By Jackie Morfesis
Charleston is many things to many people. For me, Charleston is the city of my maternal lineage. My grandmother was born here, my mother, then me. And Charleston, like the women in my family, has always been both a mystery and a dynamic presence. A beautiful paradox, if you will.
Though born here, I spent most of my life in the Northeast, returning in the summers to be with my mother’s family. My grandparents had a home on Folly Beach. Through the lens of a child, it was otherworldly and magical, a portal. Love poured through the open screen doors as generously as the breeze from the ocean. Our home was always filled with relatives and friends and neighbors as close as family. Horses were allowed in those days, and if anyone knows a little girl’s heart, it was going riding on the beach. In fact, Nosy, the horse that was stabled in our backyard, was one of my first true loves. His big brown eyes and gentle strength melted me. More so than the blue-eyed boy.
The sounds still echo in my ears: the gates clanging between homes on weather-worn pathways, my grandfather and uncles staying up all night playing poker on the porch, my grandmother singing melancholy songs throughout the day and lulling me to sleep at night with stories from her childhood where she grew up near Bethany cemetery. The chorus of frogs after a big storm beneath our home. The innocence that inhabited my life was a precious gift that I will always treasure.
It was then that I knew I was a mermaid – not the typical mermaid of pop culture or fantasy – but a real mermaid, one with grit, tenacious and free. An archetype of fierce, creative spirit. One who is true to herself and lives her life with passion. And I knew all this at the tender age of 5. I remember sitting on the old wooden groins and looking out into the ocean and wanting more than anything to swim into her awesomeness, to be enveloped by her power without fear. Physically I was imagining what psychologically and emotionally we do as mermaids – we go into unchartered territory, explore, renew and heal.
A wildness exists when we align ourselves with the forces of nature. This whole region is graced with the energy of nature, not only in picturesque landscapes but in the layers upon layers of how nature impacts our lives. The joy of being at the beaches, the tranquility of the lakes, floating down the Edisto River. Even the ominous and unpredictable threat during the hurricane season.
And yes, I see nature as very much a feminine energy. “Mother” earth is a concept that crosses all cultures throughout time. Inasmuch as I identify as mermaid, I am also at home with my feet planted on terra firma with roots reaching deep down into her fiery core. I also find resonance with the true sisters that I have met in Charleston – women, who also embrace life at its fullest, transforming their challenges into strength and moving in rhythm with the cycles of life, very much like the tides that surround us. Women who support each other.
My great-grandmother came to Charleston from the island of Ithaka, Greece; my grandmother Virginia Manos and her husband owned George’s grocery store at the corner of Morris and St. Philip streets, later named Pete’s Grocery when my father took over. My mother Lucia, graduated from Ashley Hall Preparatory School and the College of Charleston. And though they have all passed on, I remember, I feel them, their presence, their influence on my life and most importantly their spirit. They are here. Their voices, their love and wisdom.
This is what makes Charleston, Charleston. She is what has been created and cherished in the past few decades. She is also what reverberates in the ethers from everyone who lives here and who has ever lived here. All the light and shadow.
I am mermaid. And I am one whose legs stand firmly on the ground and whose roots connect to the very center of the earth. A paradox. A mystery. An enigma. Just like my birthplace.
Jackie Morfesis is a writer, artist and advocate. She holds a bachelor’s in fine arts from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, teacher certification and master’s in liberal studies from Rutgers University and was a Rotary Scholar to Greece. Her first poetry book, “Persephone Rising” was published by Gorgias Press and her second poetry book, “Mermaid Crossing” is forthcoming. She serves in prison ministry and re-entry in the Charleston area.