Halfway to the coast, Genny announced that she hadn’t brought a gun. I glanced at the glove compartment of the Toyota Corolla with a sting of surprise and relief. Her nephew had given her shooting lessons for her last birthday, when she’d turned 76, but apparently she’d decided not to take up the offer of a pistol for our road trip. “They say you shouldn’t have a gun if you have any doubt whether you would shoot it or not,” said Genny, turning her eyes from the road to look at me. “I don’t own a gun, but the one thing I do know is: I would shoot.”
We were only two hours into our trip, and I was already nervous about what else I might learn about Genny on our way. We had been pen pals since a chance meeting in North Carolina four years ago; she was an avid reader and a curious soul, and our shared love of books and meeting new people had kept us corresponding after I returned home to England. But Genny rarely talked about herself. The idea that she—at five feet tall with white hair and impeccable Southern manners—might be the Thelma to my Louise had never occurred to me.
Outside the passenger window, the yellow wash of South Carolina’s soy fields gave way to clouds of cotton, ready for harvest. I considered what I did know. Like me, Genny had lived alone in a city most of her life—Charlotte in her case, London in mine. Like me, she had never married. Our shared circumstances had forged a bond that made us feel, instinctively, that we would be good traveling companions. So I’d asked Genny if she’d take a trip with me, and we’d chosen the coast of South Carolina, a place she knew and loved.
Since one of our common interests was history, Genny had suggested a drive down to Charleston and on to Savannah, so I could learn something about our two countries’ shared past. We met in Charlotte, jumped in Genny’s Corolla, and headed first to Pawleys Island, north of Charleston and just south of Myrtle Beach. It’s a thin strip of land that you reach by bridge, crossing a narrow inlet of reedy marsh. The town’s population stands at around 100, and a good handful of residents work at the Sea View Inn. Genny had been a regular visitor to the nearby beaches since she was a young woman working in Charlotte, and the inn, a white, two-story structure right on the shoreline, was one of her favorite haunts.
From the moment we arrived, I could see why she loved it. A porch out back led down to the golden sands, as if the vast ocean beyond were its own private infinity pool. On previous visits, Genny said, she’d been visited by swarms of migrating butterflies as she sat on the deck. This time, it was the other guests—a group of old university friends holding a reunion; a rowdy crew of flower arrangers—who alighted on the loungers near us in inquisitive flocks.
Even the mannequins in the shop windows adhered to a strict smart-casual dress code.
They carried books and pretended to read until they could start a conversation. Genny and I attracted particular attention. “Are y’all related?” We took turns giving our story at each new inquiry. No, she wasn’t my grandmother. Yes, this was an English accent. When the sun went down, we abandoned the porch for the comfortable living room–lobby that took up most of the downstairs. It gave the place a communal feel—like a youth hostel, but for retirees—and talk turned to collard greens recipes and the price of gas.
We were sharing a small and slightly breezy room; the next morning I woke to find Genny bolt upright in her bed, like a kid at Christmas. Despite her excitement, there was little more to do than enjoy the view—and eat. Three times a day, the bell rang to summon us to the rustic dining room, where Frances, our middle-aged waitress, sang an old gospel tune before dropping large helpings of Southern staples on our tables with rough hospitality.
At the sight of the pink and gray mush on our plates the first morning, Genny’s eyes had lit up. “Ooh, shrimp and grits!” It was, she said, the sort of comfort food that reminded her of being a child. She introduced me to the ingredients on my plate—field peas and “northern beans”—all things that had also grown on her parents’ farm.
Genny had never mentioned the farm before: 60 acres, she said, up in the hills of Oconee County, South Carolina. “Most of what we ate, we’d grown,” she said, “and we canned everything we could for the winter.”
After we left the Sea View and drove south from Pawleys Island, she punctuated the silence with more unexpected observations.
“Once, when I was little, the doctor had to take a fly outta my nose.”
“No, not a fly. A flower.” It turns out I misunderstood her strong Southern accent. “I was reading the National Geographic,” Genny explained, “and there was this woman with a ring in her nose. I thought I’d try it. So I put the flower in one side of my nose and the stem in the other and I breathed in. And it got stuck.”
And, later: “I never went on vacation as a child.” The family couldn’t leave the farm animals, and Genny had escaped, instead, through books. “I did not like to play with dolls,” she said, with a hint of defiance. “Mostly what I did was climb trees and read.” The books introduced her to a world bigger than the rural one around her. She might have trained as a nurse, but you had to be at least 5’ʹ2”; the only other option for a country girl was working as a seamstress in a sewing factory, a monotonous existence. Office life, on the other hand, held a glamorous appeal. She left the family farm at 18—the only one of her siblings not to marry and settle down—and became a bookkeeper.
