Last week I had the privilege of spending time with old and dear friends in Charleston, South Carolina. Thanks to Beth – our hostess with the absolute mostest – we explored a truly captivating city with rich history and a language all of its own.
Gullah is a West African/Anglo/Creole language created in the “low country” when slaves were first brought to Charleston in the early 1600s. Their creative linguistic conglomeration bridged the communication chasm between slave and master.
“Binya” means you were born in Charleston and “Kumya” means you’re visiting. The Charlestonians have adopted some Gullah into their everyday already lilting Southern accent. Accents are my thing, so my ears were in a state of elation – though oft a tad confused.
If a word ends in “er” like together, in Charlstoneese it becomes “togethah” river = “rivah.” You get the picture.
Amidst old money and older atrocities, we wondered the fascinating city. We felt four-hundred-year-old cobblestones indenting our arches through our comfiest shoes, smelt the fresh manure from cabby tours and the perfume of wild jasmine, heard the rustle of old ghosts having trouble crossing over, and took in colorful, handmade buildings that survived wars, earthquakes, fires, storms and floods to name but a few of Charleston’s centuries of challenges.
But nothing stirred me like the fairytale-esque Angel Tree.
This natural wonder is a live oak spanning 28 ft in circumference, 66.5 ft in height, producing 17,200 sq.ft. of shade. Experts estimate it’s at least between 400 and 500 years old but, many consider it closer to 1300 years old.
There, under nature’s massive umbrella, we friends stood, awestruck by the Angel Tree’s beauty and her fight with gravity that inevitably comes with old age (sigh). Called “Angel” after the estate of Justus Angel on St. Johns Island on which she grows without any pomp or ceremony. Some feel her name’s attributed rather to the ghosts of former slaves whom sometimes appear as angels around the tree. No doubt there are a million stories surrounding this phenomenon.
It’s more fitting that her name comes from the help she gets to keep her heavy boughs turning upward towards the light. Perhaps a hundred angels lift those heavy burdens towards heaven.
Her mammoth trunk pulls earth’s nutrients to sustain her massive world. Her trunk I equate to life’s essentials: food, water, love, home, safety. Then from this wholesome base, independent healthy branches grow out at different angles and inclinations like friends, same but different. We constantly search for sunlight, falling then rising again, leaning toward other branches which may change our course for a time. But no matter what, we are inevitably pulled back to those branches we know well and love deeply. It’s where we find our truth and our peace.
Recently, Hurricane Irma did her best to harm this magnificent tree, but to no avail, though some of her heaviest branches have been propped up by the kindness of man and large wooden pylons help her gain her equilibrium. I reckon it’s only until the angels are finished with more pressing matters and can return en masse to hold up the weight of the thick, gnarly branches until they are strong enough to point themselves towards the light. So it is with friendship. If we need a crutch, one of us will always be there to prop the other up until we can make it on our own.
And so, as we old friends gather and share kinship, wisdoms, and laughter, our limbs and our truths are lightened by burdens shared and lifted by laughter. We part, restored by new memories and can once again branch off bravely, toward the sunlight.
So…here is my spin, which will no doubt jar the delicate southern sensitivities and sensibilities of the Charlestonians, but I am a brave woman:
If you’re in Charleston and you hear “Kumya” know that it may indeed be thah Angel Tree calling you to huh, so she can whisper and urge you to look beyond thah obvious.
If you hear “Binya” don’t be blasé and think, “I’ve binthah done that.” Remembah who-ev-ah you ah, like The Angel Tree, you too will have to fight to find the sunshine.
So, Kumya one and all to Charleston, and stretch out and touch the solid, timeless branches leaning towards you. They will give you the strength you need to reach all the way to heaven.