He said he thought I had rheumatic fever, and I couldn't go back to school that year. Well, obviously, this was just what I wanted to hear, because I didn't realize it then, but I'm quite sure I thought that if I did go to school, Mama might do what Daddy had just done, which was to just absolutely disappear out of our lives one day.
Mama was employed shortly before his death by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Projects Administration, or WPA, to collect folklore from the African Americans in our community and white communities on Waccamaw Neck and Sandy Island in Georgetown County, and the Freewoods and Holmestown Road in Horry County, just up the river, the Waccamaw River, from Murrells Inlet.
There were in those days, in 1936 through 1938, many more African Americans in those communities than there were whites. Mama's interviews with former slaves giving their remembrances of slavery, and younger storytellers who told wonderful animal stories and tales of hags and plat-eyes, are all preserved in the South Caroliniana Library and also in the Library of Congress.
About ten years ago, Kincaid Mills, a young friend from Tennessee, and I went through the files at the South Caroliniana Library and collected about twelve hundred pages my mother had sent in to the WPA or Writers' Project. We then checked that collection at the Library of Congress, to be certain we had all the work turned in by my mother. We have interviewed the descendants of the people she interviewed, hoping to be able to have brief biographies of them. During that time, we located photographs at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina taken by Bayard Wootten, the wonderful North Carolina photographer, during the thirties. She traveled with Mama around our area, photographing people that Mama was interviewing. It was so exciting to go there and to be able to identify many of the people of Sandy Island, the Freewoods and Murrells Inlet, whom I had known when I was a child. Mama had lost her copies of these photographs to Hurricane Hazel in 1954. So now, with the photographs that we have located, and with all the material that is in the South Caroliniana Library that my mother turned in during that era of the thirties, Kincaid and I believe we have a book in the making. That will remain to be seen, but we expect to be able to publish that sometime. And it will be of value to South Carolina, especially for African-American history.
Recently, I was talking to a group of college freshmen at Coker College, and I realized not a single student in the room knew what I meant when I mentioned the WPA. I forget I'm so old sometimes. I imagine that many of them had grandparents or great-grandparents who actually survived the Depression era by working in some capacity for the WPA. Then I thought, I suppose I'm the only South Carolinian left who went on interviews for the WPA in the 1930s, because instead of going to the third grade, I just went with Mama.
Lucien Lance would paddle us in his small riverboat from Wachesaw Landing to Sandy Island, where oxen were still used to plow the rice fields. Quite a long trip down the river. I wouldn't get in a boat that small and go on the Waccamaw today for all the tea in China. But we would go to Sandy Island for Mama to talk to the people there, and for Miss Wootten to photograph some of them. Because cattle had free range in those days, and hogs too, the houses on Sandy Island were all fenced in with pine board fences. Mama would take shotgun shells to Abraham Heriot, and he'd give her a bag of rice. Later, using the shotgun shells, he'd shoot rice birds and then bring her a bag of rice birds, so she could make a pilau out of the rice and the rice birds. The barter system was really active in those days in our community.
I've been asked by numbers of historians and linguists how it happened that Mama could interview these African Americans in those days in remote communities. They seemed to trust Mama and tell her their true memories of slavery rather than what they may have thought the white interviewer wanted to hear. I've always been certain I knew the answer to that question. I was with Mama and Miss Wootten one day in the thirties, in the Freewoods. Because of a rain, our car bogged down in the deep ruts, and Mama looked across the fields, which we called savannahs in those days, and saw smoke coming from a chimney of a house. She said, "We'll go over there for help. Because there's a fire burning, somebody's home."
We probably walked about a mile across the savannah, and as we came near the house I saw a very large woman seated on the edge of the porch near her steps. She had on a long skirt, and she seemed to have both hands tucked under that skirt. Her face reflected something I'd never seen before on a stranger's face, when we'd come to a home where Mama was not known. This woman's eyes showed hostility and fear. Mama seemed to know not to step too close, but she asked the woman, "Aren't you a Holmes?" and she said, "Yas 'um," rather sullenly. And then Mama said, "Do you know Dr. Dick?" Again she said "Yas 'um," with a little change in her expression. Mama quickly said, "I'm Dr. Dick's sister." Well, Mrs. Amelia Holmes jumped up, and she dropped her sharp axe that had been hidden under her skirt. "Lordy, Miss Jenny," she said, " I bin tek yuh fuh Gypsy. When dem Gypsy come tru' heah, dey tief ebery 'ting us got. Dey tief duh clothes off duh line, tek duh quilt off duh bed, tief duh chicken off duh yard, dey eben tek duh pot off duh stove. Miss Jenny, I bin gwine kill Gypsy dis day." No matter where we went from Sandy Island to the Freewoods, Dr. Dick had always been there first. There's no question but that he made my mother as an interviewer for the WPA a welcome person.
