I grew up 45 minutes from the beach on the marsh of the Broad River. Every Saturday from March-October for most of my childhood, Mom would pack sandwiches and Cokes and Little Debbies into a cooler and Dad would take my brother and I out in his 12’ aluminum johnboat for the day. We’d come back in time for dinner, giving my stay-at-home mom some much needed hours of quiet and the three of us some much needed time together. Once or twice a summer, we’d stand in the dining room while Mom slathered us with sun screen, fish out our sandals and plastic pales, load up another packed cooler, and head to the beach.
I was my mom’s sun baby. I could tan sitting by a sunny window and my hair was always bleached blonde by the sun. I loved being outdoors, loved the boat, and loved the beach and ocean. Although not a very strong swimmer, I knew my limits and important coastal skills like how to escape rip currents (swim parallel to the shore until you swim outside the current’s grasp, then swim back in; otherwise, you’ll tire yourself out trying to swim toward shore against the rip current and you’ll drown), and what to do about jellyfish stings (sprinkle meat tenderizer directly on the wound; DO NOT RINSE WITH WATER).
We usually parked on the north end of Hunting Island, a SC state park, and visited the light house before finding a good spot on the beach away from most of the crowds. As a state park, Hunting Island has no restaurants and only two stores on the island, one selling t-shirts and ice cream bars by the light house, the other selling a wider variety of those things, plus basic gas station fare, by the campground on the island’s far northern end. We took school trips to the island, looked for the alligator in the pond covered with algae by the welcome center, took photography exhibitions, and sometimes found really interesting birds or sand dollars or horseshoe crabs on the sand.
The last time I went to Hunting Island’s beach for the day—which is to say for the sake of the beach, not to show it to a friend or my brother’s girlfriend—I was in high school. Three friends and I packed up our towels and water bottles and books and sunglasses. We found a fairly barren stretch of sand on the southern end of the island near the old fishing pier. We took long walks and read and hung out and baked in the sun because, as we learned the painful way, the surf was full of jellyfish.
My best friend screamed, standing where the waves break, then screamed again, more insistent and shrilled, falling forward. We couldn’t see any danger—the water was too shallow for her to be struggling to swim or to have been attacked by a shark. Was it a horseshoe crab? Had she stepped on a conk shell? Got snipped by a crab or sting ray? We ran to her, finding big blisters on the back of her calf and right hand, which she’d used to pull the jellyfish off when, after jumping away and screaming, the waves had pushed it back into her.
“Pee on it!” She ordered as we helped her back to our towels. A friend grabbed her water bottle, twisted off the cap, and had begun to pour it on the stings before I could stop her. After another short scream and my pulling the bottle away from our friend, she pleaded, “I’m serious. It hurts so bad! I need one of you to pee on it! Please! Please!”
We hadn’t had trouble with jellyfish in so long that I’d taken my mom’s meat tenderizer out of my beach bag.
A man at the nearest catch of towels had seen the whole thing and dug out his family’s bottle, saving us all from the inevitable urination. I’d already ordered it in my mind. I was the only one who would be willing to do the deed, so the other two would have to hold towels up into a blind in the woods and my best friend would have to kneel or lay down in the brush. It would have been terrible, but stings are agonizing and this one was bad.
The rest of the afternoon, we stayed out of the water, and the man with the tenderizer went up and down our stretch of beach tending to the blistering pain of those who had been stung. Finally, no one was in the water. We roasted instead, knowing the relief of the water would bring more stings.
I told Tyler this story several weekends ago when I brought him to Hunting Island for the first time. We’d had lunch with my parents that morning, had done a little shopping downtown, then my parents had some errands to run and I’d really wanted to take Tyler out to the beach. It was March and windy and growing cloudy, so we packed bottles of water and sunglasses and windbreakers. We stopped by the welcome center to see the gator in her algae-covered pond. I gave Tyler the wrong directions, taking us to the southern end of the island instead of the northern end by the light house. But the island isn’t all that big, so we got to the sand and started walking north.
The ocean is trying to split the island. That’s one of the reasons why the rip currents can be so bad. It’s also why, north of the lighthouse, trees are lying in the waves and on the beach, dying, the bark stripped away by the salt, leaving white trunks and black branches. It looks like an art exhibit. On high tide, beachgoers in that area have to lay their blankets in the tree line and wade amongst the branches, being careful not to trip or let the waves push them into wood that will break skin. The rest of the island has been expanded with thousands of tons of sand over the years, and hurricanes several years in a row have washed much of it away.
So as we walked north and I told my story of the last time I’d been to the southern end of the island, Tyler asked if any of it looked familiar. “No,” I told him. “Not really. The shore was at least a hundred yards that way the last time I spent any time here,” I said, pointing into the ocean. But we kept walking, passed the lighthouse that had been erected in the mid-1800s after the ocean took the original brick lighthouse, the remains of which are more than a mile off shore.
When we reached the creek, I explained to Tyler how, on warm, sunny days, hundreds of fiddler crabs flee your feet as you walk. Because it was cool and overcast, I pointed to their holes in the pluff mud. Tyler asked if I wanted to walk up the creek, but I explained that it’s brackish and swampy and mostly just a mosquito hole. We walked on until we reached the campground store. The nearest bathrooms had been badly damaged in Matthew, last October’s hurricane, and hadn’t yet been restored or torn down, so we trekked inland until we found one. Then we headed south again, walking into the wind, making my ears cold and my nose run.
