Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

There were none of the above in our childhood zoo–Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. Well, maybe a medium-sized brown bear in a tiny cage, sitting like a teddy bear as we stared at his doglike snout. But in our peninsular world, huge pelicans skimmed the ocean surface and what we called porpoises lifted their gray, scimitar backs in tandem above the waves. My Midwestern mother soon discovered the relief of walking down the beach away from us, breathing in an expanse of ocean and dunes not so unlike the wide fields and skies of her native Dakota.

She had an almost rural childhood, as opposed to my father who grew up amid a conglomeration of Italians in Pittsburgh. He was the least likely to enjoy a picnic, fastidious to a fault, his operatic voice rising in agony over a spot on his Citadel uniform, or for our picnics at the Battery, wearing dark trousers and a sport coat with a white sport shirt winging smartly over the coat lapels. While the rest of us sat on a blanket my mother spread on the grass, he stood, a chicken drumstick in one hand and a napkin in the other. He might have been holding up his violin for all the formality of his pose, ready to join the little orchestra that played under a canopied bandstand.

Stamina and yen for exploring the wider world lay almost entirely with my mother. She planned our summer trips either by car or train, almost always north or northwest, out of Charleston, to visit their relatives in Pittsburgh or North Dakota. For local forays, she led us into marshes, plantation gardens, beaches. I remember slogging through flats of pluff mud, searching for oysters which we plunked into a pail, then at home, washed and scrubbed, baked in the oven until they gaped and we could insert a knife between the crusty lips and pry open their pearly insides. I have no recollection of actually eating them, though, given her household economy, I’m sure we did. Those were the days before pollution made eating shellfish problematic.

Living as we did in the block-long Old Citadel, we two girls lived almost entirely outside, racing up and down the irregular slate sidewalks, roaming the beige glitter of Marion Square to snag discarded cigarette packs and extract the tin foil for postwar factories. We drew a circle hopscotch under the hackberry tree growing outside our King Street wing of the Old Citadel, and appropriated the tough orange pomegranate blossoms from the same yard as cups for our dolls. There’s a picture of a school we created inside a huge packing box, which my mother nabbed from a furniture store on Hudson Street, just behind the Old Citadel.

And we walked to school, imprinting our neighborhood in ever-expanding familiarity, denizens of a real place, with its own particular architecture and faces–many of them black and poor. We learned through osmosis the difference between class and race, antebellum homes rising with their tiers of porches, and the more recent bungalows of an earlier 20th century. We learned to look down at the sidewalk, where occasionally someone would drop a nickle or dime, and once I followed errant drops of blood, sure that some dog had been wounded. We had two dogs during those years at the Old Citadel: Tippy, a smallish black terrier who died maybe six months after we acquired him, and much later (with several cats inbetween) Rover, a red hound that Shorty, our black janitor, brought from Johns Island, south of the city.

I attribute my adult love of walking the neighborhood, of traveling far and wide, and of the natural and built environment to that childhood in the warmth of Charleston, and to my mother whose entire orientation was to quiet activity, exploration, and noticing what could be made to use. That last was as important as the other two: we never believed that an item was better because bought at the store. It was as invigorating to make-do, collect and reuse–notably the dance dresses my mother bought us at the Thrift Store–as it was to acquire new. Those qualities still get me up in the morning, curious to explore and discover what there is to hand. It was my father who brought the joy of sociability into our lives, but that’s a entirely different story.

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