Until I began to work with Billy Baldwin, trying to recall my memories of my earliest years in Murrells Inlet, I don't think I ever realized how completely, absolutely my life has been influenced by the African-American culture of my area. Stories of plat-eye and hags were far more real to me than Grimm's Fairy Tales about princesses and castles in Europe. As we grow older, invariably we regret not having listened and learned more from the people around us, when we were children. How I wish I'd written down the proverbs that Lillie used to use, just the daily language of daily conversation with us. "Darling, good manners will take you where money won't," she'd say to me if I had been a bad girl. And to my little brothers, who were going from a tussle to a fight, she'd say, "Coward man don't tote broke bone."
Addie Knox stopped by the house one morning in 1937 to visit Mama and Lillie. Addie was Lillie Knox's mother-in-law. She said, "You know, Miss Jenny, John on the chain gang." John was her husband. "Sheriff Brouerton lock 'em up for he shoot a deer out of season. He shoot the deer all right, and it been a doe too. Us needs meat for the chillun. I hear the Sheriff bringing his chain gang up here to Murrells Inlet soon to ditch the Mission Swamp, drain the creek. John do love a chaw of tobacco, so I gon' down to duh creek for gather some clam to sell. I needs something to grease the grits and rice for dem' chillun too."
"I come out duh creek there to Oliver Lodge. I see Cap'n Bill and he say 'Addie, what you got in you bucket?' I say, 'Clams, Cap'n suh.' He want to buy half de peck of clam. I give him half my clam and he give me a quarter. That gon' buy tobacco for John. I'll feed de chillun wid de rest ob de clam."
"So I gon' on down duh path by Belin cemetery, where dem live oak hang low and de moss touch the ground. There bin a little kitney in my path. I touch 'em wid the clam rake, and I say 'Kitney, get out de path.' You know what he do? He change to a panther cat. There he stand with big red eyes big as dinner plate."
Addie had a plateye in her path. The plateye's generally always an animal creature and can change form right in front of you.
"I look at dat panther cat, and I think, 'Oh, Lord have mercy on my soul. How I gwine get home to my chillun?'" She said, " I raise that clam rake and come down on that cat back and that rake go right through 'em and where 'bin a log in de path, is twelve foot alligator. He head in the bush to one side of the path, and he tail to the other side."
"I know if I touch that critter he gwine change to something wusser than an alligator." And so, she says, "I got my bucket in one hand, my rake in the other. I run and jump over that gator, and I still got miles to go through Mission Swamp to get home and then I feed the chillun."
She says, "Dis morning I find Uncle Murphy the witch doctor, to the Freewoods. He fix me 'dis." Addie showed us this little piece of calico cloth with a safety pin. She had it pinned to the neck of her dress. She says, "He mix gun powder and sulphur. Say I must carry 'dis wid me when I go through the swamp. Plateye can't stand de smell of gun powder and sulphur mix."
I probably should tell you at least one story from Heaven Is a Beautiful Place, because I've been telling you a few others. Some years ago I was given a beautiful German shepherd dog. Beautiful, beautiful dog. June and I were visiting friends down in Florida, and a friend from Alabama was there too, and she learned that my dog had died recently, so she said, "I'm going to give you one of my puppies. They're ready to leave home." And her husband was coming to pick her up on Saturday, so he came and he brought this handsome dog I named Buck. I took Buck to obedience school for four months, and it just wasn't working out at all. Finally the woman who was the trainer said one day, "You know, Buck's passed but you've failed this course. Buck had your number before you brought him here. Your voice has no sound of command in it at all. And I'm afraid you're never going to control this dog."
In a short time Buck was 125 pounds of uncontrollable dog. When I tried to walk him on the leash, if Buck saw a squirrel he would have me flat on the ground, plowing a furrow with my nose. And I wouldn't let go of the leash, because I didn't think I'd ever catch him again if I did. My brother Bill worried constantly. He'd say, "Sis, you've got to find a good home for Buck. If you don't you'll spend your old age in a wheel chair."
