My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Shadow Playground: Childhood Memories of Wormsloe Plantation in the 1950’s and 60’s

This story will be published in the September issue of Georgia Backroads magazine.

I just recently read in The University of Georgia Graduate School Magazine about research UGA is conducting on what life was like in the 1700’s on Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, a reading which brought back a flood of memories for me personally. I grew up on the Isle of Hope in the 1950’s and 60’s in the shadow of Wormsloe, before it became a National Historic Site.

Even without Wormsloe, the Isle of Hope, on the marshy outer edges of Savannah, would have been a magical place to be a child. Because it’s an island, although with a narrow causeway connecting it to the mainland, and because it was a more trusting, more innocent time, we children had a great deal of freedom to explore all it had to offer. Within barefoot walking distance were the bluff with its antebellum houses and pristine cottages, with its docks and boats; Barbee’s Pavilion with its famous terrapins; and Blissett’s Store with a selection of pickled pigs feet and briny eggs, grotesque treats our mothers would never have fed us and most likely never knew about. Kinsey’s was near our school, with penny candy and a screen door that closed with a tap instead of a bang as we exited on summer days with our banana popsicles. Then there were the marshes all around us with fiddler crabs and the smell of river mud. Out back was a forest where we kids discovered an abandoned still, the fecund smell of which I still remember. Some of the neighborhood boys later used the still as a fort, described by one of its builders as “the finest clubhouse ever constructed on the Isle of Hope”.

I remember Halloweens when we trick-or-treated anywhere and everywhere, without our parents who simply cautioned us to “stay on the island”, and, in the summer, playing Sardines at dusk and catching fireflies in a jar later in the evening. I remember swimming at the optimistically-named Wymberly Yacht Club where the only watercraft leaving the rickety dock were the kids doing cannonballs trying to escape the biting gnats known as sandflies. Then there was the day we went sauntering into the marsh, happily exploring, only to be nearly marooned on a tiny sandbar when time and tide got away from us.

And I remember Wormsloe. Wormsloe wasn’t part of our island freedom as it was off limits being private property; a beautiful, secret plot of real estate, a place of great import, although I didn’t really understand why. But Wormsloe was always there.

And so were we.

It seems that every former Isle of Hope kid has a Wormsloe story. My own recollection is of entering those iron gates with a friend and walking up the mile-long oyster-shell laden private road to the big house. I remember peeking in the windows of the somewhat frightening old building full of books, thinking what a wonder it was to be in that place, looking through those windows to a completely different time. I was a rather timid child, a real rule follower, so I can’t imagine having the nerve. I do know that I believed we’d been given some kind of tacit permission from the old lady who lived there, permission granted to children who wanted to explore as long as boys and girls didn’t go together. I’m pretty sure I never ran that invitation past my parents.

Just knowing Wormsloe was there made us feel different, lucky in some way we couldn’t explain. I have a scholarly friend who wrote, “We inhaled an air of other times. Having a real plantation next door changed things, like growing up in the back yard of Independence Hall.”

The younger brother of my best friend describes Wormsloe as his favorite playground. He was one of those unfettered boys who eschewed school in favor of the education that could be garnered from real life. While I was at home dutifully completing my Social Studies homework, he was breathing history and making friends with both the caretaker and the old lady.

His memories include:

There was an old fort there. That is where we fought off the Spanish invaders. The old fort was crumbled, covered with vines and it had saw palms growing in and all around it, but to me it was as sturdy a fortress as Pulaski. The Spanish never had a chance! I almost fell into a well one day by the old fort. It had been covered up for so long that instead of falling through, I simply started sinking. We covered it up with sticks and palm fronds trying to capture either some wild animal or some unlucky Spaniard. It never happened…… There were several oaks along the marsh that you could jump out of when the tide was high and float down to the dock.

And then:

There was an older lady who lived in the house. As far as I know she lived alone. I never saw anyone else with her. Sometimes she would sit on her front porch and enjoy her view. There were several flower gardens made into squares around the house. Some had bird baths and benches for people to sit and relax. We would try and sneak around the front of the house without her seeing us. One day in particular, she saw us and stood up waving us up to her. I was with a friend and he took off running. I, being somewhat inquisitive, not to mention caught red handed and paralyzed from fear, walked up the steps ready to meet my maker. She asked where my friend went and I said that he had to go home. She made a sound in her throat and told me that we were going to ruin her bushes by crawling through them. She then told me to follow her inside. With thoughts of ending up like someone in a horror movie, I followed her into the kitchen which was a lot bigger than ours. She had some kind of cookie that was obviously homemade and had fruit in it. I ate it and told her that we would be careful not to get in her bushes. From then on out, whenever we saw her on her porch we would walk by, wave and speak. She usually had some kind of treat for us, typically cookies or cake. Sometimes the cookies were soggy, but I never complained.

As an adult, I learned the elderly lady who lived at Wormsloe was Elfrida DeRenne Barrow, a woman not only with an impressive bloodline, but also formidable in her own right. She was a mother, a published poet, and a noted historian, and we have her to thank not only for preserving her home for all of us through the Wormsloe Foundation, but also for opening its gates so children and adults alike can visit without skulking through the bushes. The notion that she befriended scruffy little boys who trespassed on her property so they could dream about and participate in the history she sought to preserve helps to expand and illuminate my memories of growing up in the shadow of Wormsloe Plantation and makes me want to visit again, this time with actual permission

The little trespassers as their mothers saw them. There are no known photographs of them in their natural habitats.

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