(A little footage of water in Bluffton, South Carolina in the low-country)
I woke up at 4:30 and shouted into the darkness, “WHY AM I AWAKE?”
There was no reply, not from Olive anyway, the wiener dog, who stretched and yawned beside me and went back to sleep.
I did what you’re not supposed to do – picked up my phone and scrolled and stuffed my mind with silly Facebook stories until I could take no more and drifted back to sleep.
Then I had a dream. I had a dream I was helping a bricklayer or he was helping me. I don’t know. I put down a row of bricks and he organized them, and then he said, “Okay, let’s take a look. This is just the first layer.” He made me pick up the bricks and put new ones down because he explained that we needed to get the mold set first, so the first round was practice bricks. It was methodical – this laying of bricks on a kind of walkway in front of an old house with a bricklayer who didn’t say much but was serene and encouraging. Then I woke up at peace in the bright morning light, and got Norah up, fed Olive, made Norah’s lunch and listened to The Prince of Tides on “Audible” and took her to school.
I am just home from Pat Conroy’s funeral yesterday. The speaker, one of Pat friends, Alex Sanders, said, “We have lost our prince of tides.”
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Live oak trees, festooned with cool scarves of Spanish moss, and gnarled by a century of storms, loomed over the street.
My husband, Kiffen, sent me the line from The Great Santini when I sent him pictures of where I was in Bluffton, South Carolina with my friend, Patti Callahan Henry, a wonderful novelist who also sets her novels in South Carolina. We drove from Birmingham together for the funeral.
Here is the story from the local paper.
Pat Conroy mourned with ‘personal grief’ by friends, fans, dignitaries and cadets
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Pat was not a close friend, but he was kind to me and read my biography of Harper Lee and wrote to say how much he liked it through Janis Owens, another incredible novelist. The first time I met him he was in an apron with other writers serving dinner to Kathy Murphy’s Pulpwood queens in Jefferson, Texas. I think he was pouring sweet tea. I was too shy to introduce myself, but I loved watching him joke with the ladies he was serving with his daughter, Melissa, a children’s writer, who wrote and illustrated a picture book about her father, “Poppy’s Pants.”
Later that same weekend, he stood in line and bought all our books and not only bought them, he read them. Pat looked so much like one of my dad’s Irish relatives (and mine) and people use to say the dad in my football novel, Offsides, reminded them of the father in The Great Santini only instead of the marines it was football. I very much related to the daughter, Mary Anne Meechum, being a girl on the gridiron of guys – which, for me, meant half a person too. And of course growing up Catholic…
Am I a Meechum Dad? Can girls be real Meechums; girls without jump shots? Or am a simple form of Meechum, like in biology. Mary Anne, the one-celled Meechum.
I wrote an essay called “I am Not John Madden’s Daughter” and how he was like the “Great Santini” but he was gentler than Bull Meechum (no basketballs bounced off my head, but I knew where to strategically sit in the car so as not to get hit on long family road-trips moving to new football towns or the yearly pilgrimage to Leavenworth, Kansas to visit our grandparents. We moved regularly like the Conroy family only instead of military bases it was the Wildcats or the Cyclones or the Panthers or the Volunteers or the Demon Deacons or the Falcons or Lions and so on.)
“I am not John Madden’s Daughter.”
* * *
So I’m thinking about Pat Conroy today and of his wife, Cassandra, and of his family and friends who gathered yesterday to tell his stories on the most gorgeous day in the lowcountry. In Bluffton and Beaufort I took pictures of the landscape Pat wrote about it.
I’d never really been to the coast of South Carolina except for a strained trip to Edisto Island many years ago with an ex-brother-in-law who fumed when losing at games of cards and yelled at waitresses – (he’s best described as an aggressive vegan) but it was when he yelled at my gentle sister-in-law that made me loathe him permanently. He’s long gone from the scene now, and she’s married to a wonderful man, but the sad ex used to loom large when I thought of my only other trip to South Carolina.
So I was glad to bike around under sparkly Spanish Moss and think of Pat Conroy and his radiant stories and create a new memory of this gorgeous landscape.
My father turned 81 on March 5th, and Pat Conroy died on March 4th.
Pat Conroy and Harper Lee died two weeks apart on a Friday. How are these beautiful storytellers gone? How is this 2016?
A year ago today we said good-bye to my son’s best friend, Noah, a boy really, and a prince too. In the link below, Flannery is practicing “I’ll Be Seeing You” with my mother to sing at the celebration of Noah’s life.
It’s all too quick, fragile, and fleeting.
But for now I’ll think about the dream of the bricklayer and keep working at the laying of bricks, slow and steady and maybe with some serenity too.
* * *
Pat Conroy’s South Carolina…all the flags hung at half-mast for him yesterday.
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And here are pictures from Pat Conroy’s trip to Birmingham for The Death of Santini – doing what he did best – tell stories and make people laugh. Pat with Jake Reiss of Alabama Booksmith.
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides