Because of its devotional, graceful attraction to food and gardens and architecture, Charleston stands for all the principles that make living well both a civic virtue and a standard. It is a rapturous, defining place to grow up. Everything I reveal to you now will be Charleston-shaped and Charleston-governed, and sometimes even Charleston-ruined. But it is my fault and not the city's that it came close to destroying me. Not everyone responds to beauty in the same way. Though Charleston can do much, it can't always improve on the strangeness of human behavior. But Charleston has a high tolerance for eccentricity and bemusement. There is a tastefulness in its gentility that comes from the knowledge that Charleston is a permanent dimple in the understated skyline, while the rest of us are only visitors.
My father was an immensely gifted science teacher who could make the beach at Sullivan's Island seem like a laboratory created for his own pleasures and devices. He could pick up a starfish, or describe the last excruciating moments of an oyster's life on a flat a hundred yards from where we stood. He made Christmas ornaments out of the braceletlike egg casings of whelks. In my mother's gardens he would show me where the ladybug disguised her eggs beneath the leaves of basil and arugula. In the Congaree Swamp, he discovered a new species of salamander that was named in his honor. There was no butterfly that drifted into our life he could not identify by sight.
At night, he would take my brother, Steve, and I out into the boat to the middle of Charleston Harbor and make us memorize the constellations. He treated the stars as though they were love songs written to him by God. With such reverence he would point out Canis Major, the hound of Orion, the Hunter; or Cygnus, the Swan; or Andromeda, the Chained Lady; or Cassiopeia, the Lady in the Chair. My father turned the heavens into a fresh puzzlement of stars: "Ah, look at Jupiter tonight. And red Mars. And isn't Venus fresh on her throne?" A stargazer of the first order, he squealed with pleasure on the moonless nights when the stars winked at him in some mysterious, soul- stirring graffiti of ballet-footed light. He would clap his hands with irresistible joy on a cloudless night when he made every star in the sky a silver dollar in his pocket.
He was more North Star than father. His curiosity about the earth ennobled his every waking moment. His earth was billion-footed, with unseen worlds in every drop of water and every seedling and every blade of grass. The earth was so generous. It was this same earth that he prayed to because it was his synonym for God.