My father was a lover of history, so many of our family trips were taken to historic sites. Never one to follow the tour, he would “follow” within earshot so he could gobble up the information recited by the guide while wandering around with child-like wonder. It annoyed my Mom to no end as she was often stuck with two very active and curious children. As she describes it, unlike Dad who could in his ADHD hyper-focused way listen without actually being engaged, Mom learned more by staying with the tour group and frantically writing notes. But it was these trips to far-gone places in time that opened up for me an entire world of history, imagination and the characters that filled their spaces.
It’s the trips I take with my own family that make me long for the days my Dad and I eventually merged in our love for history and would wander together. I listened to him intently. Hanging on his every word. I attribute my love for writing and history to him. Whether these be inherited traits or learned, I know not, but my children love history and its many stories. Their imaginations, like mine, like my Dad’s, swimming in the what was. So when I told the family that we were heading back to South Carolina’s lovely Lowcountry and Rice Hope Plantation for an article, everyone literally jumped for joy! This time I was sharing the experience with my Mom as this was as much a part of her history as it was mine. Berkeley County was the home of many of our kin and the plantations they once proudly owned, the rice they grew for profit and yes, the slaves they exploited (a fact not lost on me). But this trip was more about its zany proprietor and her stories than my own family history. Lou Edens, a colorful Lowcountry character who weaves Aesop fable-like stories and whom my Dad would have loved to talk with over a glass of wine while wandering the grounds of the sprawling plantation.
I love a good character and so when I first met Ms. Lou in June 2011 I was hooked. She tells fantastic stories and is a well-spring of historic knowledge about the area. Not to mention she raised peacocks, emus, ostriches, gamecocks, chickens, has an escape-artist of a donkey and his valet, a sheep, owns multiple businesses and is a proud, self-made Southern belle. This post is not long enough to include everything she said, did or made a quick quip about during our visit. Nor is the article I am currently writing about this charming woman. You just have to experience the “Ms. Lou Effect” for yourself. But let me give you a little taste of what you can expect.
We arrived late in the evening. There to greet us at the door was Ms. Lou with a “Hi y’all! Welcome back to Rice Hope!” The house was decorated modestly for Christmas with a small table-top tree she referred to as the “grande fur tree of the manor”. She showed us to our rooms, which the kids remembered and ran up the stairs to without hesitation. “It’s like visiting Mimi’s house except we have to pay!” the kids exclaimed. They were eager to get to sleep so they could wake in the morning and run the grounds looking for lizards and butterflies. We hadn’t the heart to tell them that those creatures were happily sleeping for the winter but Mother Nature had many surprises for them despite the season.
The next morning we were awakened by the smell of breakfast cooking (tomato pie) in the kitchen and children frantically dressing to get out on the grounds for exploration. We gave Mom some extra time to get ready and wake up to the world she was about to experience. Meanwhile we took the children outside to run around and get their sillies out before breakfast. The sight that awaited us was truly one right out of the pages of National Geographic. There are on the river were literally thousands of ducks who had come to stay for the winter. They were all conversing with one another and when a bunch of them decided to take off at once, the sound was like that of a car engine starting. It was amazing. I told Ms. Lou later that I wasn’t sure what the black masses on the river were at first, to which she replied, “I thought they were weeds. But then they started talkin’. I didn’t know weeds could talk!” The ducks covered every inch of the ancient rice fields that lay beneath their webbed feet. Suddenly I heard my daughter cry out, “Look! A bald eagle! No, TWO!” And sure enough, gliding above us were two bald eagles. Paul and I believed them to be Ospry but when I asked Ms. Lou about these birds she said that there were many eagles that nested in the area, especially when the ducks migrated in. Food is abundant both in fish and the occasional isolated duck.
It was finally time for breakfast. The kids hurried inside for they knew they would get a delicious meal and a few stories from the Grande Dame herself. Ethan had presented Ms. Lou with a Mr. Snail story (a character who enjoys life inside Ethan’s vast imagination) when we arrived and wouldn’t you know it but she had a dream about Mr. Snail that night!
“I had a dream about a snail last night. He saw a beautiful tangerine tree in the garden with ripe fruit hanging from it. So he went to pick one to eat it for breakfast but he found that he was too small to reach up and pick it. Suddenly a little boy and girl came by and saw how sad he was. They asked him if they could help him. He said, yes, I can’t seem to be able to reach that lovely fruit. The little boy reached up into the tree and picked a tangerine for the snail. He thanked them and peeled and ate the tangerine and was so happy.”
As she finished the story, both kids hanging on her every word, she walked out the side porch door, plucked a tangerine from the 200 year old tree in the garden and presented it to Ethan who happily ate it. “I’m keeping the seeds to plant them at home, Mom!” A history lesson woven into a fable to thank a little boy for his generous gift of a story; from one storyteller to another.
When you wander through the house and the lush grounds covered in centuries old live oaks dripping with spanish moss, you begin to feel the presence of the many people who populated it throughout its long history. The ghosts of the past are everywhere shading themselves under the trees, working the rice fields, hunting fowl, lounging on the porch. My Dad would have been in absolute heaven. We were the only guests that weekend and Ms. Lou makes it clear that the house is yours while you stay with her.
As I interviewed her, she proudly talked about the rich history of the Lowcountry, her people and the camellias that graced her garden. One camellia is said to be the oldest bush in South Carolina at 200 years old and 10 feet high. Mom remarked that Dad would have been out here either bargaining to buy the property or plotting his next gardening move at home in Roswell. But Ms. Lou is not parting with Rice Hope. She and my Dad were of the same mindset, history is meant to be shared. She bought the property when it came up for sale in 1996 because as she said, it looked like a good business opportunity. She had been selling furniture to the previous owners for years. “I had a booming BnB in Mt. Pleasant so I thought, why not a Town and Country theme, with the overflow from the beach property coming to Rice Hope.” Whether or not that venture is paying off is definitely not the point. She loves this old plantation and its history. It’s part of her now.
But wait, one more Ms. Lou story!
“I live between two Heirs properties which were part of the old Seaside Plantation. After the war, plantations were divided up and given to the slaves. Each family was given 40 acres and mule. Many of the families still live on their properties. Anyway, the family next door has built about 5 homes. They party it up all the time over there. Music, dancing, fighting. I had 31 gamecocks at one point…until last Easter. Every morning my chickens come to my back door for a sort of communion. Easter morning we had our little communion and then they headed next door to watch the show. That family had all the grills out, loud music, singing they were celebrating the risen Lord all day. The next morning as I went to feed my chickens I noticed I only had three left. Those people had eaten 29 skinny gamecocks! I wasn’t upset, I was tired of buying corn. I’m back up to 15 now. New Year’s is coming so I am sure the neighbors will help me thin the flock.”
This fascinating woman isn’t a Hollywood starlet. She doesn’t wear the latest fashion. She doesn’t drive a fancy car. But she is full of pride, history and stories that will captivate you. You have to be willing to listen. I wander through life now much like my Dad did. He taught me that you have to listen while you wander then share what you have learned with others through stories. My Dad is the subject of many of my stories because I have learned so much from him. I think he and Ms. Lou would have been great friends. As much as the trip was about her history, I quickly realized I was listening to my own and reliving my past, the ghost of my Dad walking beside me amongst the camellias.