Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Chitty

In the late 1970s, a retired Naval officer and his bride moved in a couple blocks away from us on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina.  They bought Madeline Pollitzer’s old house

Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Chitty

She was the former Penelope Rhoads of Sewickly, just outside of Pittsburgh, PA

Penny to all who knew and loved her

He was a former country boy from Olar, South Carolina

Charles or Charlie to all who knew and loved him

I called them Mr. and Mrs. Chitty

I knew them and loved them both

They knew and loved me and my parents and my brothers

Adored, really

The Chittys had two boys, Byron and Charles

Byron we barely knew. He was older

Charles, we knew because he was the definition of an angry youth who moved to a neighborhood he didn’t know, in a town he didn’t know, around kids he didn’t know. All at a time when children should be left in the same place to graduate from school. He would cross the street to play basketball with us, even though he was much, much older than we. O.k., only six years older, which is a light year at that age

Charles Chitty had served in Naval Intelligence and had been an aide and right hand to Admiral McCain during the Vietnam War

He always told us he would have to kill us if he told us what he actually did during Vietnam

A complete badass

Especially for a kid from the crossroads of Olar, South Carolina, where his family were the be all, end all. As with so many small towns in South Carolina, there were lovely people in Olar, the Chittys chief among them

During their time in D.C., Roberta McCain often pressed Penny Chitty into service for bridge games. Penny also advised Mrs. McCain on her extensive Chinese Export collection.

“Well, you know, Mrs. McCain would call and say, ‘Penny, I need a fourth for bridge. Let’s kick these bitches’ asses’ , and we would.”

Penny’s family were old money folks

Steel money

She had a great jewelry collection, a great Meissen collection, a great Flora Danica collection, a great closet of clothes and shoes

She had a keen sense of humor and a wicked wit

Charles Chitty served as the Executive Director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation for a time

During that same time, Penny worked for a local contractor whose family had known hers Up Nawth, or something like that

When they moved to town, their cousins and our down the street neighbors, the Pringles, introduced them to everyone. Charles graduated form the University of South Carolina with a whole mess of Beaufort folks who knew him well, too.  They were immediately included by all of Beaufort’s nicest people as they were some of the nicest people I have ever known

My family’s Sewanee cousins knew their Sewanee cousins. Connections were made by our other cousins. In earlier days, there would have been letters of introduction

Penny and Charles were also two of the absolute funniest, most irreverent, most genuine, most generous, most knowledgeable, most well read, most dignified, most hilarious, most loving people I have ever known

My father did legal work for the Chittys from time to time

One day, when Charles was working for the Historic Beaufort Foundation, my father walked from his office at 715 Bay Street to the Verdier House in the next block in which the Historic Beaufort Foundation literally housed itself. He needed Charles to sign something. Henrietta Smith served as the long suffering secretary for the Historic Beaufort Foundation. While my father was speaking to Charles, the phone rang. Henrietta answered.

“Charles,” she intoned, “Mr. [So-and-So], a Trustee, is on the phone.”

“Well, goddamnit, I know who the man is, Henrietta, and I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m talking to George”

And, that, was Charles in a nut shell

His son Charles often bullied us as we played basketball behind The Oaks, the home of Evelyn and Paul Schwartz, whose grandchildren were our age and were and are friends

Young Charles would push us, run roughshod over us, steal the ball

One day, I got up the nerve and complained to Mr. Chitty

“Well, knock his clock off,” was his reply

I don’t think Penny would have appreciated that

In her Western Pennsylvania accent, softened through time at an appropriate finishing school, Penny was wont to say, “Well….you….know……” and then divulge some confidence standing with her arms akimbo and hips slightly tilted to the side, jaw slightly locked

After a few years in Beaufort, the Chittys opened an antique store, that they would eventually own with several other Beaufort people: Chitty & Kennedy; Chitty & Smith; Chitty & Murphy

Both Penny and Charles had great eyes for beauty. They taught anyone who would listen about the pieces in their store

Painted chairs reached their apotheosis in Baltimore

Certain types of feet indicate New York

Pine is usually the secondary wood in Southern furniture

Hunt boards used to be junky afterthoughts kept in the barn or under the house

Every family had a pie safe or a sausage making table or a harvest table

There should always be a little yellow, a little black, and a little red in every room

The Antiques Road Show makes everyone think they’ve got a Duncan Phyfe sofa in their attic

My mother and father have pieces from them

My bride gave me a sofa table from them for our wedding

I bought a silver butter dome from them that we still use

I regret not having had enough money to have purchased a long Irish wake table from them when I was still in college.

It was a thing of beauty

“Well, you know, Hambone,” Penny conspired. “The Irish really do lay out their dead on these and have everyone to the house. Can you imagine? I mean, I know your last name is O’Kelley, but can you imagine? All those people in your house, absolutely smashed! Well, you know, come to think of it, it does rather sound a lot like a Beaufort funeral doesn’t it?”

