Most summers for the past 10 years my family has headed south to spend a week with relatives and visit the ocean or sightsee in the cities that Gen. William T. Sherman visited. This year we made the trip again, this time through a 12-hour rainstorm that followed us down through the ridges of central Pennsylvania, falling and falling toward West Virginia and into the Shenandoah Valley.
At our furthest point south, we arrived in Savannah, Ga. The homes in the historic district where we stayed were numbered with the year of their construction in the early 1800s and the names of their original owners. It was all live oaks and Spanish moss, cobblestone streets, gas lamps, and an endless stream of sightseeing buses and horse-drawn trolleys.
We walked the historic streets in the heat of the day, wilting under 100-plus temperatures and greenhouse humidity, drooping like pale northern flowers. The free DOT buses passed and we boarded them to escape the heat, taking the circuitous route through the old town, down the precipitous slope to River Street along the Savannah River.
Savannah is a city of endless town squares, green spaces with fountains and statues, shaded by spreading trees draped in beards of moss. In the early morning, we walked through the squares and along Jones Street, called by locals the prettiest street in Savannah. Residents walked their dogs under the canopy of leaves or washed the sidewalks in front of the iron railed porches. It was a lovely street of old, narrow houses side by side. I imagined we could live there happily.
Savannah is also a city of artists and art galleries. The Savannah College of Art and Design sprawls across several blocks downtown, and the cafes are filled with student art. In the galleries we saw painters from across the South, most of them painting southern scenes of swamps and fishermen, old black men and one-pump gas stations on country roads. The paintings sold for a few hundred dollars up to a thousand or two. Too steep for us in these lean times, but reasonable enough that someday I imagined we might take one home.
I thought of my cousin Joe the painter, who could easily have sold his work in these galleries. Instead he painted for 40 years and hoarded his paintings in back rooms of a house that has now fallen down his beautiful and meticulous paintings of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Indians, paintings destroyed by time and rain, and the delicate pencil drawings on parchment turned to dust. I thought how life had seemed futile to him in the end, and his great talent had brought him only hard times. I imagined that he might have lived in a house on Jones Street and taught at the art college, if he had not surrendered to his multiple demons.
Savannah is a city of ghosts, with the tours to prove it. For a few hours, walking through rooms of paintings I desired but could not own, I was haunted by unfulfilled promise and beauty squandered, by the ghost of someone I had admired and too long forgotten.
Walt Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875.