About that time we caught a glimpse of Miss Essie weaving her way through the giant oak trees towards the house.  We thought she was coming to the porch, but she made a sharp turn and ended up at the back of the house. We heard the familiar sound of the old screen door creaking open. Then it slammed shut.

Zachariah jumped up at the sound of the "slam", excused himself and sprinted into the house.  And again, let the screen door slam.  It seemed the sound of the old screen doors was a familiar part of their life.  Yet it also seemed that "the slam" was a signal. Now we were alone on the porch.  We sat in silence, but I think we were each wondering, "what next?"  We shared an expression of curiosity. We began to hear noises in the house.  Not talking, just noises.

Then shortly we began to smell cooking smells.  My grandmother leaned over towards Teddy and me and whispered "I'm afraid we've interrupted their dinnertime"...more silence.  Then I began to think I could identify the smell of frying chicken for sure.  I felt my mouth begin to water and heard my stomach growl, then biscuits baking and then I thought I smelled apple pie baking or was it just my hunger and my imagination?

I could hear a clock ticking...tick, tick, tick, but there was no clock. Then Zachariah came running out from the back of the house and headed towards the road.  He brought Papa John to the porch and beckoned him to "have a seat".  Then again, disappeared into the house.  "Slam" went the faithful screen door. None of us asked any questions, not even, is the car fixed.


I truly don't have the slightest idea how long we sat there in silence or even what we might have been expecting to happen. Then there came Zachariah again.  He had a happy, sort of excited smile on his face.  He said, "my grandmother say dinner be ready and I should bring you to the table."  I don't remember moving, but suddenly there we all were inside staring in astonishment, for there in front of us was a table set with perfectly starched and ironed white embroidered tablecloth.  On the table sat a dinner that I thought then and still think was a magical imagination.  There was the fried chicken and biscuits, and of course, rice.  There was also every kind of vegetable a garden could grow; corn, pole beans, tomatoes, sibbie beans, okra, and squash made in fried fritters.  Thinking back on it all, it still looks like a miracle, and oh my, did it ever taste like a miracle.  Honestly, I can still smell it, see it, and taste it! Six chairs in assorted shapes and sizes were placed around the table.  We all sat down.  Miss Essie nodded to Zachariah and he said grace.  We then began to eat. It was the first time that I had ever seen white people sitting down with colored people to eat.  It was a remarkable moment and it changed my life.


After dinner, I could feel, young as I was, that my grandmother was searching her mind and her heart for the way to thank Miss Essie.  My grandmother was too much of a lady to offer her money and she knew Miss Essie was too much of a lady to accept money. My grandmother reached into her purse and took out her sterling silver, monogrammed compact.  She reached for Miss Essie's hand and placed the compact into it and closed Miss Essie's hand around it, holding Miss Essie's hand with both of her hands.  She looked Miss Essie in the eyes for a long moment and then in a very soft voice said, "Thank you, Miss Essie, thank you for everything" and I knew that she meant much more than dinner.


Well, that is how it all started.  Every time we came from Charleston we brought Miss Essie and Zachariah something that would be hard to get out there.  The first time it was bright colored, ruffle print flowered fabric for the porch.  They were so excited, and it really did make the whole porch look more cheerful and pretty.  Miss Essie gave us some jars of watermelon pickles and chow-chow relish.  Through the years we brought her things like parts for her sewing machine, a Coleman burner stove, and ornaments for their Christmas tree. We brought things we knew would be hard for her to get way out there in the country and we always saved for her the bright, flower-print bags that held all the feed for the multitude of animals on the island.  In those days, ladies saved the bags to make everything from a dress to dish towels.  And always, she had little treasures put aside.  Teddy and I would talk about what treats she might have waiting for us that day.  We played guessing games the whole way there and acted so surprised as we received our gifts: a doll made out of pine needles and cloth, colored eggs from some prize chicken that really did lay colored eggs, two slingshots, wreaths made from a plant called popcorn berry, all so original and graciously hand crafted.


 This went on as long as I can remember.  I can’t even remember why it stopped.


 You don’t see nearly as many Sweet Grass Basket Ladies along the roadside as we used to.  I cherish the memories and I still miss Miss Essie.

 Nowadays, these ladies gather in groups along with the flower ladies in downtown Charleston.  There is a joyous, giddy comradely: the language of their laughter, with its sweet and pure highs down to the low, lush baritone.  It never stops thrilling me to visit this corner of chaotic joy…  As passing cars slowed down, the ladies would jump up, elbowing each other and pushing against each other and jockeying for the car window.  They looked so mad and talked so loudly, each one trying to out yell the other.  “Missy, hey Missy, you buy mine.  I see you first.”  “Lady, lady, see mine- they’re so much fresher than the others.”  “Ma'am, see how much bigger my bundle is?”  “Oh me, Missy!  I give you these for less than the others!”  “Sold,” said someone in the car.  And then all the ladies would start laughing and slapping each other on the back.  Each moved back to her seat, all pleased with their cunning performance, all happy and friendly again.


 Just lately I saw a feature story on a Sweet Grass Basket Lady Weaver in a Charleston magazine.  It could have been Miss Essie’s daughter or granddaughter; she looked so much like her.  The article told about how the black weavers are now teaching their art to white people.  This ancient art, so fundamental to their livelihood is the sacred secret of the society of black weavers.  I was puzzled that they would share this, sad that it might diminish the value of their skills and proud again of the kindness which is sometimes beyond my belief.  The art of weaving baskets has been the exclusive domain of the black people-a cultural secret.  It has been for them a way to make a livelihood out of nature’s gifts of pine needles, marsh grass and whatever gifts of grasses nature has placed within their reach.  What an incredible gift-to share their secret.


 Then I though of the open-hearted, loving, giving Miss Essie, and I marveled, as I always have, at the gentle generosity and kindness that I have seen and received from the hands of the black people I’ve known all my life. 


Sculpture and verse © by

Alyse Lucas Corcoran


Icons of Charleston