On Christmas Day, I shall call my parents and ask them the following question:
“What time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?”
It never gets old.
I grew up on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Let me say it again: I grew up on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina.
It’s the oldest neighborhood in town featuring the oldest building, the Hepworth Pringle House circa 1724, home of the late Mrs. Somers (Kitty) Pringle.
The Point is also home to Tidalholm which was used for filming The Great Santini and The Big Chill as well as The Oaks, Riverview, Marshlands, Tidewater, The Castle, Pretty Penny, Cassena, Petit Point, The Robert Smalls House, Moorlands, and other old houses with names as well as newer homes, such as ours built in the 1930s.
The Point is a peninsula on a bend in the Beaufort River. We were beyond blessed to grow up there surrounded by the loveliest of people. We actually were an integrated neighborhood when such was unknown in most of Beaufort. Robert Smalls’ descendants lived around the corner from us. We didn’t think anything about it until much later when a friend of ours said, “You do know that the Nashes are black.” Well, yes, we do. We can see them with our own two eyes. Did we invite them over for supper? Well, no, we did not. We had the Nashes on Duke Street and the Cappelmans on Laurens Street. Mrs. Cappelman remained an Unreconstructed Rebel until the day she died. She flew the Confederate Stars and Bars from her second story porch every day of the year until she died. We didn’t have the Cappelmans over for supper, either.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t a lot of children on The Point. Here was our roster of fellow Point kids:
Hamlin, Arthur, and Wade O’Kelley
Anna Liz and Jimboy Moss
Chilton and Katherine Grace
Josh and Elizabeth Gibson, before they moved to Lady’s Island
Lauren and George Bullwinkel, before they moved to Charleston
Honorary Point residents were Paul and John Schwartz, whose grandparents were around the corner, Taylor Kinsey, whose grandparents were across the street, and Robyn Josselson who was Anna Liz and Jimboy Moss’s cousin. These honorary Point residents logged many hours east of Carteret Street, the unofficial boundary of The Point.
We spent a lot of time with Hugh Patrick, Paul and John Schwartz, Taylor Kinsey, and Jimboy Moss. We roamed wild. Free range parenting. We climbed through drain pipes. We road bikes downtown. We had huge pick up games of football, war, tag, hide and seek. We built forts. We cracked pecans. We picked loquats. We climbed old tabby sea walls. We broke light bulbs on the same sea walls. We taught two L.A. kids how to be wild and free and Southern during their sojourn renting a house on East Street. We found raccoons and possums and, one time, a nest of coral snakes. It was Heaven on Earth for a child.
We also spent a lot of time with the older folks in the neighborhood. And, there were a lot of older folks.
Margaret “WaWa” Scheper kept us supplied with grape juice, pimento stuffed green olives, and Cheezits.
Martha and George Tucker let us cut through their yard. Mr. Tucker would even offer us a cold beer, even though we were boys. My youngest brother married their granddaughter. All in the family.
The Harveys, all of them, Helen and Brantley, Senator and Mrs. Harvey, would wave to us and make sure we were o.k.
Mossy Schwartz, the Schwartz boys’ grandmama, always had the back door open as she played Yahtzee on her front piazza with her pal Tut Dowling.
Miss Iola Kirkland only invited certain of us children to Trick or Treat at her house.
The Aimars and Sams were our extended cousins by adoption.
Hugh Patrick’s grandparents, Bruce and Riley Gettys kept us in a steady supply of drinks and snacks, too.
Bruce Gettys was a tall, elegant, funny lady. She always said, “How do?” upon greeting someone. We O’Kelley boys called her Granny, like her grandchildren. We also called her Bruce. She loved it.
Riley Gettys was a dry witted retired chemical engineer who cut swords for us out of old plywood while tending his extensive boxwood gardens at Cassena, their house on Federal Street.
This is how I remember Cassena:
The Gettyses were kind of naughty, too. They called a certain soap opera The Hung and the Breathless. We were too young to understand the joke.
Every year, Bruce and Riley, their daughter, Mary Patrick, and their son-in-law, Joel Patrick, Hugh’s parents, their daughter Janie Brooks, and Hugh, hosted a Christmas Night open house at Cassena for all of the folks on the Point. That drop in lasted for years. We boys loved it.
The O’Kelleys, Aimars, Schepers, Harveys, Tuckers, Varns, Miss Martha Wallbank, Edmunds, Strongs, Sams, Schwartzes, Mosses, Cobbs, Kennedys, Millers, Pringles, Graces, Danners, Hryharrows, Murphys, Tuppers, Miss Iola Kirkland, Miss Posey Schwartz, Mrs. Guila Snow, Colonel Jenny Wren (yes, a female Colonel)….all of us ended up at the Gettyses on Christmas Night. I’m pretty sure the Gibsons were there, too, before they moved to Lady’s Island.
Every Christmas afternoon, I would ask my parents, “What time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?”
We went the same time every year, just as the sun went down on Christmas Night.
We would walk up Bayard Street, turning left onto Hamilton Street, and left again on Federal Street walking through the side yard to the front of their house. We entered across the first floor piazza and through the front door. The Gettyses decorated Cassena with a Christmas tree and smilax over every mirror, the front entry, and tucked in here or there. Pine or Fraser Fir garland is a new thing. Smilax is old Beaufort.
Each year, we reveled in the full comfort and joy of those parties.