Charleston arrived suddenly, a narrowing of streets, an outcrop of brick. We took an afternoon walk around its immaculate houses, their climbing plants as groomed as a colonel’s moustache. Inside the historic homes of the colonial town’s slaveholders, well-spoken guides directed our attention to their perfectly proportioned porticos and cornicing that looked like cake decoration. Out on the streets, the residents seemed equally well turned out; even the mannequins in the shop windows adhered to a strict smart-casual dress code.
When we’d had all the elegance we could take, feet aching, we escaped into the first restaurant we saw, begging for hot tea. The bartender, a bearish man named Matt, called us over and set down a couple of Earl Greys for us. “Y’all’d look better with a liquor drink in your hand,” he said. Behind him, a TV previewed a college football game between Clemson and Syracuse. “I grew up just outside Clemson,” said Genny. “I’m from Oconee County.”
“Girl, you sound like it too,” said Matt. “Where’d you run into this redcoat?”
We told him our story. Once Matt realized that Genny wasn’t my grandma, he began telling some of his racier tales, which she rewarded with her full-blown laugh—a sound so louche you’d never believe it came from the prim-looking lady sipping tea. He told us how he’d grown up on James Island—where the locals still spoke Geechee, the patois invented by the slave community—and tried to scare us with Charleston’s ghost stories. Genny had grown up in a haunted house, she said. “I never saw her, but there was supposed to be the ghost of a headless woman hanging her clothes out in our yard. My mother said, ‘Well, if she wants to do my washing, that’s fine with me.’”
On Matt’s advice, we ate low-country food that night at Jestine’s Kitchen. Our red rice and shrimp gumbo, we learned, were dishes invented by slaves forced to supplement their meager rations with whatever they could find for themselves: shrimp caught in the sea, or tomatoes that had rotted off the vine.
I have always been a sucker for a large country estate, and Middleton Place, built in the 18th century by an English family on a 65-acre spread, was an easy detour on our way to Savannah. The green, wooded landscape reminded me powerfully of the English countryside. Walking through its gardens, inspired by the palace of Versailles, I really felt at peace beside the butterfly-shaped ponds, where wading birds stood like statues of themselves. Then I looked beyond, to the swelling acreage of its rice fields, where hundreds of slaves had been forced to work, and I felt squeamish.
Of the Middleton family’s palatial home, only one wing remained. Union troops had razed the rest. A guide showed us around its treasures: the family silver, a collection of rare manuscripts. One exhibit case held an embroidered rice sack. It had contained the only possessions of a nine-year-old girl named Ashley who was separated from her mother, Rose, when Ashley was sold to another slave owner. Stitching on the front of the sack, added in 1921 by Ashley’s granddaughter, recorded that it had held “a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans and a braid of Rose’s hair,” and that the pair had never seen each other again. (Since our visit, “Ashley’s Sack” has been sent on long-term loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.)
Some distance from the house, a clapboard cabin now named Eliza’s House had been maintained to represent the slaves’ quarters. Genny looked at its generous two rooms with skepticism: “I don’t know how many slept in here but I doubt all the slave quarters were this nice.” We moved on to the stable yards, where pigs snorted contentedly and Genny petted a miniature goat. They’d once had a billy goat on her family farm, she told me, but it got loose on its first day and destroyed her mother’s washing. It was gone by nightfall.
I told her I’d like to see where she grew up. “Really? There’s nothing much there, you know.” I looked around at the indolent acres stretching in every direction. Yes, I said. That’s the history I want to see.
Later, when we arrived in Savannah, we mapped out our new plan on a restaurant napkin. We’d have to limit our time in Savannah to 24 hours, just enough time to take a bus tour and eat some of the local food. Genny didn’t mind; she’d visited Savannah in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s. The spacious network of streets and squares leading down to the busy waterfront hadn’t changed much since. The town remained one of the loveliest she’d ever seen, she said, and as we passed by wrought iron fences and ancient trees, I felt the same.
We talked about men and religion and politics, and in each case discovered that we had more in common than we’d ever known.
Savannah projected a calm stateliness that made you speak a little softer, walk a little taller. The driver on our bus tour didn’t even curse when a thoughtless motorist suddenly pulled out in front of us. “Bless his heart,” he intoned in a buttery drawl. It turned out that this was the Savannah equivalent of dropping the f-bomb on someone. Our driver told us proudly that he was a ninth-generation Savannahian whose family moved here in 1741, just eight years after the city was founded. He pointed to the Spanish moss that hung like angel hair on the branch of every tree, lending an antique charm, and offered a secret about it: “It ain’t Spanish, and it ain’t moss.”
