To celebrate our 30th anniversary (and to mark my leap from steady paycheck to struggling writer status), my husband and I spent last week in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. We chose Charleston because we wanted to go somewhere we’d never been, that was near enough to drive to but far enough away that we could escape the cold Virginia winter.
Naturally, we spent three of our five days practically snowed in.
“First storm like this we’ve had this decade,” said all the locals.
It wasn’t much by Virginia standards, but it was enough to shut down the city. Even the elegant Ravenel Bridge, the main route to the downtown area, was closed throughout most of our visit. It was opened briefly when temperatures warmed, but quickly closed again when ice falling from the rigging began crashing onto crossing vehicles, apparently annoying drivers in them.
Because we were staying at Mount Pleasant, this meant either taking the alternate route with hundreds of cranky re-routed commuters or staying on the island and seeing the sights there.Initially, I was quite disappointed. I wanted to experience the Charleston I’d been hearing about for so many years, its lovely markets and restaurants, and that legendary Southern charm.
We instead went out to Isle of Palms, and explored Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. It was all quite nice, but cold, and I’d hardly say charming.
Then we met Mazie Brown, a sweetgrass basket weaver with a small stand on Highway 17. Sweetgrass weaving, South Carolina’s official handcraft, is an art only found in this region, and the baskets are sold only in the downtown markets and along this highway. Mazie was one of only a few weavers brave enough to set up shop that day, when cold was warding off potential customers.
From the moment we entered her tiny hut we were charmed. Mazie flashed us a wide and welcoming grin, and commenced to chatting as if we were old friends.
“You’re lucky you come by when you did,” she said. “Soon the only place you’ll see baskets like this is in the museums.”
Mazie talked about her art, which she’d been practicing since she was 6, and this stand, which her Mama had established 29 years ago and which Mazie had taken over after retiring from her nursing career. While I listened, I pulled down some of her creations, running my fingers along the intricate patterns woven from grasses and palms.
“Those dark parts is pine and bullrush,” she said, pride emanating from her deep brown eyes. “And that’s palmetto, holdin’ it all together.”
Her weathered hands stayed busy, braiding a stalk of sweetgrass into a circle, the way her Mama had taught her: in the Gullah tradition maintained more than 300 years by Africans brought to America in slavery.
“It’s dyin’ though,” she said. “My children want nothin’ to do with it. They don’t have the patience…rather play on their textin’ machines.”
My husband held up a serving platter that she said took about two and a half days of weaving to complete. What a shame this art might disappear. We’ve since learned that not only is the coming generation losing interest, but regional development is depleting the sweetgrass supply. Access to the grasslands is limited; harvesters travel nearly 90 miles to find grass, or they buy it like Mazie does.
“When I was a girl, I used to go with my Daddy to pull it up,” she said. “Wouldn’t do that today. There’s so many snakes in the grasses now.”
We purchased the platter and asked her to sign the back. Her face lit up afresh and she pulled a sharpie of her pocket; our request wasn’t original.
“Some folks don’t want ‘em signed, but I’m always happy to do it,” she said.
As she carefully spelled out her name on the evenly spaced palmetto coils, Mazie continued to talk about her family, being alone despite two marriages, surviving cancer seven years now, and about her love for the weaving craft. We could have listened for hours; she had such a sweet storytelling gift.
So enchanted was I by Miss Mazie, I did something I rarely do, as anyone who knows me will attest. I wanted to have my picture taken with her. I could tell when I asked that she shared my loathing for the camera, but she obliged (albeit, never looking into the lens). Jerry and I both felt compelled to hug her goodbye.
We eventually got to the city, to a few good restaurants (shout out to Page’s Okra Grill!) and to the market where baskets similar to Maize’s were triple the price and stalls were just business establishments. After Mazie, it was a bit anticlimactic.
I’m not sure we would have met Maize if not for the weather; I’m so glad we did. To me, she is now family. To me, she is Charleston. And a lovely, charming place it is.