On the long plane journey back from the US a few weeks ago, while DorkyDad watched Muriel’s Wedding for the first time, and DorkySon watched the Peanuts movie for the fourth time, I chose to watch a documentary about Nora Ephron, called Everything is Copy.
It felt appropriate. I’m not half the writer that Nora was but our three weeks in the US – landing in South Carolina twelve hours before it was evacuated for Hurricane Matthew – certainly provided plenty of copy.
We’d been talking about this holiday for so long. Through the cold Tasmanian winter, during every sleepless night or stressful early morning, we reassured ourselves.
“Hold on,” we’d say. “The holiday is coming! We have sunshine and music and shrimp in our future.”
We decide to make things easy on ourselves by spending a night in Sydney before the flight. There are quiet mutterings on US news sites about a hurricane that might bump up against Florida, but it doesn’t sound like anything major. We exchange emails and messages with friends on the East Coast, who reassure us things will be fine, and so we get on with making the most of our night in the big city. We walk through Chinatown, DorkySon wide-eyed and overwhelmed as we make our way past massage parlours and noodle bars, and have dinner down at the waterfront. Funny how you have to head to Sydney to find a Tassie crayfish, but there you go.
Two flights, and I-have-no-idea-how-many-hours later, we arrive in Charleston, South Carolina. It is 11pm local time. We haul our bags outside and over to the taxi rank, where I ask a stern looking lady how to call our hotel and arrange for the courtesy bus to collect us. She directs me back into the terminal building and tells me there will be a phone on the wall. I leave DorkySon and DorkyDad with our bags on the kerb, head inside, pick up the phone and dial for an outside line. I am immediately put through to… the same lady who had just sent me in. Wow.
After a little more wrangling, Thomas shows up and drives us to the hotel – via the Wendy’s drive-thru for three burgers and a side of fries. We sleep well, and the next morning after freshly made waffles and giant mugs of coffee it’s time to pick up our hire car and get on the road.
When DorkyDad drives out of the car park in something only slightly smaller than a tank, hazard lights flashing madly because he can’t find the switch to turn them off, perhaps we should have taken it as an omen. At that point we still believe we’ll be spending three nights with friends in North Carolina, then two full weeks on the beach at Fripp Island, South Carolina.
But in the end, unfortunately, Matthew makes landfall just a few miles from Fripp. Trees are downed, bridges are damaged, power, water and sewage systems are out, and alligators roam the flooded streets. And so, we have a different kind of holiday. Fewer beaches and bike rides, more hotel beds and car journeys.
In North Carolina, our three nights with friends turn into six, with no power for a good chunk of that. We are touched by their kindness and patience. We do all the things you might hope to do, waiting out a hurricane. We eat grilled steaks and ice cream sandwiches. We sit on the floor to do jigsaw puzzles, with a little help from their dog, Callie. DorkySon feeds turtles and learns to drive a golfcart. There is poetry, and pound cake, and shared horror at the second Presidential Debate. One day we go for a walk during a break in the rain, and only learn later that we’d been walking in the eye of the hurricane. That explains why the rain starts up again twenty minutes in, and we end up not just needing-to-towel-off wet, but knowing-we’ll-never- wear-those-shoes-again wet. For six days there is a constant, generous supply of wine and chocolate chip cookies and engaging conversation. Then there is a tearful goodbye and a promise that we’ll meet again soon… but not too soon.
We check our email, talk to friends. But after six days, Fripp is still inaccessible.
So it is back to Charleston. To our new favourite hotel in a new favourite city. We sit on the rooftop in the sun, while a barman called Bear presses local craft beers on us, and Kendra pours glasses of cold white wine. It is a hotel with iced water and M&M dispensers in the lobby, a small balcony where we can watch kids play in the fountain outside. In Charleston, we do all those things that pre-parenting we wouldn’t have gone near, like the carriage ride and the Aquarium, where we pay $30 for a horrific photograph of our tired faces superimposed on a coral reef. The usual home rules are relaxed a little, and DorkySon fuels his engine with lemonade and happy fries. He has his first taste of Key Lime Pie and of grits. He learns about jazz, and pralines, and the heady scent of horse piss on a hot street.
We check our email, talk to friends. But after nine days Fripp is still inaccessible.
So to Beaufort. A small, pretty town of Spanish moss, weathered houses and frozen yoghurt. We find the first playpark of the holiday, where Dorky Son sits on the swings and watches dolphins in the river. We stay in a grim, soulless hotel, full of people who’ve been displaced from their homes and may have to stay there for weeks. I sit in the locked laundry room, watching our clothes spin in the industrial size dryer, and reading Dirt Music by Tim Winton. We eat lunch in a place with a sign on the wall saying ‘Don’t talk about yourself, we’ll do that after you leave’. I notice it and smile. A few hours later we catch up with relatives. “Hey,” they say. “We must have had lunch in the same place as you – we were in this afternoon and they were telling us about a couple with a little blonde boy who’d come all the way from Australia…”
We check our email, talk to friends. But after eleven days, Fripp is still inaccessible.
