So on Mother’s Day, I wandered around Orangeburg to make peace with the parts of Marguerite I didn’t quite know but which still clung to me like smoke. Early in the morning, I parked my rental across the street from the Edisto Memorial Gardens, home to fifty-four varieties of roses. Babbling in the background was the longest blackwater river in North America, an oil-colored waterway connected to the Combahee River—the same water Harriet Tubman used to lead one hundred fifty Union soldiers to various rice plantations on June 2, 1863, to free seven hundred fifty slaves. One thing I knew for sure: my mother loved water and she loved roses.

Only two or three people were around, so I had the place to myself. Downhill, past incredible, tall trees, I went to the water, looking north and south. I walked west, toward the rows and rows of peach- and wine-colored roses, speckled, small, wide, glorious, with names like Glowing Peace and Coretta Scott King and Perfume Delight. Did you ever visit this place? Now, or then? 

Fondling the delicate velvet of a full-bodied rose, I thought of everything a rose would have meant to my mother. How I took for granted a ten-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers when I wanted to attend to my heart, but how such a simple gesture would have been too much for her to even dream about. Even though no one was around me, I didn’t want to disturb the silence, and also, the unchaining. Something rusty and dark in me moved aside, a stone rolling away from a tomb. This was not the raucous, grandstanding, trumpet-blaring Free At Last freedom I’d always said I wanted, but something more profound. A healing. What sounded like my mother’s voice in my ear. I can’t believe you made it. 

I looked up to stop the tears and spotted a Confederate flag flapping with nonchalance above the trees.

Only after my trip would I realize that, geographically, Orangeburg is a kind of nadir as defined by Imani Perry: “the lowest point in an orbit. It is the location directly below the gaze.” Look for it on a map: in comparison with its northern and eastern neighbors, Charleston and Columbia, Orangeburg is down and out of the way, overlooked. 

The rest of my essay in the Winter 2019 issue of Oxford American’s South Carolina issue is here.

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