From our annual Literary Issue, published Dec. 25, 2019, featuring original compositions and illustrations from local writers and artists.
“And the music of the pearl drifted to a whisper, and disappeared.” —John Steinbeck, The Pearl
Some of the most luminous things begin with a simple grain of sand.
One grain of sand, and one moment when the slightest cleave permits entry into the velvety insides of an oyster. Layer by layer the grit is encased, protecting the watery innards from their unwelcome intruder.
This is the way nature makes a pearl.
When you think about it, it’s nothing short of miraculous how one creature’s irritant becomes another creature’s treasure.
The pearl is called the queen of gems, and has for centuries been the gem of queens. Ancient Persians thought pearls were the tears of the gods. The Greeks believed pearls were the dew of moonlight, collected by oysters as they opened to receive the resplendent milky rays that shimmered over water. Nearly every culture in history, from the Egyptians and Phoenicians to the ancient Chinese, revered the pearl. And here, in the mossy-draped lowlands of South Carolina, pearls have a tradition all their own.
In some Southern families, when a little girl was born, the women — her aunts, mother, grandmother — began by gifting the child one glossy pearl. For her birthday, for Christmas. Here and there, year by year, they gave when they could, until the day she turned sixteen, when she was no longer considered a child. Now she was a young woman, with enough pearls to make a necklace of her own.
Here in South Carolina, where history breathes in the cobblestones and the Civil War was one hundred and fifty-four years ago or yesterday, I wonder if this was because one pearl was all some could afford. In those days, when sixteen meant a young woman entered society, she could be swept off at any moment to a foreign life at the whim and weather of a man. But curled into the rounded luminosity of those pearls were wishes for happiness, wisdom, love, and most of all the power to endure, because the women who came before knew that in life there would be sweetness, but there would always be pain.
I am not a Southerner. Before I moved to Charleston in 2009, I’d spent my childhood near the waterfalls of upstate New York, trying to collect what gems of ancestry and tradition I could gather. Grandparents, those harbingers of history, were absent in my family, the last having died when I was eleven. I caught glimpses of what came before in special family foods — ruby-colored borscht with crumbled matzah and a creamy dollop of sour cream, a memory from my Jewish Ukrainian father’s side, silver hunks of sweet pickled herring piled atop golden crisps of melba toast, a recollection from my Scandinavian mother’s.
But in Charleston I discovered, if you listened — if you knew how to ask — you could collect pearls of tradition for no cost at all. Here, in one of America’s most haunted cities, time is fluid. The past, in its beauty and its pain, is close enough to touch. You can see it in slave cemeteries and hand-laid plantation bricks, in the war cannons children climb at Fort Moultrie and the Battery and in the elegant china propped up behind glass at the Charleston Museum. Here, the traditions of those who came before still echo on the lips of the every day men and women brought up here: Yes Sir and Yes Ma’am. Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day for luck, collards for money. Bottles on trees. Blue porch doors, ceilings or shutters to keep away foul spirits.
Snippets of tradition can wash over you as you sit talking on the sun-bleached boards of a Lowcountry dock, or sip sweet tea, slick with your own sweat in the soupy heat of summer. Sometimes it’ll even find you when you’re just weeding your garden.
“You’ll want to cut your monkey grass back on Good Friday,” a neighbor might offer, while another will lean in at a barbecue with a conspiring wink. “Those lilies in your yard will like bone meal when they’ve finished their bloom. Bone meal.”
As an author and historian, such pearls of local wisdom, lore, and tradition never fail to stir my senses. I look for them everywhere — parties and gatherings, the hardware store (Royall Ace), the grocery. But in recent years, I’ve seen a growing necessity for cultural preservation. It is not that the locals have begun to eschew their own history, heritage, and tradition. Those elements are perhaps stronger than ever. We have the upcoming creation of the International African American Museum on the former site of Gadsden’s Warf, where over 100,000 enslaved Africans first stepped onto American soil, to name a single anticipated addition to the Holy City. But as newcomers flock to Charleston in search of sunshine, beaches, seafood, and easy Lowcountry living, my conversations with locals have become increasingly more melancholic.
Charleston is changing. I recently discovered that Upper King morphs into Bourbon Street after 11 p.m., complete with vomit-filled restroom sinks. There are new roads, new hotels, new private schools. Acres upon acres of wilderness are being flattened to create new, new, new! homes on tiny lots. Cultural misunderstandings abound. Traffic police talk of dramatic increases in car accidents as aggressive, impatient drivers out-populate the considerate, unhurried driving code that formerly ruled in the South. FaceTime and business calls conducted loudly on cell phones invade the serenity of neighborhood pools and island beaches. Here in the Lowcountry, “Excuse me” means, Pardon me, I can see I’m in your way, while in Newcomer, it has a different meaning altogether. (Get out of my f****** way!)
Here, If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie, wipe the seatie.
And the more locals I speak to, the more sadness I see as they tell me Charleston is no longer a place they can recognize.
For some, it’s no longer a place they can even stand.
But our city has survived hurricanes. Our city has survived unspeakable tragedies. And with a little presence of mind from all of us, our city can survive — and even blossom — throughout these changes, too.
I’ve lived in Charleston for 10 years, a blip on the historical record. But in that time, I’ve become somehow different from the woman who arrived here 10 years before. I’ve become a Pearl Collector. Because if you ask — if you listen — there are pearls of all varieties here, being kept quietly alive, and they don’t cost a thing. There’s a health and vitality that thrives in a community where its culture, roots, and identity are honored. We can all take care to say, “Yes m’am,” and “Excuse me,” in a kind way. We can try not to talk on our cell phones in public spaces. We can save our headphones for the gym and pull them out of our ears at the grocery store. We can ask, “How can I help?” We can keep an eye on the speedometer, or let someone out in traffic. We can pick up trash on the sidewalk or beach. We can volunteer our time and make an effort to speak to our neighbors. I can’t help but wonder how these tensions that increasingly threaten to break us might ease, if we Newcomers could make an effort to honor our newfound traditions, to collect them, and layer them about ourselves. Well, then.
We could learn how to become less abrasive to our oyster. Because not only in Charleston, but everywhere in our world now, we could use a bit of learning on how to be smoother on each other’s insides.
We could all stand to become something that could, in time, resemble a pearl.
Signe Pike is a former book editor and author of two books, The Lost Queen (Atria/Simon & Schuster) and the travel memoir Faery Tale.
Arden Carmody is an illustrator and storyteller based in Charleston. She’s best known for her charming watercolor illustrations and greeting cards that have a knack for making you grin.