It Starts With Tea and That Stands For Trouble
This month, Rheta visits a tea-room in another coastal community and reflects on the lifestyle that makes the Mississippi Gulf Coast unique.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I once, for instance, swooned over St. Simons Island, Ga., my throw-a-dart-at-the-map honeymoon destination in 1974. I actually lived there one year as a clueless newlywed. My former husband and I, not long out of journalism school, soon headed back to the island and tried to start a weekly newspaper, which lasted all of 26 weeks. We threw 3,000 freebie newspapers to every fine home on the swell island, trying to convince advertisers and ourselves that The St. Simons Sun was a good idea. I recommend the exercise as a sure-fire diet.
I was too tired to cry when it became obvious The Sun was setting forever. We packed the VW van with our hippie furniture and slunk back home. It was obvious we belonged in landlocked Alabama, not on a fantasy island.
I’ve been back to St. Simons, of course, a couple of times. But that melon-colored place is so over-populated now, with so many golf holes punched into its manicured landscape, I don’t see how it still floats. It’s over.
There was a 1970’s fling with Ocracoke Island, N.C., which, once upon a time, I deemed a dream retirement zone. It’s easy to think that way while cycling the Outer Banks in the month of May. When I returned 20 years later, I knew it wasn’t happening. Despite chockablock houses, cost of living is high, availability low.
Even in Florida, I once grew misty-eyed. Apalachicola seemed bona fide, but then developers found it. Now you can’t swing an oyster shuck without hitting a boutique. Not to mention it’s surrounded by, well, Florida.
The Mississippi Coast is different, and oddly sturdy, a hybrid. I like to think of it as what would happen if the old Florida Panhandle and New Orleans had a love child. In my mind, it’s imperfectly perfect.
So I had to be extra careful not to gloat recently while visiting my husband’s son and family at their new beach house. They have a nice cottage on North Carolina’s Ocean Isle Beach, a pretty and evocative name that’s nonetheless impossible to remember in the correct sequence. Beach Ocean Isle. Isle Ocean Beach. At any rate, it’s not far from the South Carolina state line and Myrtle Beach.
My husband has two beautiful granddaughters, and they don’t yet know what to make of me. Being the grandfather’s relatively new wife is like being a pimple on prom night. I try not to draw attention to myself.
The teenage girls wanted to go to a tea room in Calabash, the nearest town of any size to Ocean Isle, or OCB as the decals say. A tea room? At the beach? Bikini optional?
I agreed to go, of course, because that’s what a new family member does. And I was a sport, picking out a Derby-worthy hat from the tea room rack, same as the girls. We looked like a Disney film from our necks up.
We sat at a window table, and the oldest granddaughter demonstrated how to pour tea properly. And we ate all the pretty but meager finger foods that arrived on a silver triple-tier while talking about their future weddings and other gauzy topics. It beat volleyball.
I think I was popular, briefly.
The outing made me think. Maybe all Pass Christian needs to make it complete is a grocery store and a tea room, not necessarily in that order. A place where mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, engaged couples, anniversary celebrants, christening participants, badly sunburned visitors and others could go to take stock and have tea.
Already we have an oil and vinegar store and a cigar bar. Can a tea room be far behind?
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a 40-year veteran of Southern journalism and author of several books (see below). She has worked as a columnist for newspapers in Memphis and Atlanta and today is syndicated by King Features of New York.
She writes original monthly essays for The Cleaver from her home across the bridge in Pass Christian where she spends roughly half of each year. The rest of the time she lives in Iuka, Miss., in an old farmhouse in a cold, dark hollow.