So to Columbia. To family, and the feeling of being welcome in someone’s home. I open the fridge to be confronted with three shelves of Yuengling. “Wow,” I say. “Is this your beer fridge?” Nope, they laugh, just the fridge fridge. Two smart, strong police officers, who power through their days on caffeine and good humour. DorkySon falls in love and we have to explain that married cousins are off limits. He shows off some fake karate moves. She finds a pressure point behind his ear and sticks in a knuckle. They take him to Dunkin Donuts, to Mellow Mushroom, to a hearty BBQ Buffet where he eats pulled pork and peach cobbler like a pro. He stands on the empty pitch of a football stadium, and runs into the stands to pose for a photo. He sits in the back of a police car, and passing motorists slow down to stare, wondering what someone so small could have done to end up there. We go to the zoo. We make friends with their dog, Sunshine. DorkySon spends longer than is probably healthy splashing around in a freezing cold pool and chasing insects with a net. He is happy. Shivering, but happy.
We check our email, talk to friends. But after thirteen days Fripp is still inaccessible.
To Hilton Head Island. An iconic Southern resort where our first meal is a Reuben sandwich in a New York style deli, posters of Manhattan covering the walls. Here, the pool is warm, and the sand feels good between our toes. I drink two excellent pina coladas in quick succession. It’s a strange feeling for DorkyDad, who lived and worked here many years ago. He shows us his office, his old house, and DorkySon whispers that we should give him some space, that he looks like he’s having some big thoughts. Hilton Head feels like holidays used to, and as DorkySon jumps in the waves he tells me he’s found the happiest place in the world.
We check our email, talk to friends. After fourteen days, there might just be a way onto Fripp.
The resort is still closed – we’ve been issued a refund for the beautiful condo we’d booked months earlier – but if we head over the bridge in convoy with a homeowner friend we might just pass for clean-up crew. We can stay with him, downstairs in the old family house. It won’t be everyone. But it is something. It is DorkyDad and his oldest friend doing everything they possibly can to see each other and renew the ties that bind.
So we are finally, finally to Fripp. To Johnson Creek Tavern, where there’s a dollar bill on the ceiling that we signed and stuck there ten years ago. Fripp where honestly it could still be 1975. We watch the final Presidential debate on a tiny, ancient television, the colours distorted and the screen smaller than DorkySon’s tablet. It feels like an appropriate throwback, given some of the views expressed. We take a golf cart tour of the island and see trees through roofs, docks washed away, and boats smashed. There are mosquitoes everywhere, the sea wall is gone, and our hearts ache. A bottle of Tasmanian whisky helps smooth things along.
A lot of the things we travelled across the world for are missing. There is no music, because the family band didn’t make it. There is no shrimp, because the boats haven’t been able to get out. But there is also exactly what we’ve come for – love and friendship. When we leave after three days, ready for the long haul home, it’s another tearful goodbye.
There is more crying on this holiday than I had imagined there might be. A lot more. DorkySon cries because he’s too tired, because there’s no WiFi, because there’s nothing on the menu he wants to eat. I cry because Google Maps lets us down and we have to stop and ask for help, because we have a near-miss on I-95, because it is the middle of the night and the aircon is too loud. And when the best friend who isn’t going to make it emails us a picture of her suitcase, which has been packed in anticipation for two weeks and is now being slowly, sadly unpacked again… well then we all cry. But in some strange way the tears make our little family stronger. We use one of the long car journeys to talk about the word resilience.
When we chat to DorkySon about missing two weeks of school, and ask what he has learned on holiday that he wouldn’t have learned in class, it is a long list. Hurricanes. Power cuts. Grouper. Tidal flows. Timezones. Horseshoe crabs. Border Control. Sand dollars. How to drive a golf cart. Gullah art. Chess. Love. Headphones. Pink lemonade. Patience.
Now we are back, and though it’s only three weeks ago it already feels like forever. We are left with the photos to sort through and post on Facebook. There’s an occasional burst of sand from a sock, a few leftover mosquito bites, and that strange sensation when you pull a t-shirt over your head and it smells like someone else’s laundry liquid.
Last weekend we drove up to the North West corner of Tasmania to stay a night with local friends. We spent Friday afternoon cuddling their eleven-week old daughter, and DorkySon built Duplo towers with their two-year-old. That evening we saw a pair of sea eagles in the tree outside their house, and then a pod of humpback whales swimming by, just a few hundred metres from shore.
We are lucky that everywhere we go there is love. We are grateful to be home.