Penny would giggle at so many things, including the lady who cleaned their store and their house who would insist that Mrs. Chitty purchase more Comet to clean the sinks, but the lady called it “Comic”

“Can you believe she says, Comic? ‘Miz Chitty, get me more Comic.’ I still think she’s referring to my mother-in-law and not me”

And, then she would howl

On one trip to Beaufort, my aunt, who lives in Chapel Hill, fell in love with a chest of drawers in their store and bought it on the spot

Without consulting us, Penny offered my services and my brothers’ to deliver the piece to Chapel Hill for my aunt

“Well, you know, the O’Kelley boys will of course bring it on up to Chapel Hill for you. I’ll just make them do it”

We did that for our aunt and for Mrs. Chitty

Without question

The Chittys’ store was almost like an old general store, except no one gathered round the wood stove or the cracker barrel. Instead, there were always Beaufort folks sitting on a Hepplewhite sofa or in a Martha Washington lolling chair

It was a great place for news

And, Penny and Charles knew it all

“Well, I saw [So and So] at the likka store. He really needs to quit drinking”

“Have y’all seen [So and So] lately? I told her I could recommend a good plastic surgeon if she’s interested”

“Well, you know, [So and So]’s cancer has returned. And. It’s. Not. Good.”

“The rumor was that the character of [So and So] in Pat Conroy’s latest is based on [So and So].”

I swanny their Naval intelligence days served them well

Despite their constant irreverence, they were people of great substance

They loved their friends deeply and would have walked across hot coals for them

They gave lovely presents

I continue to use the silver letter opener they gave me when I graduated from Chapel Hill

In 1989 we lost a dear mutual friend who was only 13 years old

It was a blow to the entire town

During those bleak days, Charles would see us and say, “Well, fuck a duck”

I will never forget hearing Charles say that over and over again, as only he could say, “Well, fuck a duck” as we began to process the loss of our friend

That’s when you knew things were really bad in life

If Charles Chitty said, “Well, fuck a duck”, then, well, fuck a duck

He often said it when people died

He often said it when an idiot would leave his store after making some stupid remark

“Oh, did you hear that? Well, fuck a duck. I think he must have had a lobotomy this morning.”

The late Marie Rudisill, who would later gain fame as the Fruitcake Lady, lived in Beaufort and had Charles sell some of her family pieces. She was Truman Capote’s aunt.  Both Mrs. Rudisill and Mr. Chitty pronounced Truman’s last name as “Ca-pote” not “Ca-po-tay”.  When I once corrected him on the pronunciation, Mr. Chitty said, “Well fuck a duck, don’t you think his own aunt knows how to pronounce his name?”

People were forever bringing treasures to the Chittys to have them appraised, as Charles was a certified appraiser. One day, we were in the store when a lady arrived with a set of china that she told Charles was worth a lot.  She said it had been in her family since the 1700’s.  She said it was marked “KPM”

“It’s probably from Frederick the Great’s factory in Germany,” said the matron

Charles cut his eyes at Penny; Penny covered her mouth

Charles told the lady to leave the box, leave her number, and he would assess the china and call her

The cost would not be much for the appraisal

The lady left the store

Charles looked at us and said, “Oh, I am sure it will be stamped ‘Made in Occupied Japan’; Frederick the Great from the 1700’s my ass”

One lady in Beaufort fancied herself to be quite the decorator. She often came into the Chittys’ store to pick out pieces for her myriad clients whose names she dropped regularly. The woman’s hubris knew no bounds

Charles used to say about her style, “Oh, I think So-and-So is very talented, if you like Early Bordello. Belle Watling taught her everything she knows”

My parents would double up with laughter

I was too young to get the references to the whorehouse or to the Madame from Gone with the Wind.

The first time I really showed off my then girl friend to my Beaufort friends and family was at my parents’ Christmas Drop In which they held the Sunday before Christmas for years

The Chittys were always on the guest list

After introducing Mary Perrin to the Chittys, Charles Chitty looked her dead in the eye and said, “Well, my dear, if any of these assholes give you any trouble, come find me and I will take care of them.” He meant it

Penny rolled her eyes and said, “Charles! Don’t say that to the child. She doesn’t know you yet!”

Mary Perrin fell in love with both of them immediately and they with her

Penny Chitty adored my mother

“Well, you know, your mother is pretty neat”

She would say to me, “Well, you know, Yancey has some lovely pieces” referring to furniture she had bought from them over the years

“May be if you play those cards right, it will all be yours one day. Especially that needlepoint chair. We should have never let that go! But, I’m glad Yance has it.”

Penny used to crack herself up and cackle into her self

She used to laugh hardest recounting stories of her working for a local contractor and the women who worked in the office

“Well, you know, their dream is to go to The Steamer on a Friday night and have someone buy them a wine cooler. Can you even imagine? It’s the highlight of their week.”

The Steamer was a seafood restaurant and bar across the river on Lady’s Island

Disdain, thy name was Penny

Penny would converse in French with her eldest just to make the two Charles in her life mad

Penny would also say that she didn’t know what she was going to do with all her stuff as no one in her family wanted all of it

“Who will take my mother’s Sevres? Who? No one wants it. Well, you know, I’m right about that”

Penny was not being affected. She really wondered who would take her mother’s porcelain

Penny shocked us all when she returned from a minor vacation with a major facelift

Palm Beach Wind Burn

Penny did not care and would ask us how we thought she had turned out from her hours under the knife

“Well, you know, I don’t want to look like [So and So]” who had had a facelift a couple years earlier. “Her ears practically meet atop her head!”

