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Fewer local workers crossing the bridge from Bluffton

Roberta Morrell rolled over in the bed she shared with her 1-year-old daughter and slipped quietly from the covers to dress for her first day of work.

The 15-year-old kept the room dark so as not to wake her sleeping child, who would then yowl for food and attention. Just in case, Roberta kept a bottle warm to plunk in her child’s mouth at the first signs of stirring.

On this morning in 1982, Roberta had no time for distractions. She was reporting for duty at a Pope Avenue steakhouse in three hours, and needed every minute to make the 18-mile trip from her home on Bluffton’s Bruin Road.

Back then, nearly all of southern Beaufort County’s hospitality jobs were on Hilton Head Island. So workers like Roberta who lived in Bluffton, northern Beaufort County and even surrounding counties made long commutes to work.

Today, that’s increasingly not the case. Greater Bluffton’s population and economy is exploding, bringing a spate of new restaurant, grocery store and retail jobs. Workers are now choosing the Bluffton jobs, which are closer to home, over those on Hilton Head.

In June, it proved too tempting for Roberta to ignore. At 50 years old, she joined the growing ranks of local hospitality workers abandoning their long commutes for one of those coveted openings on their side of the bridge.

Hard at work

But 34 years ago, the money was still on the island, and Roberta needed money.

Her daughter, Nina, deserved new little sandals, shirts and pants, and bows in every color to match everything she wore. Roberta pictured the girl in a fresh Easter dress, socks with ruffles and tiny, patent leather shoes. And soon, she’d need to buy two of everything — her mother, Elizabeth, was pregnant with a daughter too — Tamika.

The first legs of the trip to work were easy enough. She got a ride with a neighbor as far as Squire Pope Road on the island, then walked 10 minutes to Spanish Wells Road to hitchhike to Shelter Cove. Next came an hour hike to Starvin Marvin, a convenience store across from the south-end McDonalds.

From there, she hitchhiked to Western Sizzlin’, a chain with bargain sirloin steaks and Texas Toast, where she’d been hired to wash dishes, wrap baking potatoes in foil and prep food.

It was dull work. After slogging through her shift, Roberta hitchhiked back home and fell into bed sometime near midnight.

For all that, she earned minimum wage, then $3.35 an hour — about $8.35 today. Was it enough? No. But Roberta was grateful for it.

“I didn’t realize what I was missing until I got that first check,” she said.

Today, she and the younger sister born 34 years ago are kitchen workers at The Oyster Bar in the Bluffton Promenade. Roberta still starts her days by pulling on stained chef’s pants and a T-shirt, pinning her short hair back at the nape of her neck and grabbing a small cup of coffee from Nickel Pumpers.

And she still works tirelessly in a hot kitchen, picks up extra shifts on the weekends and returns home exhausted, ready to collapse into bed for as long as her schedule allows.

But she counts herself lucky. Finally, she can do it all without leaving Bluffton. Her commute is just a five-minute walk.

“I don’t have to burn gas, put wear and tear on my car, sit in traffic,” Roberta says of her job in the small, upscale restaurant. “Why go to Hilton Head when I can work over here?”

Stuck on the south end

Getting home from work on the island was always a gamble, and one warm night, Roberta struck out.

Sometime after midnight, she was alone and without a ride on the south end of the island.

She walked to Shipyard Plantation’s gate where she asked a security guard for a ride. But he wasn’t leaving for hours and couldn’t help her.

Now, turning back to William Hilton Parkway, it suddenly seemed even darker than before.

Low bushes and tree roots could have been alligators — the glint of light on the water, their eyes. People had even talked about seeing mountain lions slink out of the woods on Hilton Head. Anything could be watching.

Terrified, Roberta ran to the head of the road and hid in the woods, waiting for a car to pass.

She wanted someone to stop, but not the wrong someone.

So when headlights appeared, illuminating her path, she sprinted as far as she could. When the car got close, she dove behind the bushes again. She ran and walked six miles to “the hill,” her aunt’s house near the corner of William Hilton and Folly Field Road.

“I never ran so much,” she said. “I’ve never been so damn scared.”

She slept in a chair in the living room until her cousin woke up and took her home, a few hours before she had to leave for work again.

Her grandma had cooked breakfast, and the kids were covered in bacon grease and grits. They greeted her with a chorus of “Hi, mama!” as if she was just emerging from her bedroom after sleeping in.

“They were happy,” Roberta said with an exasperated laugh. “They didn’t know mama didn’t come home.”

A new home

Old as it was, the mobile home on Bruin Road served Roberta’s family well.

Her mother, Elizabeth Blake Toomer, was born in the home in 1949, and her grandmother had owned it outright for years before that.

As a child, Roberta’s chores gave her a sense of ownership as well. By the time she got to school most days, she’d already pumped water for the chickens, pigs and laundry and hung the freshly washed clothes on the line.

“I didn’t get to be a little girl,” she said. “I had to be a young adult. When that rooster’s crowing outside, I was outside.”

But Roberta loved living just a short distance from most of her family — and from the May River, where she would fill whole buckets with oysters. Her uncle taught her to gather up the ones that rolled under the docks after oystermen hauled in their day’s catch.

While her mother tried a few times to find a nicer home in Bluffton, she didn’t have the credit. So the family made do with their rickety trailer, which was at times home to more than a dozen people.

Roberta spent years of her adulthood sleeping on a pad in a corner of the living room because the beds were full with her children, siblings and elders. But they made it work with order and generosity.

