An Ode to Hilton Head, S.C., My Family's Go-To Vacation Spot

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of photos from my childhood that depict moments I don't actually remember but feel like I do. In one of them, we're all in a hot tub together; my dad is holding a tiny, baby version of me, his mustache a thing of '80s glory. In another photo, I'm jumping into the swimming pool, with my grandfather there to catch me on the day he taught me how to swim.

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the house we've rented since I was 4 years old, a little bungalow in a beach development. I think of the mirrors that used to line the living room where our mothers slathered my cousins & me in sunscreen; I think of the kitchen table where we served "fancy dinner," with written menus; I think of the room upstairs we I shared, my youngest cousin always forced to sleep on the floor.

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of that little beach development we've always stayed in, Port O' Call, & the swimming pool where my cousin Emily & I made up synchronized swimming routines that were always far from synchronized. I think of that pathway to the pool where my grandpa fed overly friendly squirrels by hand & taught us to escape from alligators by "running in a zig-zag" - though luckily, we never had to! 

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the year we decided to follow through with out family vacation even though my father had just died a month or so before. We did the best we could to celebrate my mother's 40th birthday, decorating the rental house with balloons & "Over the Hill" signs & ice cream cake, anything to try to bring her happiness in a hard time. 

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the friends I made one summer when my cousins couldn't join us for the week. Their names were Michael, Jason, & Kate, & I spent my entire vacation with them. Afterward, Michael & I became penpals for a year, & I kept all the letters he sent me locked inside a small, red lockbox lest my mother know that I had a huge crush on a boy five states away. 

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the summer I was allowed to bring my friend Marisa. That summer, we stayed in a different house than our usual, one too far away from the town, & couldn't go anywhere unless an adult was there to drive us. We watched tons of TV & gossiped & enjoyed the Jacuzzi & complained heartily about being so isolated & so far from the beach - oh, & my grandpa accidentally insulted Marisa with a rude comment about her double-pierced ears. Oops.

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the last time I saw my grandmother relatively healthy, before she died of an aggressive form of cancer just a few short months later. We took a family walk down the beach, even though it was incredibly cold, & she drove me to the airport to catch my flight back to Boston - though I'd gotten the flight time wrong & ran to the gate just as the doors were closing.

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the summer my mom rented some weird place called Xanadu, seriously, & invited me to bring my best friend, her brother & his boyfriend, & their cousin, who I was dating at the time. We played board games & laid on the beach for hours & mastered stand-up paddleboarding & jumped as high as we could & had an all-around amazing time together. 

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of the mother/daughter vacation we took here a few years ago, when I spent much of my time working on a freelance essay - my first for The Washington Post. I conducted interviews on the empty second floor of our beach rental, banging out my piece & trying to perfect every word before I sent it off for potential publication & my biggest-ever byline.

When I think of Hilton Head, I think of this year, Mike's first Thanksgiving spent with my family. We've only been here for a few days, so who knows which memories will stick? I can't wait to find out. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. I hope you make some memories worth thinking back on.

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