At lunchtime, he dropped us off at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, where the line stretched so far down the street that some passersby mistook it for a soup kitchen. Inside, we met the current Mrs. Wilkes, a tidy lady in her 40s; her grandmother, Sema, had opened the establishment in 1943, and Sema’s recipes were still being used to produce hearty, family-style meals served at large communal tables. “Down here, every meal is a hug,” she said with a smile.
We sat with strangers who passed along dozens of steaming dishes—and advice: “Don’t waste too much space on those cucumbers! You’ve still got the fried okra to come!” I took their warnings to heart and still had a plate groaning with food: a salty puff of mashed potato, fried chicken so juicy I made a rash vow never to eat anyone else’s. Genny endorsed it all—“good country cooking,” she nodded—but took issue with the notion it was a typical dinner. “You’d have to be cookin’ all mornin’!”
It was hard to leave Savannah, but the journey north would be a long one, with a stop in Greenville. As the interstate miles slid beneath us, we looked ahead and talked of the past. Genny told me of her twin sister, who had died at seven months old. We talked about men and religion and politics and the contents of our fridges, and in each case discovered that we had more in common than we’d ever known.
We arrived in Greenville under a bright crescent moon, and left the next morning to a crisp blue sky. The highway led us through small towns, past dollar stores and dilapidated auto shops, until we turned off onto country roads. They undulated beneath us, the trees changing from green to brown to red the farther we climbed into the hills. Leaves fell in flurries and made strange music as they swirled around the underside of the car.
Genny was navigating by instinct and half-remembered landmarks—left at the first sight of Six-Mile Mountain, right at the church her family attended. An enormous lake appeared, fringed to its very edge with trees. I asked if Genny had swum in it as a kid. No, she said: The dam that created it hadn’t been built until the ’60s. “If you dive, they say, you can still see the old farmhouses beneath the water.”
Eventually we reached a set of traffic lights. “Walhalla,” she announced triumphantly. Settled by German farmers out of Charleston, the town was where her parents had driven once a month to buy flour and sugar and anything else they couldn’t grow on the farm, and where her father sold his surplus. We cruised along the main street and spotted a bank. “I think one of my great-nephews works there,” Genny said. “Now I’ve got to think of what his name is . . . Chris! Let’s go see.”
Chris, the vice president of the bank, was a giant of a man. He bent at the waist to kiss his diminutive great-aunt, and his face was a kaleidoscope of curiosity at the surprise visit. It was only 11:30 in the morning, but he took us for lunch anyway. Martha’s, the town diner, was already full of regulars, of whom Chris was clearly one. We took a seat and ordered chicken noodle soup and crackers. “So,” said Chris. “How did y’all meet?”
We told it once more, our story, now worn as smooth as a pebble in a riverbed. At home among her countryfolk, Genny’s accent had thickened. We told Chris about the places we’d seen, the bars we’d visited. “This is the South, we can’t be talking about drinking,” he laughed, and winked. “I don’t drink, you don’t drink . . . ” Genny threw her head back and unloosed her outrageous laugh.
Chris went back to the bank, and we set off on our final pilgrimage. The miles passed more slowly now; country roads endlessly revealed themselves. Passing a road sign for Geraldine Drive—“it was named for my sister”—we pulled off onto gravel that led up a hill, through a pasture alive with wildflowers.
At the crest stood a pretty house no more than 30 years old. Genny had never lived in it. The old home place where she and her siblings had grown up had burned down one night, long after the children left home; Genny’s father had carried her mother from the fire. Her sisters had married young and built lives nearby—only Genny had moved away in search of an independent life.
Even now, she said, she wished she’d seen more of the world. “I’d have liked to’ve been a nomad,” she sighed. “It’s a shame we don’t have several lives to live.” But I could see that she still took pleasure in these surroundings, and they gave me joy, too. The fields rolled away into folds of forest, and beyond to the Blue Ridge Mountains, their gray mass seeming to calve the earth from the sky. Close by, a huge tree offered its branches, and Genny surveyed it with a tinge of longing. “I’d like to climb it now,” she said. “But I reckon the farmer would have to come and get me down.”
We returned to the highway and drove in the direction of Charlotte. A towering slab of mountain came into view, and Genny told me to pull over. I gazed across the road at Table Rock’s towering escarpment; beneath it, woods spilled down the valley toward a small clearing. A red-roofed barn stood in the lee of the trees. “My father was born on this land,” she told me, “in 1899.”
I looked at my extraordinary friend. I considered the journey we’d shared, and all we had found in common. And I wondered what magic had eradicated the years between us.