I didn’t tell him about the bridge. Sometimes information just causes a person to worry needlessly. This was an actual case of “we will cross that bridge when we come to it.” He sucked in his breath as most everyone does when they see the bridge that crosses from Charleston to Mt. Pleasant for the first time.
“Just shut your eyes if you get scared,” I said.
He laughed from behind the wheel.
We came to Charleston at the invitation of a Hope Mills alumni. Gail grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., where I once worked but that is not where we met. And no, her daddy was not military. Odd to think there are people in Fayetteville who weren’t employed one way or another by the military, isn’t it?
Gail and I met through mutual friends from another military town – Fort Benning/Columbus. We both belonged to a group of politically-minded engaged in activism.
It was her diligence to Moms Demand Action that first caught my attention. Gail was involved in the gun control issue long before the killings at Mother Emmanuel. She is clear about what motivated her to get involved: “Sandy Hook.” This retired teacher taught First graders. She understood how those little kids at Sandy Hook trusted their teacher to protect them from the bad man with the bad gun. That the Republicans in Congress did nothing to prevent such a scenario from happening again was all the motivation Gail needed to become an outspoken activist for gun control.
I admire anyone – male or female – who dares to speak up for the welfare of others, who realizes the need for engagement, who is willing to devote their time and money and gifting toward helping those in need. Gail does all of those things. Some of the most powerful people in the nation are women like Gail. Some call women like us the Granny Brigade, a fitting title. Who better to make change in the world than women who realize their grandchildren’s futures are at risk?
“Come to Charleston,” Gail said in a note she sent me long before this trip was planned. “I’d love to host you.” I’ve been to Charleston several times prior, most often for book events. I met Sue Monk Kidd and Anne River Siddons here in Charleston. Two of my personal favorites. And some of my dearest writer friends live nearby: environmental activist Mary Alice Monroe and poet/activist Marjory Wentworth. Usually, I stay with Marjory when I am in town and she invited me too again, but she was packing for her own trip to Maine, so I took Gail up on her invitation, which she issued again when I was planning this trip.
It was an opportunity for Tim to experience Charleston. He had never been able to join me for any of my prior trips to the City of Hospitality. While I love the lowlands, Tim almost always prefers the highlands, but I knew the history of the city and the people would capture him. How could it not?
We had one stop to make before taking that bridge in the lowlands, I explained to Gail. Our friend Joe Galloway and his wife, Doc Gracie, had invited us to stop in and see them in North Carolina. Talk about a Granny Brigade. Doc Gracie serves on advisory boards for Biden and I don’t believe I know anyone more articulate about all the reasons why Trump and the Republicans turned Cult need to be defeated over and over and over again. “If you are going to tangle with Gracie, you better pack a lunch,” Joe said, laughing. I think that’s what I love about this stage of my life: Women who spent their young adulthoods trying to please everybody, trying to make others happy, trying to be “good girls”, have all learned to not give two flying figs about all that anymore. We are all far too focused on creating a better world and not the perfect eyebrow arch.
Our visit with Joe and Gracie was full of laughter and stories and a rallying cry to not give up during the difficult times. And if anyone knows about not giving up during such times, it is Joe Galloway. As Gail so aptly put it in a text message to me: “Joe is an American Hero.”
Yes, yes, he is.
So we didn’t arrive in Charleston until shortly before dinner, which Bob, Gail’s husband was busily preparing. Dave, their son, and his friend Katie, came in from the beach with their dogs, tired, and thirsty. Dave is a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. Gail and Bob’s daughter, Kate, is a Civil Rights attorney in Los Angeles. Bob claims he’s from LA too, but he means Lower Alabama. He grew up in Dothan but went on to work for Dupont as a chemical engineer, so his job took the family around the world. Gail taught school in Shanghai and Taipei. Their lovely home is filled with books and art that testifies to their travels.
Bob’s skill in the kitchen is also a testament to their travels. He served a delicious seafood paella and we finished it off with the most beautiful banana pudding that I am still kicking myself for not getting a picture of it. Gail made it all from scratch. Real custard kind. Mama always made me banana pudding, so Tim’s first response when he saw it was to ask: “Who does this remind you of?”
