The joke writes itself: our 80-pound baby, carefully buckled in the backseat next to our actual baby. It is the morning of our third annual trip to Edisto Island, and though our poor sedan is already straining under all the accoutrements of beach-going (did I mention we have a baby?), it feels entirely essential to wrestle an 80-pound ceramic, charcoal-fired grill in with everything else. Yes, our rental house has a standard, salt-rusted grill we could have used. Yes, our car is visibly dragging a bit under the weight. Yes, this is how we travel.
Edisto became our beach by way of a cheap rental a few years ago. We had a pool of friends and a pot of money; when we found a house that fit our budget, we scooped it up. We didn’t know how quiet Edisto was, how undisturbed, how boring. The island has only a handful of restaurants, a single, overpriced grocery store (a defining truth of all beach grocery stores), and huge taps at the local fire station where you have to fill jugs with fresh water for drinking and cooking every day. This would be outrageous to my mother—a vacation where you have to cook and haul your own water? We found it delightful and serendipitous. We were already a crew of friends who loved to cook and planned to make most of our meals at the beach house; the constraints provided by Edisto’s sheer lack of restaurants only spurred us on.
In fact, so much of what we now consider core to our Edisto trips came serendipitously. That first year, no one had babies yet and we were free to while away the hours without ever looking at a clock. We’d linger on the beach all day, salty and sun-soaked, until someone felt moved to meander back to the house, put out some olives and chips, and stir together some pre-dinner cocktails. If we got bored midday, we’d go for a drive, windows down. The roads leading away from the beach are shaded by overhanging trees and moss, and driving them feels like being shuttled through a smooth tunnel of shadow and sunlight. We discovered George & Pink on one of these drives. A long road led us to a small, dirt-floor vegetable stand. Inside, baskets and buckets were brimming with late-summer South Carolina produce, just a glory of tomatoes and sweet corn and squash. When the owner rang us up, we asked curiously, “So, what’s the story behind the name?”
She cocked an eyebrow at us and shot back incredulously, “I’m Pink!” As it turns out, George is her father. Pink Brown runs this charming veggie stand year-round, and we have returned every year to stock up for the week. Pink pointed us to Flowers Seafood Co., a tiny blue hut where a family-owned Edisto shrimp boat drops off its daily catch.
We bought more shrimp than we truly needed because, honestly, how can you pass up fresh Carolina shrimp at the beach? I remember later that night we had okra and sweet corn on the grill, tomatoes so perfect they only needed salt, and a big tray of roasted sausage, shrimp, and new potatoes. We drank beer or crisp white wine while we cooked. “Can you toss me the smoked paprika?” someone shouted from outside by the grill.
Every night, there is a mountain of dishes, but I don’t really mind. We listen to music, wipe counters sticky from the day’s margaritas, scrub pots, prep the coffee pot for a friendly morning. Determined to get good use from the grill we hauled down here, I lay fresh pineapple slices on the grate over still-warm embers. By the time they’re warm and smoky to serve with vanilla ice cream, someone has dealt cards for a game of BS. It’s my first time playing this card game, and it only takes two rounds for the rest of the table to see what I cannot: I am unspeakably bad at BS. Every time I slap my cards down, I am confident that this time, I am cool and impassable, that no one can figure me out. And every single time, my bluff is called immediately. The room is giddy with laughter, I am flushed and caught in the topsy-turvy kaleidoscope of desperately losing poker players or bombing stand-up comedians: how can I possibly fail so significantly when I’m trying so hard? I resolve to do better; a new tradition is born.
After a few days of books and bocce by the ocean, someone googles local attractions and we make our way to Botany Bay—a pristine, otherworldly place. Designated as a 3,000-plus-acre heritage preserve, Botany Bay includes a stretch of undeveloped beach known for its “boneyard” of dead trees and driftwood. The stark silhouettes of these trees, weathered and whitened from years of saltwater, charge the landscape with a remarkable energy. Other visitors were there, but we didn’t pay them much mind. The place is too wondrous and solemn, a church sanctuary for sea gulls. Botany Bay’s vast sprawl also houses the remains of Sea Cloud Plantation and accompanying historical displays, although we usually spend all our time on the shore. It’s the kind of place our parents would have taken us—free, educational, historical, made for a packed picnic lunch—although, of course, our parents are not here.
My husband’s family has been vacationing in the same Myrtle Beach condos for over 30 years. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, girlfriends—all are welcome. After dating him just a few months, I was warmly initiated into their family beach traditions, which have not changed in decades. The 7am trek down to the beach to claim a spot and install what feels like one thousand beach umbrellas in the sand. The daily lunch of crab-spread sandwiches and snickerdoodles—both of which have been prepared ahead of time and transported down to Myrtle Beach in ancient Tupperware. The nightly dinner routine, wherein we set off down The Strip, freshly showered and sandaled, in search of the same chain restaurants we visit every year.
For a while, I thought our way was better, as younger generations typically do. Even now, when I picture our lingering dinners on the screened-in porch or early morning shell-hunting expeditions with our sons, I feel a small flush of pride and a great thrill of anticipation. After all, Edisto is the family vacation we are building, not the one we were born into.
But what is family if not doing the same stuff with the same people the same way, over and over? Cooking epic dinners together in a humid beach kitchen is as much familial glue as an avocado-hued Tupperware full of crab spread. Don’t both bring us closer? It no longer matters if the expensive chain restaurant is good, if the shops are cheesy, if the food is authentic. What matters is that we’re here, all of us, again.
This summer marks our fourth trip to Edisto with the same friends who have been with us from the start. There will be four kids in tow, because somehow, we are onto our second child. Some of the easy, languorous rhythms from before are less effortless now, likely clogged up from the gallons of 50 SPF sunscreen we bathe our small children in every two hours. Once, I could go down to the beach with a towel, a book, and a drink in hand. Now I have a baby on my hip and a flotilla of plastic beach toys hanging off my shoulder.
And yet—in the midst of growing families and shifting schedules, the traditions we created by accident on our first trip have only become more cemented as What We Do at the Beach. I imagine it was this way for our parents, too. I don’t know if we’ll keep coming to Edisto every year, but if we do, I hope my boys will feel the island’s charms the way we do. It’s just as likely they won’t. Will they roll their eyes at our daily trips to the veggie stand? Will they find our big dinners on the porch to be a disappointing substitute for exciting vacation dinners out? Will they want to trade our quiet, shell-strewn beach for bright lights and tacky surf shops?
The line between rituals we love and rituals of love is so thin it disappears sometimes.
Every family falls into its own rhythm. Like our parents, we’ve found one that feels right to us. What we share though—what we all share—is a love for South Carolina’s coast. And although miles of shore stretch between their vacation spot and ours, the unchanging tide rolls in just the same.
Originally published in July 2018. Photography by Jivan Davé