So the space wouldn’t fill up with mess, toddlers learned to make their own beds as soon as they rose each morning. Because everybody had to eat, the women always cooked a big pot of food. And though tight quarters and limited privacy sometimes spiked tension, every conversation ended with, “I love you.”

“Everyone’s not so fortunate to say that in their life,” Roberta says.

When a few volunteers visited one Thanksgiving in the late 1990s, bearing a turkey dinner from Bluffton Self Help, they were shocked to find so many people inside the trailer.

“How many live here?” one asked.

“Everybody that you see and a couple that aren’t here now,” Roberta told them, surprised by the volunteers’ reactions.

Later, she thought, “It all depends on what you call too small. We’re a family.”

By Christmas, the family was living in a brand-new mobile home, donated by one of the strangers. He also brought them a Christmas tree and furniture and arranged for their old trailer to house an elderly man in the neighborhood.

They weren’t the only ones who benefited from the generosity of Richard “Dick” Ennen. The quiet man was a secret benefactor to other families in need of new trailers, and gave extensively to Bluffton Self Help and the Pregnancy Center and Clinic on Hilton Head. He’s best known for offering scholarships to three classes of H.E. McCracken Middle School students. Upon their graduations, the college-bound teens received a total of $1.6 million.

The Morrells didn’t know all of that. They just knew they had a clean, modern trailer with gray shutters and a white porch skirt.

Roberta was thrilled.

“That was God sending his angels here.”

Working in Bluffton

For years, Roberta kept her skills sharp and her mind busy, switching between kitchen and housecleaning jobs when she grew bored.

But in 2008, she got a taste of independence in her own backyard. She joined her mother and other relatives as a shucker at Bluffton Oyster Co.

There, workers were paid by pound of oysters pried from their shells, not the number of hours worked, which suited Roberta fine.

Most days, she started at 5 a.m.

“I say, ‘Early bird gets the worm,’ and I like to get the worm,” she said.

Working at the shack was strenuous, and left her arms aching. But Roberta loved it.

She might spend nine hours there, side by side with her family. They’d cut the music on and shuck, shuck, shuck, sister Tamika says.

In the afternoons, Roberta would still drive to the island to her main job. For years, that meant working alongside her mother at Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks.

Later, she went to Chart House, the upscale chain restaurant next door.

The pay was good, about $12 an hour to prepare soups, salads and desserts with the Skull Creek restaurant’s required artistry. But she felt like she was doing the work of two or three people. She’d work so hard she would forget to drink water or use the bathroom until she clocked out.

And now, nearing 50 years old with four children and a flock of grandchildren, she was getting tired.

“You’ve just got to work so hard for so little. You really break yourself down to get a decent check, to get your bills paid and sometimes that’s not even enough,” she said.

Food, clothing, taxes — everything is more expensive these days.

“(On Hilton Head), when you look at it, you’re right back to where you started. That’s $3.35 (an hour) if you ask me.”

A new start

On June 15, soapy water coats Morrell’s wide nails like fresh varnish.

She and her sister drag rags over pots and pans until they shine and then turn to their next tasks at The Oyster Bar. Roberta grabs eggs, buttermilk and cheddar for cornbread; Tamika chops kale for the display case of oysters, clams and snow crab legs.

Under her black apron, Roberta wears a T-shirt with a picture of her smiling mother. It’s a memorial to the woman who lost her battle with lung and bone cancer one year before. The diagnosis, which came just a few months after her mother left Hudson’s in September 2011, scares Roberta even today.

Her mother didn’t get to enjoy a retirement, the very reason so many relocate to Hilton Head.

Instead, her mother grew sicker and sicker over the next three years. She got by on her retirement money, and the skilled bookkeeping and care-taking of Tamika, who took a break from work between 2012 and 2014. They never hurt for money, food or faith.

“By the grace of God, we did it,” Tamika says.

But Roberta wanted more for her mother. And she wants more for herself — weekends spent playing with her grandchildren instead of making up for lost sleep; hours spent relaxing at home instead of sitting in traffic; money spent on more than bills and taxes.

Perhaps even a cruise over Florida’s bright, blue water.

“I hope that doesn’t happen to me but I don’t know what God has in store for me,” she said of her mother’s illness. “I don’t want to work but I have to work. We all have to work. It’s not like the lotto’s falling in our lap.”

So she took a gamble and applied for a job closer to home at a new restaurant in Bluffton. Two pizza eateries had shuttered in the same storefront over the last two years, and Roberta knew hours would be slim until business picked up.

But it seemed worth the risk.

No looking back

It’s 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the kitchen at The Oyster Bar smells of white wine from a simmering pot of beurre blanc and pans of andouille sausage in the oven.

Morrell sings along to Rihanna on the radio and banters sharply with the chef each time he passes. Fellow kitchen staff get her sweeter side with greetings of “doll” and “baby.”

She thinks about her latest paycheck — about $62.

She expects that it will soon be higher. Business is picking up. Four months after its opening, The Oyster Bar has been nominated for eight Best of Bluffton awards for a local newspaper.

Morrell thinks she could have made the check a little bigger if she had slogged slowly through a longer shift instead of working quickly and clocking out promptly.

It also would have been higher if she was still working on the island — by an extra $2 per hour, Roberta estimates. But the extra cash would have been siphoned away by gas and car repairs. And she’d still have the long commute.

It wouldn’t be worth it.

“I hope to Jesus it’s going to get better,” she says.

If it doesn’t, she’ll need to get a second job.

“It don’t stop with one. I might even get a third. Nobody’s dying and leaving me s—.”

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca