February 5, 1986, my little sister, Mary, was born at the Charleston Naval Hospital—an experience my mother loves to describe with much eye rolling and exaggerated outbursts of “I was in labor for 32 hours!” Apparently the hospital was filled to capacity with screaming young brides who couldn’t understand why their sailors weren’t allowed to return home from sea. “As a 35-year-old officer’s wife, I was the oldest expectant mother. There were no luxury birthing suites, and the wards were beyond Spartan,” Mom recalls. And yet, the delivery did little to squash the thrill of bringing home her swaddled babe to our teeny third-floor apartment at 65 Gibbes.
“You’ll always be a South of Broad baby,” Mom cooed at Mary. And still does—27 years later. The knowledge that her infant was technically an original S.O.B, a true Charlestonian, has always felt like a privilege my sister need be aware of—a secret society, like a coveted invite to the St. Cecilia Ball. And that wouldn’t seem crazy if my folks were in fact local. But they aren’t. Heck, they’re not even Southern. Both were born and raised in Yakima, Washington, socially, geographically, culturally a million light years away.
And yet, bump into my mom today at say, her Yakima grocery store, mention the word “Charleston,” and brace yourself for an earful.
“Did you say, ‘Charleston?!’ Well, you know, our daughter Mary was born South of Broad. Oh yes, we lived in Charleston on three separate occasions. And our oldest lives there now. You really must visit. E-mail me, I’ll send you a list of everything you have to see and do.”
Nearly three decades after my folks left the Holy City for their third and final time—packing two toddlers into an air-conditionless mini van for the August return to the Northwest—mom still hasn’t gotten over this city. You can leave Charleston, but it never leaves you.
And it’s not just my mom. It’s friends. College buddies who took off for New York, Atlanta, and Chicago the minute their CofC graduation roses wilted, three, four, five years later have gravitated home, happy for their adventures, but more than willing to trade high metropolis wages for Southern hospitality and the feeling of real community.
And I tried to get away too. When I turned 25, New England came calling, luring me and my future husband with images of oxblood fall leaves and the promise of maple syrup-coated winters. Well, the only coating I got was a thick layer of Neosporin on my scabbed knees after slipping on the Burlington, Vermont, ice for the nth time. When finding an Ethiopian restaurant proved easier than tracking down true barbecue and a half dozen doors had been slammed in my face by Northeastern men not conditioned to hold a door for a lady, the realization of what we had given up leaving the Holy City hit hard. And so the boomerang changed direction, and we moved home. Again.
I’m convinced some cosmic force pulls us all back into this marshy swamp. Like the Civil War shell they found buried in the roof of a Tradd Street home a few years back, maybe someday we’ll uncover a magnetic field off of Folly, just below low tide. A current of energy that attracts Southern romantics, hopeless history-buffs, creative castaways—the kinds of people who can’t imagine life without moonlit bike rides down Price’s Alley; who eagerly anticipate the slippery salt-kiss of the season’s first oyster; who live for days spent retracing the steps of George Washington, Francis Marion, and P.G.T. Beauregard all in one afternoon; who thrill at the real-life Cheers sensation of bellying up to a bar on King Street and being greeted by name; who relish rolling their eyes at Charleston’s accolades, only to covertly confess they’re all true. But most of all it’s the kinds of people who can’t imagine life without the impossible boon of getting to wake up knowing it wasn’t a dream. That you have, in fact, lived all those impeccable Holy City moments and, spoiler alert, you get to live them again, day after day, because it’s your city—your Charleston.
I suppose that is a membership someone who once lived here might want to hold on to. Someone like a hilariously dramatic mother in Washington state, or her Navy veteran husband, and maybe even their now-grown, L.A.-based S.O.B. baby. Well, I’ll save them a seat, until the tides change, the magnet pulls, and they, like the rest of us, return, home to Charleston, again.
Charleston assistant editor Kinsey Gidick is a Washington state native and 2006 graduate of the College of Charleston, who after a brief stint in the snowy mountains of Burlington, Vermont, returned to the Holy City, where she lives with her husband and weimaraner, Trigger.