Only four hours to the city limits by car. No need to deal with airports and all the attendant annoyances of air travel since 9/11 changed America forever. A beautiful, historic city that I’d only visited once to the best of my memory, and that for just a weekend. Historic houses to tour. Old scandals to revisit. Grounds walked by soldiers in a war that divided a young nation. A whiff of danger in rooms where pirates once plotted.
Savannah was, and is, all that and so much more.
It is a city “built on the dead,” as one tour guide pointed out. The very streets we walked covered the bones of uncounted souls. The hotel I stayed in was rumored to be haunted by past guests who were occasionally seen to wander the halls in period costume. Nothing to worry about, management assured us in its brochure.
I saw no ghosts (I don’t believe in them anyway). But I looked for them. Not as shadowy negatives of days long gone, but as someone who loves to imagine “what life was like back then.” And I found them: in the architecture and replica furnishings of stately stone ladies, where I imagined long swishing skirts and a more gracious lifestyle even while acknowledging how grateful I was for air conditioning and modern plumbing. I found them in the childhood home of iconic Southern author Flannery O’Connor, in a pram embellished with her initials . . . black-and-white family photos on a mantel . . . translations of her books on a shelf . . . her childhood bedroom, complete with a table and chairs for her dolls, made by a relative . . . even a peignoir worn by Flannery’s mother on her wedding night.
They spoke in statues at Bonaventure Cemetery—what stories lie in those elaborate markers! Like that of “Little Gracie,” taken by pneumonia at the age of six in 1889, or Julia Backus Smith, “Savannah’s Fastest Female Runner,” eternally smiling in her shorts and running shoes, giving no sign, of course, of the depression that would later end her life. They still whispered faintly at The Pirate’s House restaurant, where I pictured bearded buccaneers with a pipe in one hand and a mug in the other, swapping war stories before a blazing fire. They were in the literally millions of bricks that made up the walls of Fort Pulaski (its creation took 18 years), in the Spartan quarters where young men slept—or did not—as they waited and dreamed of battle. They breathed inspiration and a call to action for young women through the halls of the home of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the modern Girl Scouts.
There were sadder shades, too. Like those of Jim Williams, whose story was so memorably portrayed in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Standing in the room where he shot Danny Hansford in self-defense, a room now serenely quiet and filled with curious tourists like myself, I wondered what he must have felt as he confronted the finality of his actions.
Most moving of all was the R.M Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, with its ugly reminders of a racism that still scars us.
“I am white, may I be served?” “I am colored, may I be served?”
Press a button to hear the oh-so-different answers. Look at the Klan robe with its eerie blank eye holes. As I wrote on my Facebook page, “Sometimes authenticity is deeply disturbing.” Sometimes ghosts are not easily laid. Nor should they be.
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There were so many more experiences than I have room to share here. It was a wonderful, tiring, moving trip. Educational in more ways than one. And as the time to return home neared, I was actually saddened to “return to reality.” But these people were not my people, their times not my own. To my own naïve surprise, I realized I had been expecting to find them more “alive” than I should have. How was it that there weren’t more traces of them still lurking in the places where they’d made memories sufficient to fill books?
I’d forgotten that question until recently, as I came to think about this post and remembered how, too often, I’ve looked back over my shoulder at people and things gone before, unwilling to “let go” even when I had no choice. Not content enough to live the days my Creator ordained for me, with the people He placed in my path for a reason, to live out my own story, or even give concerted effort to discovering what form it would take.
And I wondered: was this what Paul meant when he spoke of “forgetting what lies behind”? Perhaps, at least to some extent. Surely as he faced shipwreck, blindness, beatings, imprisonment, and hunger he must have occasionally looked back to days gone by. But he also knew how to live firmly in the present where God had placed him.
I’ll always be grateful for those perfect May days in historic Savannah, and I’d gladly return.
And who knows but that one day, someone far distant may even seek us within them?