The lighthouse was closed by this point, so we walked around its base, looking at the brick foundation of the destroyed innkeepers’ house with some fellow tourists. We continued, talking and tell stories. I found a plant unique to the sea islands that we had a lot of at my house growing up, but that I hadn’t seen in years. It looks like a green lilypad on a stem and gross in slightly sandy soil near the water. I picked one, intending to weave it into my braid as we walked, but was distracted by the big, unbroken shells and the dogs walking with their owners, and Tyler’s hand in mine.
At one point, Tyler suggested that we head up to the treeline to look in the woods. It seemed kind of weird, but I thought he just wanted to be adventurous. When we got to the top of the rise, we found dead trees laying side by side for hundreds of feet before us and to either side. Some had been blown down from the roots in Hurricane Matthew. The ones that remained had been snapped off 20-30 feet up and the tops lay beside the fallen. They were utterly dead, many stripped of bark and white. It looked like a dead tree cemetery.
“Well, this is kind of depressing,” Tyler said.
“Yeah,” I answered, “But it’s kind of cool, too,” and tromped off into the trees, reminding Tyler to be careful of snakes, especially poisonous copperheads. “They should still be hibernating,” I told him, “but just in case.”
After a few minutes, after Tyler wiped the snot from beneath my nose and kissed me (evidence of love if there ever was any), we headed back to the beach and continued walking.
The next time Tyler wanted to look at an area with downed trees, I didn’t think anything about it. I jumped onto the smooth white trunk of an artful tree and walked along its base. I felt Tyler come up beside me and I turned to him, thinking he wanted a kiss (he didn’t) or a hug. While my arms were around his shoulders, he held onto my sides and pulled me off the tree. I am fleet of foot (ish) and didn’t lose my balance, but I was confused, and was still orienting myself when I realized that Tyler was moving away. He lowered to one knee, and he was holding the ring we’d designed.
The first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Really?!”
I feel rather badly about that. But, as Tyler points out when I tell this bit in person, “It was a happy, excited, ‘Really.’”
I really thought it’d be a couple more weeks. I knew Tyler had, as planned, talked to my parents the night before about his intention to ask me to marry him. They had, as I knew they would, given their blessings. But for some reason it didn’t occur to me that he’d propose the same weekend. And to him, it was obvious that he would. After all, he he wanted me to be able to see my family right away. And, as my roommate pointed out, he was tired of waiting.
He told me that he loved me and wanted to marry me and hadn’t planned out a lot of things to say because he’d known he would forget them all.
Meanwhile my brain was in overdrive. I was still holding the lilypad thing in my left hand, and I wanted to drop it because I needed my left hand, but by that point it was part of the moment and I wanted to keep it, so I switched it to my right hand and forgot about it. And apparently I took the ring out of Tyler’s hand, though I don’t remember this. I do remember feeling relieved that it was so gorgeous. Part of my brain was chanting, “THIS IS IT. PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION.” Another part was going, “These are the clothes I’m getting engaged in….I wouldn’t have picked these. BUT OH WELL.”
And somewhere in here Tyler asked me to marry him, and I said yes. I kind of remember the question. I don’t remember saying yes, but he assures me that I did.
He stood up and we hugged and I was holding that ring so tightly on my left thumb. The part of my brain that had been going “PAY ATTENTION, PAY ATTENTION” was now going “DO NOT DROP IT. DO NOT DROP IT.”
Tyler pulled back and I didn’t know how to get him to put the ring onto my finger in a smooth way, so I did it. He asked if it fit, and it did. “It isn’t too loose is it?” he asked. I turned my hand and shook it so he’d see that it wouldn’t, even though my hands were cold and it was a little loose and my brain was still going, “DO NOT DROP IT.”
“Oh crap,” I thought. “Now we have to plan this thing.” But I didn’t say that out loud because we were literally still in the moment and I didn’t want to put a damper on things.
I asked that we take some selfies. We took 3 or 4, most with the trees behind us, one with the ocean. The one we like the most is the one where I remembered to put my hand on his shoulder so the ring was visible. We have the best expressions in that one, and it was right before the picture where he wasn’t smiling and I was kissing him on the cheek, squishing my nose against his cheek in a decidedly unattractive fashion.
I realized then that I had a text from Rachel, Tyler’s sister, and laughed at the timing of it. Then I remembered that, that morning, I’d scheduled a text to her about Tyler’s mom’s birthday for 5pm, and she was merely texting me back. And not letting on that she knew Tyler was going to be proposing that afternoon, and was waiting by the phone for the news. We called her first, then Tyler’s parents, then my brother, and I texted the women who would become my bridesmaids.
But while we were still on the beach, after texting Rachel back, Tyler suggested we wait until we got back to the truck to start calling people. We held hands the remainder of the walk, passing the remains of the old fishing pier. When we started to get into the truck, we heaps of sand shrugged off our shoes, so we got back out to stamp our feet and shake sand off of the floor mats, which was a very mundane thing to be doing in my brand new ring, four or five minutes after we got engaged.
We drove back to my parents’ house and I got to hug my mom immediately. They’d known the plan, of course, and hadn’t let on at all. As is the nature of mothers, I didn’t start crying until I saw her. We cried happy tears for a minute or two in the front yard, then went inside so I could hug my dad, and Tyler could hug them both.
That night, we went to a local seafood restaurant with an hour-long wait, telling my parents stories about dating and knowing each other in college, tons of funny and sweet stories they hadn’t heard before. I refused to get my normal fried shrimp because I didn’t want grease on my ring and left it with Tyler on the table when I went to the bathroom, not trusting myself with it in a public restroom just yet.
I can not imagine a better day.