Poinsett and Hopkins
We won’t forget our present-less Poinsettia Christmas. We stayed at the Westin Poinsett, spa-ed at the River Falls Spa, road Santa’s sleigh down one of the prettiest Main Streets in America, ate Christmas Eve dinner at High Cotton overlooking the river, opened no stockings, unwrapped no gifts, simply reveled in the gift of each other’s presence--- and it was the best Christmas ever.
Which is not to say it was perfect. There was a moment Christmas Eve morning when unplugged from all our existing traditions: the hand sewn stockings, the holiday box, the invitations to the parties we always go to, the food we always cook, knowing just what to do, and feel including rushed and dutiful and joyful all at the same time that I feared I wasn’t prepared for the task less enjoyment of my husband and my daughter, felt challenged by an appointment with a masseuse instead of an appointment with a turkey—and then I kept my appointment.
The River Falls Spa is less than a minute walk from the front door of the Poinsett Hotel. It is housed in the basement of a beautiful stand alone courthouse building in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. As we walked in my daughter asked, is this where they brought the prisoners out? Thinking about a spa I had once gone to that was housed in a former funeral home where I just couldn’t get comfortable—I thought I had made a big mistake. We hadn’t. We knew it when we walked down a beautiful dark candlelit corridor to the immaculate modern changing room and slipped into comfy huge enough to envelope me robes that we had arrived at a haven. A sheltered place aware of the world but away from it. A gentle frame of walls and faces and hands and fragrance and steam that would keep the world at bay long enough for us each to more fully inhabit our body happy.
My therapist told me that Pat Conroy and Gloria Naylor were two of her favorite writers. I was touched. It was a close and unexpected encounter with the New South to meet a young white American Southerner, who mentioned Conroy and Naylor in the same breath with the same respect. It shouldn’t have been a revelation but it was. These writers rarely appear on the same syllabi, but here they were in Greenville, tripping from lips of the lady laying hands on me.
Massage, the gift of non-sexual touch from a stranger is a complex gift. It is a an invitation to be alone with your body in the presence of another, it is the gift of a stranger inviting you into the presence of your own body without the stranger inviting you into the presence of their body. It is unveiled and vulnerable and it is soothing. Cares melt away on the massage table and some of the heat that melts them away is the human heat of the massage therapist saying without saying, “Here and now I put you in my hands and accept your body as it is here and now.” That is a good invitation.
That the good invitation should occur in Greenville, at the Beaux Art Courthouse, where in 1947, 31 white men who had confessed to the killing and lynching of a young black man, Willie Earle, were acquitted of all charges is proof that profound and intimate change has occurred in the south.
After my massage I met my daughter in the steam room. She was as peaceful as I. We curled up on a couch and read magazines for a while till we were ready to dress. When we checked out of the spa they offered us a little spear of fruit. It was the perfect end to a perfect two hours.
Later, Caroline and I marched down the wonderful main street of Greenville and had lunch at a place called the Green Room. My lunch was a salad of shaved artichokes and house made mozzarella with grilled chicken. Daughter graduates this May. Somehow talking about our past and her future and race and class and America and the South and family and love in a restaurant called the Green Room –the place you wait before you go on stage, underscored what needed to be underscored that life is not a play. We don’t have to keep it real—we have to recognize it’s complex reality. So often when people refer to “keeping it real” they really mean ‘keep to the stereotypes” keep to what is conventional and urban.” In Greenville, South Carolina we stepped away from all of that. It was the sweetest Christmas Eve ever.
Daughter and I talked and talked and talked undistracted by duties or traditions. The blank canvass was no longer scary we were filling it up with what mattered to us now.
Walking back to the hotel built in 1925 with all the elegance and luxury that year afforded, we got a call from my husband. He wanted us to ride in Santa’s sleigh. He wanted us to hurry. The last run of the 2009 Christmas season in something that looks like a cross between a duck boat and a Santa’s sleigh in a movie was about to depart. Trotting down Main Street we made it to the giant red open and motorized sleigh for asphalt just in time. Our driver was in full Santa regalia down to the beard.
We road on the last bench with two large families crowded in before us. Everyone we passed waved.
Later we ate at a delicious restaurant called High Cotton. We sat on the lower level in the corner with giant glass walls overlooking the river. I ate the best shrimp and grits I have eaten after a squash soup made with local squashes before some Christmas Eve worthy chocolate fudge made in house.
After dinner we settled into the lobby bar of the Poinsett, drank white Russians, and listened to Christmas carols well played by the resident piano man.
And so as Christmas day rolled into Greenville, a most perfect place in America to spend Christmas, a town where welcome and grace, trump poverty and race, I was thinking about Joel Roberts Poinsett a man from Greenville, who became ambassador to Mexico (he was appointed by John Quincy Adams) and who brought back with him from his work there the poinsettia plant that was then named in his honor.
There were poinsettia’s in the lobby of the Poinsett Hotel. I had never before noticed how much the red petals of the flowers look like velvet. Years ago, I had become bored by red poinsettias. Only managing to like stripy pale ones. In Greenville, the vivid red and green plants struck me as charmingly bold.
As we listened to the carols in the lobby, a lobby Jesse Jackson crossed as a young bell boy, my mind immediately moved to Away in a Manager and Silent Night my favorite Christmas Eve carols. As I think back on this year’s Christmas Eve waiting for Epiphany I am thinking of We Three Kings. Last week I wrote about travelling at Christmas and this week I’m writing about it too. Last week we were setting out on a journey, this week we have returned. I am struck with how small the world is.
My daughter belongs to the Hasty Pudding Club, club of five presidents: two Adams, two Roosevelt’s, and a Kennedy. Funny to think it was a member of her club who sent Ambassador Poinsett out in the world and what Ambassador Poinsett brought back that is remembered is a flower.
When daughter Caroline was a baby we lived in Chelsea and I would walk her every day through the gardens of General Theological Seminary. The man who wrote We Three Kings, John Henry Hopkins, wrote it for a pageant at General Theological Seminary.
It is a very small world.
We are not kings looking for a king. We are travelers exchanging gifts of touch and flower and memory. We are a people unshackling the future from the past while maintaining our commitment to conserving all that is best. This is the Epiphany I walk toward from Greenville.