About that time June and I were making plans to go to a wedding in Tennessee, and Bill's wife was going with us. The night before I left, Bill said, "Didn't you tell me you have a friend in Oklahoma that said he'd take Buck if you couldn't keep him?" I said, "Yes," and he said, "What's his phone number?" I didn't want to tell him, but I did. But Chris didn't answer the phone, so I sort of had a reprieve. We took off to the wedding, and it was a wonderful week of dinner parties and luncheons. The first evening there, they seated me next to Jim Nabors of "Gomer Pyle" fame, who happened to be a guest of the wedding too. I remembered he'd been very ill, and I thought he looked well, so I told him so. He said, "Oh, Sister, the surgery wasn't so bad, but what nearly killed me was that they had to come in when I was in intensive care and tell me my dog was dead."
I said, "Jim, of course, you've gotten another dog."
Jim said, "Oh, no. I could never love another dog like I loved her."
"Jim," I said, "You've made a terrible mistake. I've lived long enough to know that if you lose a person you love, you can't run out and get another one, but if you lose a pet you can get another one, and you'll love the second one as much as you ever loved the first." I said, "I have a beautiful German Shepherd I want to give you."
Jim said, "But Sister, I don't want your dog," but since I was seeing him every luncheon and every night at dinner, I'd add a little more to my story about Buck. I told him, "You know, Buck was born in Alabama, and so were you. Buck is supposed to belong to you." Then, on the last day at lunch, I remembered the one trick I'd taught Buck, to tease my friend Doris who had moved down from Long Island. I'd say, "Buck, would you rather be a Yankee or a dead dog?" Buck would roll over on his back and stick his four feet in the air.
Jim said, "Sister, why didn't you tell me that before? I want Buck!" June said, "You know, Buck will be the next Rin-Tin-Tin on TV."
It was awful to let Buck go, but I knew he was going to a good home. Now he spends summers on a ranch in Montana, and in fact the mother of the young man who was getting married said, "Sister, his home in Montana makes Tara look like a cabin in the woods." Then Buck has his winters in Hawaii at Jim's house there, and then Jim has a a macadamia nut farm on another island. When Buck flew to Montana I called to be sure he'd made the trip all right. They hadn't gotten home from the airport, so I left a message. Before long Jim called and said, "I can tell your son knows his mother's voice. We came in and he's still sitting looking at the answering machine."
Well, some weeks ago, a friend called one night and said, "Get downstairs and turn on your TV. Buck's on TV." And there was old Buck looking out at the Pacific with Jim, and then they got in the private plane and Jim was patting Buck. You could tell Buck loved him. They were flying out to the other island where the macadamia nut plantation is. Jim says he can make Buck heel but he can't make him play a dead dog.
When we were working together, I'd say something or tell a story into Billy's tape recorder, and then I'd say, "Oh, good heavens, we can't put that in print." Of course, every time I said that, Billy would say, "Now don't worry, we're going to edit this before it's published." Well, when the time came to try to edit, I'd say, "Billy, you've got to strike that. We just can't use that." He'd say, "Sister, you're going to ruin this story if you take it out." I'm glad he stuck to his guns on that issue, because basically Billy kept me telling the truth and at times I didn't want to, but I know now that different stories in this book have touched the lives of different people, and I'm glad we used all that I told him.
On the Waccamaw Neck we lost a dear friend early this spring. He was old and hadn't been well for a long time. But when Heaven Is a Beautiful Place was printed I took him a copy because at that point he was either in a slingback chair or in his bed all the time.
I noticed that when I visited him he always had that book on his chest, and one day his wife said, "I haven't even read it yet, Sister, because he won't turn it loose for me to even hold." I have a notion that what he liked about the book was that I said, "What could heaven be if it doesn't have dogs and flowers?" The day before he died, his wife left a message on my answering machine. She said, "Please call when you come in. I have to tell you something." What she wanted to tell me was that he'd gone into a coma early that morning, but before that he had not spoken for weeks. She said, "I was in the living room and I heard him talking, and I ran to the bedside and stood there." His twin brother had died two years before. They were very close. She said, "You know, Sister, he said clearly, "Sammy, heaven is a beautiful place," and he never spoke again.
Stories like this, which have come to me, have made baring my soul worthwhile.
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