The Low Country
As we made our way down the road yesterday, on the ten hour drive from Northern Virginia to Mansfield Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina, I was reminded of previous journeys to the low country. The dark clouds and impending storms reminded me of the first time we came down here, twenty years ago.
It was just a little over a year after Dad had passed. That had been a year of much change and upheaveal in our lives. Dad’s passing had been a tremendous loss to me — not only had I lost my beloved father, I had also lost the man who had become my best friend and closest confidante. He was also my biggest cheerleader.
A month after we held his memorial service, I’d been offered a position in headquarters, to set up and run a national field supply center. It would be a huge change for me, going from being the regional administrative officer to establishing and running a national program.
Just going into headquarters was a huge change. There was a whole culture there that was foreign to me, and many of my initial instincts were to be repulsed by it. However, I quickly realized that many were looking to me to bring a field sensibility to the headquarters culture, as they didn’t have many folks from the field working there, and I had twelve years of field experience to bring in and impart to others what it was like out there.
The work I was brought in to do was pretty daunting — a huge task of setting something up from scratch, negotiating how it worked with the union, and communicating what it was to the field — all in a new, and to me, a foreign environment. I had to be quick on my feet, and embrace the adventure of it, which I did. It was a breathless time, constantly on the move, with very little time to stop and reflect.
That first trip down to South Carolina was, really, the first time I’d had to catch my breath and take stock of what I had done, and where I was going. It was a chance to just leave all that behind for a week, and spend some quality time with my family on the beach, relaxing and enjoying each others’ company.
It was such a needed break, but it also gave me a chance to begin developing adult relationships with my siblings. We had all become so dependent on Dad as the communicator of the family, we all talked with him, and he’d keep us all in the loop on what was happening with each of our other siblings. Now, we had to talk directly to each other, more — and we did.
Being the second youngest of the family, and one who’d had a pretty rough beginning to his adult life, this seemed a bit daunting at first, but eventually I found it most rewarding. I discovered that my siblings had a much higher opinion of me than I thought they did. That did wonders for my self-esteem.
It was also great for our son to have the opportunity to get to know all of his cousins. As an only child, he thrived on this, and learned a lot from his cousins. This was mostly a good thing, I think.
It also occurred to me, on the drive down, that it’s been five years now, since I spent the better part of a summer down here, living with, and taking care of, Mom, while she was on the “downhill slide”, her last summer with us.
That was a summer that will always be bittersweet in my memory banks — the bitter part, that it was the end of such a remarkable woman, and my mother’s, life; the sweet part, that I got to spend so much of that final chapter with her, sharing that time with her, hearing many of her final thoughts, enjoying the culmination of a life well-lived, and being able to give back to one who had given so much to me throughout my life.
The memories of that last summer with Mom have grown a little less intense with each passing year — the grief over losing her has fewer sharp edges, which fade with time. Each year, the family grows a little more — this year, there will be a new addition to my baby sister’s oldest son Jared’s little clan, a new baby boy, Blake, to keep his older brother, Brooks, company.
Being here each year is a priority for us. We haven’t missed this week in South Carolina in twenty years, this being our 21st time doing this. It never gets old. I’ve moved into one of the top positions in my agency, now, but down here, I’m just Pete, or Uncle Pete to many of the next generation(s), as I leave all of that behind, and just be me, with my family.
I wouldn’t trade this time for anything in the world. The last couple of years, I was struggling with some serious health issues. Two years ago, I’d just learned about my brain tumor, and last year, the vertigo was still a real problem. Coming here, even though I wasn’t as active a participant in all of the activities going on, I felt enveloped in this womb of family, and it helped so much to keep it all in a manageable perspective.
This year, I’m healthy — the tumor’s gone, the vertigo seems to be done with, and I’m even beginning to hear a lot better. The job is considerably less stressful, and life is going on — just as it has for the past twenty years.
This is our third straight year beginning the week with a stay at Mansfield Plantation. This just helps get the week started in as relaxed a fashion as possible. We get to shake off the dust from the road here, relax and enjoy the lovely grounds, start the day with a great breakfast in the main house, with complete strangers who are always quite interesting, and then it’s up the road to Debordieu Beach Colony, where another great week with the family begins again.
It is a good life — even when it’s rough. I’m grateful to be in it.