When I was 22, my parents and I took a trip to Charleston together. It was late July and Charleston greeted us with all the beastly heat and humidity that one expects from a low country swamp. Despite the oppressive heat, Charleston wooed me with its antebellum homes, their layered porches jutting from the sides of the houses rather than across the front facades. We were told that property tax was based upon the length of the house facing the street so people cleverly avoid taxation (as they always will) by building their houses at a 90-degree angle from the street. I don’t know if the taxation story is true, but all those balconies are so visually appealing. And each old home seemed to have a lovely, well-tended garden that I could steal a glance of through wrought iron gates.
As if the picturesque homes and gardens were not enough, there was the food. Charleston was where I first discovered that travel was a tremendous opportunity to experience good food. I selected restaurants using a guidebook and we went from one great meal to another for three days. At one restaurant, my father (all 5’ 4” and 150 lbs of him) made so many trips to the buffet for dessert that my mother and I began to cringe in embarrassment.
Looking back, this trip was a pivotal moment in my relationship with my parents. I had been living in North Carolina for one year at this point and developed a strong sense of self. On this trip I was the tour guide, leading them through the city. On my morning jogs I scouted out places for us to explore. And I commandeered the tour guide rather then they. The trip to Charleston is my first memory of being the adult child of my parents. We enjoyed each other’s company in a different way, seizing the opportunity simply to be together. We went to a jazz club and I ordered a drink in their presence for the first time. We walked through the former slave market, the Battery, and Fort Sumter somehow on even footing. I didn’t have that overwhelming need to please them; I could tell I already had.
Of all the cities in the United States, I have probably visited Charleston the most. The reason for this is that my rheumatologist works at the Medical University of South Carolina and he is well worth the five-hour drive from Durham. On each of my visits, I take the opportunity to walk around this beautiful city and admire her many charms. Before each visit, I email my rheumatologist and ask at which of Charleston’s many fine culinary establishments I should indulge my inner gourmet. I’ve enjoyed some of the finest meals of my life in this lovely little city where people take good food seriously.
Bill and I left yesterday around 12:30. The drive was uneventful and easy. Chester was behaving himself, but a little irritable so Bill and I could not engage in the playful banter that usually characterizes our long car rides. It was good to be together sans children despite the self-imposed silence. I worked on Aidan’s scarf, which is taking forever because there are 32 loops per row and my hands aren’t in great shape.
We arrived at the Charleston Marriot and were greeted by the most charming of porters. He must be an astute fellow because he spied the wheelchair in the trunk and immediately came to help me out of the car (I can get out fine but it was so sweet of him to be so caring and solicitous). He was a poster child for hospitality in every way.
When I entered the lobby I was struck by the décor. Jewel-toned furniture, fabrics, and paintings filled the lobby. I wondered if the world always looked this way but I just notice it more now? Is it the illness? Is it my limited ability to speak that has caused me to be a greater observer? I’m not sure. All I know is that I looked around that lobby and wanted the name of the interior decorator.
We checked in and went to our room. Again, I was struck by the color scheme: coral, butter yellow, and aquamarine. Anyone who has been to my house knows how “at home” I would feel surrounded by these shades. We rested briefly and then dressed for dinner.
I had made reservations at a restaurant, Slightly North of Broad, that I went to alone on a previous trip. One the prior visit I ate a duck confit that I still remember vividly. After we sat down Bill said, “I have eaten here before.” “No,” I said, “I was alone when I came here.” He thought for a moment and then remembered that he had been taken there after giving a lecture at the medical school. We remarked on the fact that it was funny that we had both eaten there alone and, almost accidently, were now eating there together.
I wanted the crab cakes but they contain dairy so I ended up with the duck. I love duck, but every time I eat it I think about my poor father. He and his siblings had a pet duck as children. During a particularly poor period, his father killed the duck and served it for dinner. Can you imagine the ensuing trauma? I still eat duck despite this family history; I just feel a twinge of guilt about it. Bill, being the good Mid-western boy that he is, ordered beef tenderloin.
Our meals arrived. My plate was decoratively arranged with the duck breast sliced across the right side, the leg confit perched between 12 and 2 o’clock, the 6-7 spears of asparagus down the middle and a mound of sautéed spinach in the lower left corner. I proceed to cut everything into small bites, feeling like Teri Garr in Mr. Mom. I have to eat very small bites to avoid aggravating Chester. I ate a bit of duck … Mmm, marvelous. Then a bite of asparagus, which is usually my favorite vegetable; it was ok, but a little too woody. Then I tried the spinach and swooned, “Oh my god, what did they do to this spinach?” It was beyond inspired. I could see the garlic and taste the olive oil but surely there was something else. I had never had such amazing spinach in all my life. When the waitress came to check on us I asked, “How do they make the spinach?” I need to know the secret ingredient. balsamic vinegar? Worshestire sauce? What was it? “It’s just garlic,” she assured me, “and the spinach is locally grown.” “She lies,” I thought to myself as she walked away.
As I ate the meal I fluctuated between the duck and the spinach: which was more worthy of consumption? I wasn’t sure I could finish both. The spinach won out and I consumed it with complete abandon. How I have missed vegetables over these months of trying to gain weight! I also ate all the duck breast and relished every morsel. The asparagus was left behind on the plate along with the duck leg. I looked at my plate victoriously, not bad.
We passed on dessert and returned to the hotel. We found “Wedding Crashers” on TBS and snuggled in bed. It is one of my all time favorite comedies. It would rank up there with “Some Like it Hot” if the whole Will Ferrell character had been edited out. (Nothing against Will Ferrell. I thought he captured childlike innocence marvelously in Elf, but the Chazz character in “Wedding Crashers” is almost a completely unnecessary non-sequitur).
Bill had a bad cold so after the movie we headed off to sleep on separate sides of an enormous king sized bed. I slept amazingly well and woke this morning feeling a little scared but mostly hopeful.
It seems apropos that I embark on this new journey here in Charleston where 17 years ago I became the “adult child” of my parents, a new Michelle to them and to me. And I find myself here again, on the brink of becoming another Michelle who is willing to take on a new challenge to continue to live, as Mary Oliver said so beautifully in her poem The Summer Day, my “one wild and precious life.”