He knew the answer, of course.
We took a walk after dinner but all I remember is the song the cicadas hummed. It wasn’t until the next morning, when we all went for a walk that I could truly appreciate the loveliness of the crape myrtles and oaks and ohmy the gardens. We were even serenaded by someone sitting on a porch, strumming some unseen instrument.
By lunchtime we had walked over five miles. Not in the neighborhood alone, Bob and Gail took us downtown, where we walked along the waterfront, and through the historic graveyards. They told us stories about the removal of the John Calhoun statue, done in the night, and took us to the church they attend, along with Marjory Wentworth and her family. A church whose pastor is actively engaged in social justice, as all pastors should be, as all who consider themselves a people of faith ought to be. Because if your faith doesn’t motivate you to care about the welfare of others, it is nothing more than a clanging symbol. I think that’s in the Bible somewhere.
There’s a lot more to caring for others than just being a good neighbor, although that matters too. It’s about realizing that any gift you have should be used in service to others, toward the greater good. We are all the time talking in the country about freedom and Democracy, but a Democracy only work when we work together for the good of all people and not just selfish gain. Bob and Gail understand that. So do Joe and Doc Gracie. So does Marjory and Peter Wentworth and so many of the people I have the honor of knowing and calling friends.
Of course, a Democracy also means that the freedoms I enjoy are also the freedoms that those who intend harm to others enjoy. My son sent me a link to a story about how back in Oregon where I live, they had hosted a 4th of July parade that featured a man dressed in up as a Southern Confederate and was flying Confederate flags. Oregon, like most states, has a history of racism. Laws on the books meant to oppress Blacks, to keep them from moving into the state. Laws designed to make them “less than.”
Well, I replied to my son, having a Democratic form of government means that stupid people can flaunt their racism all they want. That’s what unchecked freedoms allow for – the right to be as evil as you want to be. Apparently without consequence under Republican rule, at any rate. Just ask any of those who voted against the Jan 6th commission. They don’t want anyone held responsible for the evils committed that day.
Just consider the young white men standing outside the doors of this church in downtown Charleston. They were shouting: “You survived abortion! You survived abortion!”
That’s not factually true. You can’t survive something that never happened.
It would be like shouting to Arabs in Saudi: “You survived the hurricane! You survived the hurricane!”
Nothing pisses this Granny off more than seeing young white men protesting abortion in a state that now requires women who miscarry to bury the remains of their babies. A state that has criminalized the uterus of all women.
The real sin is the way white men have sought to control the bodies of women. The very same mindset of fundamentalism led men to pass laws in the 1920s that allowed them to sterilize women they deemed unworthy to have children. Someone in my hometown put a sign on their large ass pickup: “If you can’t feed them don’t breed them.” I am sure they particpate in pro-life rallies and Trump rallies as well.
These same people thought nothing of it when migrant women in Atlanta were sterilized against their will and without their consent in 2019.
But, sure, tout your anti-abortion stance but by golly, don’t call yourselves pro-life because you are nothing more than a death cult, waiting to oppress anyone who isn’t white and male.
Not far from where the white boys were handing out pamphlets condemning women is a grave where three little boys are buried. They all died within 10 days of one another in 1746. Was it malaria? The flu? A pandemic of some sort? What thing struck them all at once, the way yellow fever did all five of Mother Jones’s children?
Life is fleeting joy and strife, their grave marker read.
If this past year taught us anything it is the truth of that. Sorrow awaits us around the corner, but so does joy. It’s the juxtapositions of the South that make it so worth writing about, Barry Hannah once said.
And it’s the juxtapositions of life that make it essential that we never give up the fight for good.
We only have a short time here. We have to make the most of it.
Eat, be merry, but also work like you belong to the Granny brigade. Work as if the futures of your children and grandchildren depends upon your effort.
Because they do.
And along the way, choose to be a hospitable people.
Like Bob and Gail Hardie.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).