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Attack of the Cacarootches


Okay. Last night my husband, Wendy, and I called it a night around 9:30. An unusual feature of our bedroom is a door leading outside. As I climbed into bed, I heard a ‘thump’ on the aluminum storm door. Odd.

Then another. And another.

“Something’s pounding against that door,” I told Wendy as he finished brushing his teeth.

“I know. I already looked out there. It’s either some bug or a bird.”

Well, there are two doors between whatever it was and me, so I continued playing Words With Friends on my phone. The thumping continued. I was not surprised when my husband investigated further. He’s not good at ignoring aggravating sounds like that.

He opened both doors to have a look and a large bug, with I’m sure an enormous sense of victory, soared into the bedroom. As it zoomed over the bed, I saw it was the dreaded flying cacarootch!

Starting my new book set in colonial South Carolina, I wanted a character to disparage his enemies by referring to them as these undesirable creatures. On Saturday, I looked up ‘cockroach’ on one of my favorite sites,

I learned that in 1624, John Smith wrote, “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.”

Excusing John Smith’s spelling issues, we can see why folklore claims the first syllables, ‘caca,’ refer to poop. It’s that ‘ill-sent’ and shiver of disgust they leave behind. While historically, I could have used the modern-day ‘cockroach,’ who can resist ‘cacarootch’? Not me. It’s in the book.

In the meantime, the vermin soared over my bed, bringing out my true nature. I lay on the pillow with the covers pulled up yelling, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”

If it flew from the room down the hall, would we ever find it? I started to get up and close the bedroom door when Wendy called, “Don’t move.”

I froze as he whacked his camouflage croc a hair’s breadth from my left thigh. The evil intruder had landed right beside me. Severely wounded, he was scooped up by Wendy’s wadded toilet paper and whooshed down the Waterslide to Eternity.

Then I heard it. Thump!

Wendy announced, “There’s a whole swarm of them out there.”

Holy moley! We’ve been in this house almost four years with no cacarootch issues. All I could think about was that commercial with an approaching zombie apocalypse. Foregoing the more usual, subtle approach, these flying fiends have attempted an overt frontal attack. What next?

zombie apocolypse (2)

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Farewell, Pat Conroy

pat conroy at daufuskie
Pat Conroy teaching on Daufuskie Island in 1970.

On Friday, March 4th, we lost a literary legend in South Carolina. Pat Conroy, the prolific author of the Lowcountry, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at his coastal home in Beaufort.


While many people will remember him for The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, or several other outstanding tales based on his life, his early book, The Water is Wide, affected me most.

Both the book and movie, Conrack, came out as I studied to become a teacher. The story is based on his first year out of the Citadel when he taught on Daufuskie Island, a barrier island near the resort of Hilton Head that can be reached only by boat.

A home on the island


I was moved by his work with children who had little hope of a life beyond the isolation and poverty of their island. Children who were deemed unteachable. Conroy taught them classical music and how to swim. He introduced them to world events and located each on a map. He took them across the water to Beaufort, which must have seemed a paradise, and carried a group of boys to Charleston to see the Harlem Globetrotters.

I decided. This is what I wanted to do.

Eventually I moved to rural South Carolina where I was assigned, with nearly no materials and little support, to teach basic learners. After pleading for more books or other supplemental resources, my exasperated principal said, “Look, these students can’t learn. Your job is to babysit.”

Livid, I doubled down on providing the best instruction my time and talents could provide. My passion for teaching had been lit by Pat Conroy on Daufuskie Island where he’d found the same resistance.

As Conroy wrote of those who eventually fired him from his job—no, his vocation, “They were old men and could not accept the new sun rising out of the strange waters. The world was very different now.”

20160305_104845 (2)Yes, times changed. What educator today worth her salt doesn’t believe all children can learn? But it was Pat Conroy’s confidence in the value of impoverished, yet eager children that spurred me onward.

Rest in peace, Pat Conroy. You made me a better teacher and the world a better place.


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Making Sweetgrass Baskets

Miss Margaret’s sweetgrass baskets

Last month I gave myself a birthday gift–sweetgrass basketmaking lessons. To me, this is the best kind of research there is. Hands-on!

I am very interested in the rice culture of colonial South Carolina. I hope for it to play an important role in one of my books. While my husband attended a professional conference in the Georgetown, South Carolina area, I toured an old rice plantation, Hopsewee.

I will write more on the plantation itself soon. While I was on the website investigating what they had to offer, however, I noted they offered the basketmaking class. I promptly emailed them and signed up.

Miss Margaret

On a very soggy May 9th, after touring the plantation, I met Miss Margaret outside their tea room where she had surrounded herself with her works of art. This craft was brought to the Charleston area about 300 years ago by West African slaves, and the methods and designs have changed very little since then. Miss Margaret informed me that some within her community were unhappy about these lessons to outsiders, but my participation was purely for fun and curiosity.

I was the only student so I got the best possible attention. The baskets are made from a local reed called sweetgrass which has the most wonderful natural scent. Apparently it is quite hard to come by these days, as I was informed by my tutor. “I don’t know who would sell it to you,” she said.

Again, not to worry. If I get very ambitious, pine straw is also used and we have a glut of that in my town. The bands that weave the grasses together are made from strips of palmetto fronds, which are specially treated to keep them flexible. That secret is also safe; I don’t know how to do it.

Miss Margaret started a basket for me before I arrived. “I don’t teach people how to start ’em,” she told me. I really don’t know what the community is worried about. She obviously left out plenty of crucial information.

The tool I used

I watched closely as Miss Margaret worked. We used a simple tool made from the handle of a spoon which had been rounded and smoothed by one of her family members. With this, I eventually learned to work the grass and bind the rows together.

Miss Margaret is seventy-five years old and has worked this art all her life. Although I am basically a shy introvert, I felt immediately comfortable with her and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Her personality was delightful.

I’m not sure how she felt about me as a student, however. When learning, I like to repeat the instructions given in my own words to be sure I understand. On a couple of occasions, while I did that, she leaned forward and said, “LISTEN to me!” and repeated her instructions more slowly. Hmm.

Finally, she said, “You’re a school teacher, right?”


“You ask an awful lot of questions,” she said flatly. I don’t think it was a compliment.

Well, within two hours I made myself a little basket to collect–whatever. I had a fun time learning something most people don’t know and met a perfectly charming person while doing so. On top of that, I have a very cool conversation piece in my den.

Happy birthday to me!

My masterpiece!