When I was little, Aunt Carrie and Uncle Everette, my grandmother’s sister and brother-in-law, lived in a Victorian house on the corner of Broad and High Market Streets in Georgetown, South Carolina. Diagonally across on the same corner stood the Church of Prince George’s, Winyah, the old and rather large Episcopal church where horses of British troops had been stabled during the Revolutionary War.
On a Sunday during Christmastide when I was not quite of school age, we paid our relatives a visit. Somebody suggested after dinner—the big mid-day meal on Sunday in the South of my youth—that we peek in to Prince George’s to see the decorations. I remember marveling at the fact that it was well after Christmas Day and yet the church remained decorated. No one in the crowd, all Methodists, could explain that to me except to say, “Well, son, that’s just the way they do it in the ’piscopal Church.”
It must have been the first time that I heard the word “yaupon.” It is an evergreen deciduous shrub native to the Coastal Plain in the Southeastern United States that rivals holly as the producer of an elegant red berry. Yaupon, pine, holly and a few poinsettias adorned the pews and windows of the church. I was enchanted. Seasonal scents; the odor of polished wood; the churchy smell of hymnals and prayer books; light flowing in the large, arched windows; the towering pulpit; the oddity of a church having a brick floor; the box pews with gates: they all stick in my memory, however much they may fail to match the 1949 reality in every detail. But it is the yaupon that I remember best.
My family was not particularly churchy during those years. My mother would pack me off to Sunday School, my brother Jim riding his motorbike with me sitting atop the gas tank between him and the handlebars. Given his disdain for the younger brother that had robbed him of his status as Only Child at the age of 10, it is a wonder that I survived those trips to church. But church, every facet of it, was to me a magnet. Going into a church with a noble name like “Prince George’s Episcopal Church, Winyah” was to me like sending one of my grandsons now to see the Super Bowl from the 50-yard line, twenty rows up. It was about as close to heaven as I could imagine getting.
Yaupon, it turns out, was a plant that figured prominently in some Native American male-only purification and bonding rituals. From it they brewed a black tea. The men who drank it must have liked it, because they frequently drank such quantities of it after fasting that they vomited. Europeans, ever the smart ones, got the notion that the tea caused the vomiting (which might in fact have been an intentional part of the purification rites), and so named it eventually “Ilex vomitoria,” giving a libelous appellation to a gorgeous plant.
I ponder now the fact that when I was not yet five, church and a symbol of male rites of purification and unity slid together during the Twelve Days of celebrating the Incarnation, pre-eminent festival of embodiment. I could make a case that on one Sunday afternoon in Georgetown, in the company of relatives, I sensed my life vocation in that sliding together, and said, “Yes!”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016