A return to the promise of Myrtle Beach in 1950-that brought long summer days filled only with the rhythm of the ocean and lazy afternoons with adventures I found will soon be revisited. The Beach house in Myrtle Beach, SC was morning walks on the hot planks down to the ocean, feeling the rhythm of each foot hitting the wood with the slight sting of the sun and blown sand on my legs. Far from Norwood, Mass, my sister and I spent 6 weeks in South Carolina with our grandparents in the summer. Over the sand hill to the blast of the Atlantic wind and surf, often with the dolphins toppling in and out of the water as if in a dance, this rush of seeing and feeling the ocean always surprised me. We would go early before 10 and the heat of the day and the beach was naked of people that early. Whatever thoughts, concerns I carried with me as I walked the plank each morning felt bathed, shaken and stirred by the feeling of the curves of the waves as they came -one after another, sometimes in a single wave all across the waterfront. On the sandy walk close to the ocean, I walked feeling a part of everything and nothing all at the same time.
We would get the signal from Aunt Lib that it was time to walk back to our grandparents house, to the lunch of fresh ripe tomatoes that never saw a refrigerator, and sweet peaches which we cut and sliced and kept in Mason jars for lunch, dinner and sometimes on our grape nuts cereal for breakfast. Then I would happily retreat to my room and the most precious of experiences: reading Gone With the Wind. A big thick green book that looked pretty worn I had found in one of the dresser drawers along with a Confidential magazine that showed a blond movie actress with sunglasses getting out of a car with a big label across the picture: EXPOSED. I could not make heads nor tails out of the magazine. I was going to be 12 in a few months, and didn’t see what going into a hotel had to do with anything, nor did I recognize the movie star. Reading was not something I felt happy about prior to this treasure at the Beach house, Given that I was a very poor reader in school. I knew this because when my name was called to read I did not read as fluidly as Mary Alice who read without hesitation in her soft but certain voice. Or even like Liza who also seemed to be very much at ease and read in a sing song voice. For me being called on was something I dreaded. I was miserable and anxious, and missed words often.
Yet here I was with this big green book and I had made my way through a chunk of it, but the reason was I couldn’t wait to find out what was on the next page. When mansions were described, with big skirts and bonnets I could see those in my mind’s eye. The first images of Scarlett O’Hara were like opening up to the rainbow for me: Her brazenness, her speaking out loud things I had already been told were not the right way to be, not polite. Scarlett’s open and straight ahead ambition to get what she wanted in every situation was miles and miles away from anything I had seen in the women around me either in South Carolina or Massachusetts. My sister and I always felt we were raised right in the middle of the Civil War. There was hardly anything that the family in SC agreed with the family in Massachusetts about. Protestant Sunday school teachers in our summers in SC and Catholic nuns and priests in Norwood not only didn’t agree on anything much, but they also spoke very poorly of each other, sort of on the sly-like giving us a little remark here and there as to what was desirable or undesirable behavior or attitude or practice in life. But being a good girl was stressed in either camp-in the very air we breathed.
So Scarlett and her speaking out to her father and overtly being important to the men around her, and fighting openly with the women was really the first feminist I was aware of. She demanded equal access, opportunity and expressed herself as clearly as the men. irritating the women around her. Except for Melanie. Melanie was the other feminist I recognize now, another example of a woman who sought and won a treatment from those in power, even Rhett Butler, such that they listened to her and acted from the place of having considered her views significant and of high value.
The southern culture was by nature very concerned with manners and etiquette and Ruthie, my grandmother, spent time with my sister and I every night with stories that emphasized not being selfish. The story about choosing the biggest apple, and that apple having blackness in it, and just the overlay and underpinning always to be polite and not cause scenes was terribly important. More than once, I was taken to the side quietly but firmly- being told I had spoken as I should not have, or done something I shouldn’t have: like the time I went riding with a boy-we were both 11. These were friends of the family who had a farm with stables and his horses, we got lost and everyone was mad at me. I still can’t figure that one out. But the point is, how one behaved was really really important, and restricted.
So here on the afternoons after being in the ocean, after the nice long walk on the beach and the juicy tomatoes and cottage cheese, here in this upstairs bedroom where I could see and smell and feel the ocean still tingly on my body, I could return to Scarlett and Melanie, and Rhett and Ashley. As the weeks rolled by, Scarlett’s scheming and carrying on led to one major truth. While a war was going on, and people were going into what she called “that silly old war,” Scarlett was not taken in by the holding back, keeping herself at a safe distance, but right in the throes of everything that was happening. Her motives were what they were, but when it came right down to it, as Atlanta burned, she did what she had to do to deliver Melanie’s baby, fight off the men who wanted to take the horse and wagon she was using with Melanie and baby in the back of the cart. Melanie even in her weakened condition clearly was the integrity of any situation she was in. I didn’t know the word integrity then, but I saw her as the moral and compassionate mover of the destiny of all the players in Gone with the Wind. Her strength, her mode of feminism was to respond and direct the people around her with a trust of their goodness, even Scarlett’s goodness when no one else could see it.
Day after day, the characters played out a war, a civil war that I could feel in my life. When we took drives around South Carolina, I saw those mansions still standing or refurbished after the Civil War. I heard conversations around me in restaurants and in visiting cousins, aunts and uncles that were an extension of my absorption with the characters who lived for me on the pages of Gone With the Wind.
The perfect southern gentleman Ashley was willing to tolerate the ambivalence around him that he was living through. A man who never said no to Scarlett and did all the right things. He was the opposite of Rhett Butler, a player, a winner and followed his own line of morality. He was not persuaded to take a position that didn’t include a large view with contradictions and conflict: his outsider status in the southern society gave him that option and he was glad to take it. Since feminism is not about male or female but can be defined as how we treat each other, a state of mind where all are of equal value, these two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum in ideals, standards and behaviors. It was Rhett who viewed all the women with respect and regard, including Belle-the town Lady of the Night, and those women he was of service in and out of the raging civil war. The war did not define he or Scarlett, while it left all the other characters in disarray. Scarlett with her brazen uncompromising self interest and Rhett’s being an outcast, they were the powerful players in the book for me.
The experience of living with this book for the 5 weeks at the beach, with it’s views of people I didn’t see in life around me stayed with me, a place I had as a measure, a potential that guided my sense of who I wanted to be. There have been times in my life where I know-like Scarlett- I am making a dress out of drapes pulled down from their hangers from a fallen mansion- in order to meet what needs to be met, do what needs to be done. The reservoir of choices available to me in how I saw women through Gone with the Wind, their power, their honesty, their truth definitely was a turn in the road. Not that I didn’t suffer from self doubt for speaking out, not that I didn’t doubt my own motives when speaking out of turn. But a vital seed was planted, and though it would be decades before I recognized its name, this potential came with it a sense of responsibility to live out from the feminism Margaret Mitchell introduced to the world in Gone with the Wind.
Myrtle Beach and the hour less days and presence only of the rhythm of the beach provided that experience in 1950. A return to Myrtle Beach where the ocean sounds and breeze filled my days and opened the way for discoveries daily then will more than likely be a different experience now. Surely. But will it revive the corners of experience ready to be found, awaken a joy that only the full view of the ocean over the last sand hill always provided? Will the promises found in the experience of submitting to the power and surge on each wave met be fulfilled? STay tuned…