She came to the lonely cemetery with something special in her hand.
It’s a gold-toned guardian angel coin.
Elizabeth McCormick of Woodstock, Georgia, has come to a neatly kept Gullah cemetery on a back road of St. Helena Island to visit the grave of author Pat Conroy of Beaufort.
Her coin finds immediate company atop the tombstone. There’s a 1944 penny, a rosary, a couple of shells and a graceful little spray of Spanish moss.
“I know he’s with the angels, and I hope to be there one day with him,” she says. “Because I think he was just a magnificent human being, and I do think he was God’s greatest gift to the state of Carolina.”
From beyond the grave, Conroy still pulls people into the Lowcountry. It’s the real Lowcountry. Its beauty is more subtle than the lush descriptions of marsh vistas that Conroy handed to the world like a guardian angel coin.
A chainsaw whines through the pine barrens. Dogs bark in the distance and crows squawk overhead. Across the street stands a tall board fence with warnings to keep out. Around the corner is a house painted blue, a field of collards, and a bottle tree. An oleander takes root nearby, a gift of The Citadel class of 1967, planted by his friend and classmate John Warley.
“Some of his stories are my stories,” the visitor says before her driver comes to get her. “It still breaks my heart.”
The St. Helena Memorial Garden cemetery belongs to historic Brick Baptist Church, out on the main road, across from Penn Center.
Brick Baptist is an elegant place built in 1855 by slave labor. When slave owners fled federal occupation, the church became one of the earliest symbols of Reconstruction, and was recently included in the new Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County.
“Pat always loved a story,” says his wife, Cassandra King, guessing why he requested to be buried there.
Pastor Abraham Murray had not heard of Conroy’s desire until after his death.
“It was just that he identified for whatever reason with the (Gullah) community,” Murray said. “We really didn’t get into why he chose our cemetery.”
It is rare, to say the least, for a white person to be buried in any of the dozens of Gullah cemeteries tucked here and there throughout the county.
The burial ground in the Brick Baptist churchyard includes monuments to the two Northern women who devoted their lives to the Penn School, which used the sanctuary as a classroom for 130 children right around the school’s founding in 1862. It includes the grave of York Bailey, the first to rise from those Gullah roots to become a medical doctor.
Around the corner in the St. Helena Memorial Garden, established by the church in 1971, are buried others “who dedicated their lives to the betterment of the community,” Murray said. That includes Leroy E. Brown Sr., the first black elected to public office here after Reconstruction.
Next to Conroy is Agnes Sherman, a fellow inductee into Penn Center’s 1862 Circle, its highest honor to recognize “leaders who embody the spirit of Penn Center and who serve as national advocates for the enduring history and culture of the Sea Islands.”
Conroy tells in his 2013 book, “The Death of Santini,” that the 1862 Circle award in 2011 brought him full circle because it acknowledged him as an educator, in addition to author and Gullah culture advocate.
Conroy writes that Penn Center leadership had not sided with him in 1971 when he appealed his firing by the Beaufort County School District following his year of teaching on Daufuskie Island. He was accused of insubordination and “conduct unacceptable for a professional educator.” But his experience in the classroom there became his first major book, “The Water Is Wide,” and first movie, “Conrack.”
In colorful language, Conroy told the audience at the black-tie banquet that he thought he was right in 1971 and “even more right today.” And the audience stood and applauded when he asked if he didn’t get those “mean-ass white folks who fired me” back.
“At long last, that circle closed,” Conroy wrote.
Pastor Murray says something may have to be done about the trinkets.
Conroy’s gravestone is nice, but not ostentatious. It does not stand out in a neat cemetery with a number of large stones and a number of graves without stones.
His is almost like a novelette, of course, with these words engraved by the image of a palmetto tree and crescent: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” He is called a “ beloved American writer” and on the stone is his familiar signature, which he signed so often for so many strangers in so many long lines in so many towns. Beneath that is: “The Prince of Tides.”
Even before the marker went up, people placed bleached conch shells on the freshly turned sand.
Now the gravesite is filled with mementos, all herded neatly within a border of pine cones.
Several guardian angel coins lie among pennies, dimes and a case quarter or two. An engraved cricket holds down a $10 note of Hong Kong currency. Also there are a softball, a tiny basketball, camellia leaves, a Spiderman action figure, a cigar, sand dollars, pencils, pens, flowers, a military-style watch, a mini-bottle of bourbon, oyster shells and a medallion from Fernbank Elementary School near where Conroy lived in Atlanta.
Among several handwritten notes in a little mailbox-like affair is one that says, “Dear Pat, my memory of you and your words will always be etched in my heart.” Others say, “Tell me a story, Pat.”
Several poems are sealed in plastic bags. One bag contains a splinter of wood and this note: “A piece of the Huger’s house on Sullivan’s Island, where Pat spent many hours visiting with the family on the upstairs porch in the late ’60s.”
Pastor Murray says there have been no problems with a celebrity being buried in the quiet, out-of-the-way cemetery.
But he added: “There are a lot of trinkets on the grave. We have allowed that to go for now, but pretty soon that’s going to have to be discontinued. It’s just not part of the rules and regulations of the cemetery. It’s nothing against him, but if you allow it for one person, you would have to allow it for all.”
King, like her late husband a successful novelist on the national stage, had one of her toughest deadlines a month after he died. She wrote the introduction to “A Lowcountry Heart,” a collection of Conroy’s blogs, letters and essays, which also includes his best friend Bernie Schein’s farewell letter. The book debuted in October at the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort.
King takes us to the cemetery in her introduction. She notes that Arabelle Watson is buried there, from whom the character Arabella Smalls, Toomer’s mother, comes in “The Great Santini.”
And her mind wanders to how Conroy would be meeting and greeting all of his new neighbors.
“They look at each other, rolling their eyes, and some of them cover their mouths and laugh behind his back, King writes.
“But when he comes back with pen and paper, dusting the dirt off his navy blue jacket, they can’t seem to help themselves. One by one they begin to tell their stories, encouraged to go on by the gleam of excitement in his bright eyes.”
King says she’s in a bad place right now.
Friends tell her it’s natural, reliving the last grueling month of her husband’s life.
She’s been busy. She is executor of his literary estate. She went on the road with the book, “A Lowcountry Heart,” mostly to her husband’s favorite independent book stores, like Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
She participated in the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, an offshoot of the celebration of his 70th birthday a year earlier, before anyone knew he was sick.
Jonathan Haupt, who as director of the University of South Carolina Press founded Conroy’s Story River Books imprint, was hired as director of the center. It has an ambitious series of programs set for this spring, and sponsored a daylong tribute to Conroy’s life on March 4, the first anniversary of his death.
She has handled piles of correspondence from Conroy’s readers.
And she is also working on a memoir cookbook. Surely, it will tell about her husband’s adventures in the kitchen.
“Everything Pat did was larger than life,” she said.
He would prepare grand meals laden with butter, heavy cream and bacon fat. Sometimes it was for a crowd, but sometimes it was for the two of them.
“I had to take over the cooking,” she said. “He was diabetic. I had to get to where I made salmon and healthy things.”
King said she bought three plots at the St. Helena Memorial Garden.
“I’m going to be cremated, and I will be there,” she says in her slow, Alabama speech. “I told the girls (Conroy’s daughters) if they wanted to be cremated, there’s plenty of room for all of us.”
After almost 20 years of marriage to Conroy, she knows full well what that means.
People will come, and they will whisper their stories over the distant whines of chainsaws and barking dogs.
Elizabeth McCormick patted her guardian angel coin on Conroy’s tombstone last week before hopping back in her SUV.
“It kind of gives me peace,” she said.