A Night at the Oscars
I always watch the Oscars and it usually gets me to thinking about Georgia at this time of year. My parents made an annual pilgrimage there to a place called St. Simons Island. They rented a place where they sat out the months of March and April in that sun-drenched place before reluctantly returning to their northern home. My mother disliked winter and craved this hiatus in the south. When I was growing up, we used to make a four-day journey to southern Florida in the car, a big station wagon which my father piloted along narrow state roads, past sharecropper’s cabins where tenant farmers walked behind mules turning the spring earth with hand-held plows and past gas stations that had separate bathrooms for whites and “coloreds.” This was all new to me as none of the public bathrooms at home were segregated in that way. I think back on this as if to another century, not that I feel so old so much as I’m so amazed at how quickly and dramatically our country has changed. My mother hated the concept behind this segregation and we would talk about this in the car as we drove. What she really cared about was a clean bathroom and these were very hard to find along our route. All bathrooms and motel rooms were thoroughly inspected by my mother before any of us were allowed to go inside. We often stopped at many before finding one that she found acceptable. She couldn’t do anything about the segregated bathrooms but this was something she could control, at least to some extent.
In the Carolinas, we often passed “Indians” in tribal dress, selling baskets by the side of the road. The roads were two-lane, narrow, no breakdown lane, and these women, always women, would be sitting in the dirt or else on a small stool as close to the pavement as possible, stacks of baskets surrounding them. We would always stop and my mother would choose a basket or two. She didn’t like the baskets so much as she wanted to help these women sell what they had and so that they could hurry home to safety. I still have some of the baskets, interesting creations woven of reeds.
Once we crossed the border into Florida (a great cheer would arise from inside our car), there were miles and miles of orange groves that smelled like the best perfume. By now, our windows were all rolled down and we were all happy. Even now, so many years later, it is very easy for me to summon the smell of those groves on the newly warm sweet air we had driven into from the cold of the north. Occasionally there were roadside stands that sold big bags of fresh grapefruits and oranges. We bought webbed sacks full of both and pushed them into whatever space was left in the back of our overloaded station wagon. Every day we were down there, we ate oranges (which weren’t really orange but rather a greenish orange — my first realization that some produce is dyed to make the fruit more appealing).
Once my sister and I grew up and went away to college, we no longer accompanied our parents on this journey but they continued on without us. Sometime in the 1970s, they decided to shorten the journey by going to Georgia instead. They found a place that they liked near the water on St. Simons and went there every spring for the rest of their lives. My life was too busy to be able to spare the time to join them, though they always hoped I would come. But after my husband died, so young, it appealed to me to make the trip down to visit with them for a week or two. I flew in to Savannah and took a shuttle from the airport to St. Simons. The scent of oleander greeted me as soon as I walked out of the airport, Spanish moss hung from high branches of the trees along the highway, and there were bougainvillea in bloom when I arrived at their place. The sun was hot on my arms, so recently liberated from the sleeves of my winter coat. Even at their ages (high 70s, early 80s), they brought their one-speed bikes with them and we went on slow, leisurely rides beside salt marshes and on residential streets with wealthy domiciles, carefully landscaped and blooming abundantly at that beautifully nascent time of year.
My father always had sand dollars to give me once I arrived. He searched for them on the beach — they are the same color as the sand and so are sometimes hard to see — and spent time cleaning them and bleaching these perfectly shaped, sand-colored discs, delicate but strong. He liked to find broken ones too, to illustrate the amazing structure of their interior, a web of supports, almost like a fort. He stored these featherweight treasures in coffee cans, stacking the dollars like pancakes with carefully cut-out pieces of paper towel set between each one. Sand dollars remind me of my father. I rarely found any on my own but then, I didn’t need to, he kept me well supplied. Today I have them on a small table in my dining room, memories of his fastidiousness as well as of a warm southern mid-winter getaway.
It seems as if every time I went down there to visit them, it was Oscar time. And so this became one of our treasured rituals. Whenever there was something special, a birthday or holiday, Dad enjoyed mixing up a pitcher of whiskey sours (his own recipe — quite lethal) and he would do that for Oscar night. We’d put salty snacks into bowls, have take-out from the Crab Trap on hand, and settle onto the couch for this annual evening of Hollywood entertainment. Don’t ask me why, none of us paid too much attention to the movies, especially my parents. But we enjoyed the gowns and the glitter, all of it simultaneously dazzling and ludicrous. And we made notes about movies we might want to see sometime, though in those days, it was not really feasible to see a movie again once it had left the local movie house, unless they decided to bring it back for one more run, which sometimes happened. Inevitably, we would all fall fast asleep in our seats, awaken to see if anyone had lasted to find out what was Best Picture, Best Actor, but we’d always have to listen to the morning news to find out.
And so it is that when the Oscars come on TV for their annual gala, I think of my parents, biking the sandy side roads of St. Simons, picking up sand dollars from the endless stretch of beach near their house, and indulging in whiskey sours with Crab Trap take-out while watching an entirely other world on display. In the past week, we’ve had another foot of snow descend upon us and more is falling as I write this. A flight to Savannah is tempting but there’d be no one to happily greet me and no coffee can of carefully stored sand dollars for me to take home in my carry-on. I fell asleep last night watching the Oscars before the winners in the major categories had been announced. Some things never change.