The Chittys gave me a silver letter opener when I graduated from Chapel Hill.  It sits on my desk. I use it daily

I think of them every time I tear through an envelope

Unfortunately for all of us, Penny’s ovaries betrayed her in the mid-90s

By the time her cancer was detectable, it had really spread all over and all within her thin frame

Not to be daunted, Penny began to turban her head with Hermès, Gucci, Lilly Pulitzer, Pucci, Prada, and other designer scarfs. Sometimes they would flow. Sometimes they would be tight around her head. They always matched her outfit. We gave her a Lilly Pulitzer scarf to add to her collection. She wore it to a funeral during that time and pointed to it mouthing, “This is from y’all!”

Her cancer spread while I was in law school

My parents kept me informed

My mother took flowers and meals but nothing with garlic

Penny despised garlic, “Well, you know, it does ruin the breath and my mother associated it with the help.”

Ouch

I wrote Penny letters as her illness progressed

I also went to see her over my Christmas vacation my third year in law school

It was clear she was a sick woman

“Well, you know, I will be receiving like the Empress Elizabeth of Russia before too long. She only took audiences in her boudoir spread upon a gilded Recamier”

In May of 1997, I wrote her a letter referencing her recumbent state

It was the last correspondence we would exchange

There, at her side when she died were her beloved Charles and her children and her dear pal Joyce Gray, also of Beaufort, who had grown up with Charles in Barnwell and Bamberg Counties, too

Before she died, Penny planned the reception to be held at her house with Harold Atkins bar tending, his daughter Francine Moultrie serving, and Madeline Politzer catering

“Tell Madeline, that even though this used to be her house, I want my menu,” Penny told Charles

After her funeral, at said reception, Joyce Gray told me that as she made her way to the grave, Penny mentioned me. “Tell Hamlin, Joyce. Tell Hamlin….those letters…..”

She died a few hours later surrounded by those who loved her.

Upon hearing those words from Mrs. Gray, I buried my head on her shoulder. Joyce Gray quietly patted my head and said, “Oh, she loved you so”

Penny
At least we can visit with Penny at St. Helena’s in Beaufort

 

In her will, Penny left a Meissen tea cup with an Augustus Rex mark to my mother, from the time of Augustus the Strong, Elector of the Saxony, used at his Court

Circa 1720

May be if I play my cards right, it will be mine one day

Charles remained heartbroken after Penny died

He carried on and carried on her memory, telling us wickedly funny stories about their time in Washington, about people in town, about everyone and everything

The antiques store remained open for years and years after Penny’s death

Charles attended our wedding two years later, giving us a beautiful antique candle stand from the Abbeville District of South Carolina along with twelve huge red wine goblets. We still have six of them

Presenting us with the table, Charles said, “I know that the Perrins have a connection to Abbeville, and this is an Abbeville made piece. Use it as a night stand, a lamp table. But, use it, goddamnit”

It sits by our sofa in our den today

In explaining the wine goblets, he said, “Oh, red wine swirling in those will be sexy as hell. But, don’t let any assholes drink out of them”

Charles’s favorite word for me was obstreperous

“Bubba, you are obstreperous” he told me time and time again

I never saw that in myself, but he did

He was a huge fan of me, my brothers, the Schwartz, Williams, Robinson, Meeks, Trask, Credle, Gray, Jeter, Dukes, Sanders, Moss, Tucker children. He loved us all and our families

He knew our children, too

When our eldest was two, we mailed him a Christmas card of our daughter in a smocked purple dress holding an ornament and smiling

Mr. Chitty wrote me back

Dear Ham

Good to see you and Mary Perrin are using liturgically correct colors for Advent. Christmas begins on Christmas Eve.  Love to your girls for a very Merry Christmas – Charles

As he aged, Mr. Chitty’s body tricked him, too, with Parkinson’s and with some memory issues

One time, after he had moved into an assisted living facility, I went to see him when I was in Beaufort.  We discussed life, love, death, the afterlife

“I tell you one goddamn thing right now, Bubba,” he said to me. “It’s not very Christian of me, but I believe that when it’s over, it’s all over. I used to have those discussions with Frank Limehouse, too.”

The Reverend Frank Limehouse served as the Rector of St. Helena’s

“But, Mr. Chitty,” I said, “You go to church all the time. You love the hymns. You recite the Creeds. You even tell people that nice people sit on the right side of the church, since Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. I’ve heard you say it.”

“Well, Hambone, nice people do sit on the right side of the church. But when it’s all over, it’s all over.”

I certainly hope he’s wrong about that

In the last few years of his life, the Chitty boys moved their father to a nursing facility outside of Beaufort

None of us said goodbye

There was no service at St. Helena’s

There was only a brief blurb in the paper when he died

There was a private burial at the family cemetery in Olar, SC

None of us knew when that event took place back in 2013

And, for that, I say, well fuck a duck

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