Pat Conroy inspired me. Mostly as a teacher. I wrote recently of my visit to Daufuskie Island, located off Hilton Head, and the very classroom in which Pat taught students written off by other educators. I, like many other visiting teachers, was moved to tears there.
Now, I am an author. Inspiration for my fiction comes more from Mark Twain and Harper Lee, but no one can deny the poetic beauty of Pat Conroy’s prose. It’s exquisite.
On my recent trip to Beaufort, South Carolina, there was no question of touring the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Conroy wrote of deep, painful issues in stories that dared you to turn away. The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, South of Broad, The Prince of Tides. Classics.
Some years ago, as part of a large South Carolina Book Festival audience, I heard Pat Conroy speak. Like those surrounding me, I hung on every word. He was as funny as he was compelling. I knew of Pat Conroy’s greatness.
At the center, I learned he wrote his books longhand with examples under glass to examine. Not nearly as many edits as mine. Sigh. His gorgeous desk is on display with the slant board on which he wrote.
I told the docent we’d gone to the National Cemetery to find Conroy’s grave but were unsuccessful. She said the author had requested to be buried in an out-of-the-way Gullah cemetery where he is the only white man. As a free thinker who didn’t hesitate to buck traditions, this one last request brought a smile to my face.
I, too, find the Gullah culture fascinating. To anyone vacationing along the Carolina coast, I wholly recommend Gullah-related tours and activities. I’ve participated in several.
In my next book, likely titled Patience Can Cook a Stone, I have a slave healer, Mama Juba, who practices hoodoo. In the story, Mama Juba explains to young Mary Edith about their traditional funerary practices.
Mary Edith shifted on her seat. “Why you got that old pipe piece?”
“For the burial. After the white people done preaching and praying, and the box been lowered in the hole, they’ll each throw on a bit of dirt. Then, off they go on back to the Big House. That’s when the real send-off starts. But you don’t need to worry none about that. You’ll head home like the white folk.”
“How come, Mama Juba? Is it bad?”
“Bad? Lawd, no. It’s fine, real fine. Just too raucous for white people.”
“Tell me,” Mary Edith begged.
“Well, once the family’s gone, Amos and Hercules’ll get their drums. Ida and Lydia will shake the rattles, them ones they made from gourds. All this while Thunder shovels the dirt atop Mr. Tom.”
Mary Edith shivered to think of the dirt smothering their old master. Tears threatened to fill her eyes.
“Once that done, each one gonna put something on his grave, something he might need. A bit of food, small jug of wine. He love that wine, don’t he?” She grew quiet for a minute or two. “This here pipe stem, that’s what I’ll put on the mound. He enjoyed a good pipeful, too. Um hm, I believe he’ll like that.”
“I don’t have nothing, Mama Juba. What should I put on his grave?”
“I can’t answer that for ya, chile. You gotta figure that for y’self.”
I was interested to see how these customs fit into Pat Conroy’s final resting place and was not disappointed. Well off the beaten path, we found the St. Helena Memorial Garden. It took less than a second to spot the grave.
Countless visitors before us had covered his plot with a variety of tributes befitting him and the Gullah customs. Pens, pencils, shells, rocks, signs, buttons, coins are just a few of the items that smothered the grave. I can’t help but think it was as Pat Conroy had wished.
I have pens printed with ‘M. B. Gibson Books’. Why hadn’t I thought to bring one? Instead, my husband laid a dime on top of the marker. Later, I researched what coins signified.
The tradition started as a message of respect to families of deceased soldiers. Each denomination has its own meaning. A dime indicates you served with the deceased in some capacity.
I suppose it’s a stretch, but that kinda fits for me. Like Pat Conway, I served as an educator in the fight to give knowledge and dignity to all students, especially the forgotten ones. As a writer, Pat Conroy served his readers by personalizing life in a dysfunctional family. I hope to bring light to the struggle for dignity within poverty.
I fall painfully short of Pat Conroy’s abilities in both areas.
Yet, he’s been the star I reach for.