I had been there twice before, once as a five year old in a red bathing suit with white polkadots and a ruffle around the waist, and then again, briefly, when I was eleven, as we sailed Feather back north to the Chesapeake. Cumberland Island, sixth barrier island from the north, nearly on the Georgia/Florida border.
What do I remember? From the first time, I remember staying at the Grayfield Inn (although the name of the Inn is not something I remembered). It was a bed and breakfast, the first I had ever been to. I remember sitting in the front parlor as my dad checked in, and being served pink lemonade. I hadn’t realized that lemonade came in pink, but was most disappointed that it tasted just the same as the yellow variety. My feet didn’t touch the floor, and neither did my three year-old sister’s, whose bathing suit that year was a little turquoise bikini with pastel-colored seahorses floating through the pattern. I remember watching a lady on the wide green lawn in front of the Grayfield Inn feeding wild turkey and deer at dusk. I remember wanting to clamber in the live oaks all day, but eventually having to leave the leafy haven and follow my parents onto the burning white sand dunes, where my feet never felt cool enough, to the beaches. The trees of the island are laden and laced with Spanish moss, but I think the memory of that must be a memory tacked on to my Cumberland Island memories from some other stashed-away, what-Georgia-is-like memory. I don’t have any particular memories of the trees’ dressing.
The next time we were there, we stopped, it seems like, for just part of the day. I know Sunsinger was with us because I have a picture of my sister taking a picture of Hannah and Dan, the children on Sunsinger, waving their arms in front of Dungeness, the Carnegie’s ruined mansion. I don’t remember clearly, but I have a vague feeling that my parents may have been arguing that day and that the island was a relieving place to evade close-quarters and quarrels. I think I felt run-down, and not as excited as the other kids. I may have even been more independent that day, lagging behind the two families or blazing ahead by myself. I was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the time, and I think I placed the story on Cumberland Island as I remembered it as a small child. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Dungeness this time. It was just several unfinished brick walls, covered in vines, with chimneys and empty windows. It was hardly spectacular, and there weren’t slave quarters surrounding the house like I had inserted into my memories with the help of my book. I must have remembered it then as something more grand from my five-year-old memories. Strange how you can remember remembering something from times past, but the original memory can no longer be remembered. (When I was two and my sister had just been born, an adult asked me if I remembered what it was like to be in my mommy’s tummy. And I replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it was like dancing in yogurt,” which seems like a reasonable answer. I don’t remember being in the womb now, but I can’t imagine making something like that up. I am pretty certain that I did remember it then.) I remember more feeling and less picture from my last visit to Cumberland Island.
This time, I arrived on Feather again, with my dad, and three friends, but I came twice as old as the last time I was there. I told my friends that Cumberland Island was a beautiful place, that there were wild horses and armadillos that lived there, that there was a beach with dunes, and old mansions. I had seen the horses once before (I don’t remember if it was when I was five or eleven), but had never seen an armadillo there. How did I know they existed? Had someone else on my previous visits seen one? Had I read it somewhere? No matter; this time they abounded. We saw one the first night, rooting around the palmettos, and six more the next day—big, little, fast and bouncy like rabbits, snuffling and ignoring us like hogs, all very strange, cute, and scaly. They were the highlights of our days—in the evenings on Feather, we would all recount the doings of those little fellows and eagerly imagine having a “dillo” as a pet. Ben was certain that the one he touched would swim aboard to join us at any moment.
Though the ‘dillos provided ample entertainment and excitement, what struck me most about my first walk through the live oak forests again, were the saw palmettos. The jungle green leaves, like jazz-hands in every direction, glowed with the sun shining through them. They happily reached out and waved at us on the path, they spread low and covered the ground with their wide palms, and millions more extended in every which-way to greet the warm buggy air with delight. They were as tall or taller than me, and were impenetrable on either side of the path (except to the armadillos)—how could I have not remembered these glorious plants that must have blinded my vision to all else when I was shorter?! Their brilliance, even in the shade, was blissful. From the boat, our view of the island read: brackish water, tidal shoreline, palmetto!, live oak canopy, sky. That middle layer was just so bright and green! It beckoned to be walked amongst. So we did. We walked several miles all three days we were there, always enjoying the peace of the island forest, especially after walks along the beaches where crashing waves bellowed in our ears incessantly. I could almost taste my adulthood in the way that I wanted to walk, walk, walk through that place. My wonder hadn’t died, but when I was five, I just wanted to stay put, playing forever in a single tree. When I was eleven, I reluctantly trekked to the ruins with the grown-ups. I don’t know what I would have rather done, but it always seemed like the adults had such an agenda and walking was always part of it. This time, I enjoyed walking for walking’s sake. It wasn’t so much the place we were getting to, but enjoying the minutia along the way. Noticing how the lichen was light pink on one tree and deep magenta on another. Looking at the different bromeliads and ferns perched along the oak branches, snow-like. Seeing how individuality within species made the forest burst with interest for me. On and on I wanted to go; each turn in the path was new. Sometimes we came across marshland and horses, and, once, I saw a four foot snake jump from one branch to another as we rounded the bend. I loved continuing on, taking each step in. It was like unwrapping books—the telltale shape of the present doesn’t give away what the content is; likewise, the expectation of similar green live oak and saw palmetto paths didn’t lessen the excitement at finding new arrangements of these plants.
I climbed in a few live oaks, because the shapes were so bent and inviting. I have always loved to climb in trees. But this time, I didn’t want to play in them all day like I did when I was five. I was impatient to explore the next place, to follow the path farther into the forest, to dance on the beach and crush the washed-up shells under my heels and toes. That’s something I liked to do when I was eleven. EL DESTRUCTO! my parents called me. Despite the destruction I was causing, I didn’t feel like I was destroying anything too badly. The beach was littered with shells, too many similar, boring ones for anyone to care about. And how satisfying to feel the lightly curved dome crush under your foot into the sand! Like popping bubble-wrap.
I hadn’t remembered the smell of the paper factory that blew in from a few miles away on the mainland. All the paper factories we passed on Feather the first time down the coast seemed to be located in industrial yucky places. I must have forgotten that lingering nasty smell from my Cumberland Island memories because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the lovely-place memories. Though my newest impression of Dungeness was better than my eleven-year-old impression. It was lovely, even though it was just walls and ivy and window holes. We had a nice picnic in the grass of the old calico pergola, finishing off lunch with headstands and cartwheels.
These similarities and differences of impression all reflect me, Alyssum, at different points in my life, though I feel like they also all reflect me, Alyssum, at every point in my life. I think I still live my five-year-oldness at times. That precocious, jovial kid who liked to play, play, play and watch animals at dusk still makes her appearance fairly often. The independent, book-worm, sailor girl is still me, without a doubt. Though I’d like to think I’ve wisened and matured a bit since half my life ago, I’m really not all that different. Changes in friends, wishes, and goings-on are some of the few things that mark my aging. And of course, changes in impressions. Slight variations in the way my memory plays itself out, and the way it chooses to interpret the present and store it for the future.