Carolina in My Mind

A novelist reflects on her family summers on Daufuskie Island
Daufuskie Island

Illustration by Oli Winward

An oyster-cloaked, oak-dense, and moss-draped island off the southernmost tip of South Carolina is soaked with myth, stories, and legends, along with a dash of Gullah black-magic curses meant to keep developers away. This eight-square-mile piece of land is Daufuskie Island, and although it is only a ten-minute ferry ride from Hilton Head Island across the Calibogue Sound, it is a million or more miles away in the mind and heart. It is the place of Pat Conroy’s novel The Water is Wide. It is the location of ancient battles, Yamacraw Indian settlements, old indigo plantations, the First Union African Church, and a haunted lighthouse. It is also, and more importantly for me, the place of my children’s childhood and some of our most cherished memories.

The first time I saw the island, in 1989, I felt as if I had fallen into one of my dreams. If there is love at first sight, I experienced it as I stepped off the ferry. Fast forward a couple of years to a steamy August evening: Pat Henry proposed to me in front of the haunted Haig Point Lighthouse. Two years later, my in-laws built a house and moved there. Daufuskie became an enduring thread in the fabric of our family.

It was there, on a spit of land next to the Atlantic, that my children—Meagan, Thomas, and Rusk—ran on long, empty stretches of beach littered with driftwood and arrived home caked with sand in every crack. It is where they rode their bikes on the soft sand pathways and oyster-shell lanes; where they navigated cramped bedrooms when the cousins all piled in together; where they learned to respect currents and tides, and to drop crab traps. It is where they ate at Marshside Mama’s and rooted around to find the potbelly pig that lived under the restaurant, squealing when they found him. It is where we lost ourselves in the undeveloped areas and told each other ghost stories about the Gullah curses. We visited the school where Pat Conroy taught. We adopted a stray kitty from the back porch of the emerging metal artist Chase Allen’s Gullah cottage.

But what we really did on Daufuskie was build childhoods and a family. We didn’t know that’s what we were doing; we thought we were just escaping the chaos of Atlanta for a bit.

Years passed. They tend to do that. All three of those young, platinum-haired, sandy children are now adults. And things have changed on Daufuskie, too.

Marshside Mama’s is gone (though a new restaurant is planned for the space), and a rum distillery has opened. Land has been reclaimed by the ocean, but children still run along the shoreline. Chase Allen is now a well-known artist with a thriving business on the island. And my in-laws are preparing to leave the house in which we gathered for over thirty years. Will we leave Daufuskie when they do? Probably.

But I know this: Daufuskie will never leave us.

Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of fifteen novels, including her most recent book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis (writing as Patti Callahan). The historical novel was the recipient of the 2019 Christy Award for Book of the Year, and Henry was named the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2020.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound magazine.