Last summer, we overcamped my daughters, Sydney (eight) and Alex (six and three-quarters). They spent weeks learning how to paint like Picasso, climb rocks, and save the environment. This year, I decided that I wanted to teach them about good, simple living.
The girls had a three-week vacation planned with their father and stepmother that would take them to New York City, Cape Cod, and a final stop at a luxury home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I decided to take them on a three-week tour of the South, where I was raised—nothing fancy, but very special. So, here’s how it went …
We arrived in Georgia, where my father lives on about seven acres in a house just like you would want in the South. It’s got white columns and white rockers on the front porch, a screened-in porch in the back so the mosquitoes can’t get you during dinner and dancing, and a “cement pond” for swimming. The temperature moved between 98 and 102 the whole time we were there, so we spent a lot of time in that thing.
The girls ran under the shade tree in their nightgowns and caught their first fireflies (we call them lightning bugs in the South). City girls that they are, they used butterfly nets to catch them. They almost squashed the poor little guys getting them out of the net and into a jar … Once they named them all, they set them free and sent them off with good-night wishes into a sky filled with more stars than you can imagine.
They had their first experience of being able to yell, “Mom, I’m going outside!” and running out in the yard barefoot, nonetheless, having been instructed on how to dodge fire-ant hills. The simple independence that allowed them was a freedom they have never experienced in San Francisco.
We next went to South Carolina to visit with aunts, uncles, cousins, and new friends. First they went to Uncle Ross’ house, which looks something like Tara from Gone with the Wind. An old friend came to see him and said, “Man, you’re shittin’ in high cotton now!” Excuse the language, and allow me to explain this very Southern term to you, in case you haven’t heard it. My granddaddy grew up on a farm and picked cotton his whole childhood. Cotton that grows high is preferred for two reasons: 1) you don’t have to bend over so far to get to the cotton, and 2) if you need to relieve yourself, you can do so without been seen—thus the saying.
Ross and his wife Jennifer have since named the place High Cotton and now have beautiful cotton growing all along the front of the property behind their white fence. Of course, Ross went to an agricultural museum to get the seeds to make sure he got the real deal. He’s eccentric, to say the least, but oh so fabulous!
He took us on a tour of his collection of antique cars, from an A-model Ford pickup, a 1921 roadster that Jennifer drives—it’s called a black widow—a 1960 Bentley, a 1972 custom-made Jaguar that looks like the Batmobile, and a bunch of others that are equally as beautiful. Ross took us on a ride in the Bentley around the countryside. The girls and I sat in the back with pull-down mahogany trays (where I imagined my mint julep should be sitting). Sydney said, “I am never, ever getting out of this car!”
After our ride, we went to a roadside restaurant that still had the furnishings from the 1960s when it opened. Everyone was so nice, and the girls were looking a little uncomfortable about the fact that: a) everyone was nice and b) everyone spoke to each other, including them, as if they were the best of friends.
We spent the afternoon at my cousin’s country club swimming. Little Ross, as we call him and his wife Carrie, are the most down-to-earth people on the planet. They have two children, Wade and Claire, and Claire spent the afternoon playing DJ for us by the pool. Carrie has one other baby she can’t live without—her golf cart for riding around the neighborhood. We love our golf carts in the South.
My sister, Carol, and her son, Elijah, came up to join us and we all stayed in Greenville, South Carolina, for the night. Here’s what they do on Friday nights in Greenville—they block off the street, put out jumpy houses, horseshoe games, and Hula-hoops, and get a live band going. There’s beer and wine for the adults, and fun and laughter for all.
The day before the Fourth of July, Ross invited us up to his weekend place in the mountains of North Carolina by a river for their annual Floatilla. Ross and his amazing wife, Jennifer, cook food for seventy-five to one hundred people every year and then people float down the river on rafts. When we got there, the place was packed, but I only recognized a handful of people. I said, “Ross, who are all these people?” to which he replied, “Laura, I only know about half of them. The others just come up and say ‘so-and-so told me I should stop by for lunch,’ so we feed them and get to know new friends.”
We moved on to Asheville, North Carolina, where the kids swam some more and we all enjoyed the Park Grove Inn, an absolutely magical place that has breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is seriously one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of this world.
So it’s finally the Fourth, and let me tell you that there is nothing like it anywhere else that compares to the South. They really know how to celebrate our great nation’s birthday! We were back in Greenville, and they had a live band playing Johnny Cash, people line dancing in the streets, games and more jumpy houses for the kids, and of course red, white, and blue popsicles. Sydney about fell over when a woman asked her to dance. I explained that she was from San Francisco and didn’t understand our culture. The woman smiled and said, “Lord, Honey, that’s just how we do things around here!” as she took her hand. Sydney danced and twirled in the streets and had the time of her life.
At the end of the evening, Carrie offered to take the girls to spend the night with their cousin’s. What? I haven’t had that in a million years! When I picked them up the next day, they were all in their bathing suits in the master bath Jacuzzi eating popsicles and giggling.
We went back to Daddy’s and he pulled out three canvases that he bought for all the kids. They spent the morning learning how to mix paints and painting their own personal masterpieces—no Picasso instruction allowed. The best moment was when he worked with Alex on her garden; he filled in one larger flower and made a smaller one. He said, “That’s me and this is you.”
They rode on Daddy’s golf cart (see what I mean?) all over the property and he taught them about all the different types of trees, and they even got to see brand-new baby bluebirds in their nest. At dinner one night, I asked Alex, “Can you name all of the trees you see?” She answered as she pointed out the window, “That one’s Henry, that one’s My Butt’s on Fire” … I stopped her there, but probably shouldn’t have—hilarious.
I mentioned that we swam every day. Well, the girls looked at me one day and said, “Mommy, your hair is green!” Daddy had put too much chlorine in the pool! My hair was falling out in handfuls and I learned from my hairstylist, David Norris, when I got back that chlorine traps itself in your hair and then expands like any other gas, and that’s why I had green hair. Great, I thought, my hair has gas.
Most importantly, every day we were there, the girls asked if we could live there forever. Apparently, the simple life agreed with them as much as it did with me, rocking on the front porch, watching them grow along with the grass.
They are on their “fancy” vacation now. I asked Sydney yesterday, “Do you miss home?” She replied, “The thing I miss most about home is you, Mommy.” Now that’s about as simple and special as it gets.