One year, Hugh received a rabbit for Christmas. The rabbit left its own Christmas decorations all over the house. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year, my youngest brother, Wade, got locked in the bathroom off the back sitting room. He called for help. Riley answered saying, “Need a little help, Son?” as he unlocked the door with an ice pick. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year I received a remote controlled tank – we called it ‘mote control – and I took it with us to the Gettyses. I almost tripped up Ethel Strong, which would have been a disaster. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year, it was a little icy out on Christmas night and Riley tasked me, Hugh, and my two brothers with walking WaWa Scheper back to her house, all of two houses to the east. Poor WaWa. I don’t think we let her feet touch the ground. WaWa remained a lithe, thin lady her whole life, and we boys practically carried her that night.
“Oh, boys, slow down. Dahlin, not so tight on the arm. Wade, that means you, Son.”
When we reached the foot of her steps, she kissed us all on the forehead and said, “Now, run on back to Bruce and Riley’s. I can make it from hyah. Merry Chrusmus.” She had a wonderful old Beaufort accent. We ran to see who could be the first one back to the party.
One year, Bruce had foregone her usual greenery centerpiece on the dining room table and pulled out her old silver epergne and filled the baskets with mints and candies. My youngest brother did the boarding house reach for the mints with my mother barely grabbing his hand and righting one of the baskets before the whole thing toppled over spilling confections across the table and onto the floor. My mother was mortified. Bruce and Riley did not care.
If it was below 60 degrees, we assisted in taking all the fur coats, of which there were many. We piled minks and sables on the sofa in the back sitting room. One year, Thelma Harvey wore her full length mink coat and handed it to us children as though we were the coat checkers at the 21 Club in New York. She was doing us a favor. Bruce and Riley did not care. Thelma did.
“Boys, don’t lose my coat,” she told us. This was the same lady who had curtsied to the pretender to the Russian imperial throne at the same house a decade prior. Delusions of grandeur danced in her head. She loved us boys, though, and made a damned fine sour cream pound cake.
Not just one year, but every year, Mrs. Des Edmunds always insisted on a kiss from us as we hid from her third lip of ruby-red lipstick.
“Look out, Hughbie,” I would warn him when we saw Mrs. Edmunds approach from the far side of the dining room. “Here comes Miz Edmunds.”
“Well, hey, children,” she would wave, lips all a-pucker.
“Run!” Hugh would command. We would pivot out of the dining room, into the hall, and haul ass up the stairs. We would hide in Bruce’s room. “Granny will never know we’re here,” Hugh would tell us. The whole party knew where we were. Sawmills created less noise.
Cassena still had old copper communication pipes running from downstairs to upstairs. These pipes were an early from of intercom to summon an enslaved servant. One of the pipes opened into Bruce’s room. She would hear us overhead, and she would intone into the pipe below, “Boys, you come on down and speak to everyone, hear?” We heard. We trudged downstairs. Miz Edmunds assaulted our cheeks leaving smears of red Revlon on our youthful flesh.
We were required to wear wool pants with sweaters, sailor suits, Little Lord Fontleroyesque stupidity, khakis, blazers. One Christmas Hugh showed up in a football jersey. Bruce and Mary sent him home to change. We would have never showed up at Bruce and Riley’s dressed in a football jersey. I envied Hugh living around the corner from his grandparents.
Almost every year, Helen Harvey would hold court at one end of the dining room table telling everyone about her duties as a Trustee at the University, how her children were all far above average, and how Brantley, her husband, was this close to being The Gov’nah.
The men would usually stay in the kitchen, huddled around the scotch, the bourbon, the vodka.
There would be snippets of the local gossip and news
“Yeh, filming that movie over at Tidalholm”
“He only has to serve his jail sentence on the weekends”
“Trout are running this side of Station Creek”
“Yankees are just gobbling up the place”
“They gonna develop Datha Island. Have you ever?”
“Well they got a bunch of those local boys all caught up in that Jackpot sting they keep talking about”
“Glad they blocked that chemical plant over near Bluffton”
“Hilton Head keeps growing like gangbusters”
“Oh, they’ve been divorced. He’s remarried though, to the same secretary”
“You mean, Bun Bun?”
“Y’all going to The Anchorage for New Year’s?”
Men gossip worse than women could ever hope to gossip. We would catch bits and pieces around the bar and around the dining room.
Every year, the Gettyses had the same menu.
Their dining room table was set with ham, bread, Mary’s homemade champagne mustard, mayonnaise; cream cheese and pepper jelly and crackers; vegetables with dips; some form of either crab or shrimp dip; tea sandwiches; Bruce’s homemade divinity; fudge; cookies. On the side table stood the punch bowl with egg nog. I still see a gajillion silver punch cups ready to be filled. We were never allowed the egg nog as it was the good kind with a lot of nog.
In the kitchen was the bar with our fathers, their friends, likka, wine, beer, and cokes for us. Just what we needed, more caffeine and sugar.
Because we always went to Bruce and Riley’s house, my family really never had big Christmas dinners until after the Gettyses advanced age caused them to give up their Christmas Night party.
I have had some amazing Christmas dinners since those days.
I would forego every last one of them to be running up the stairs one more time with Hugh and my brothers in order to escape Miz Edmunds’ third lip only later to eat two bites of a ham sandwich, a couple of pieces of divinity, and slug down a co-cola all while waiting to walk WaWa home in the ice with the sounds of drunken laughter coming from the kitchen.
So, what time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?
As the song says, only in my dreams.
Merry Christmas, kids.