Surviving Savannah - Patti Callahan



Present day

I was born in water.

For all of my thirty-two years, my mom, Harriet Winthrop, had told the story over and over to anyone who’d listen. I could recite her words verbatim; I’d been told them since my memory began. A tale worth telling, she would say when I rolled my eyes as she launched into the story.

“There I was, my darling, only in the beginning of labor. I decided to take a long, warm bath before your daddy drove me to the hospital.” Here Mom would laugh and shake her head, pat her hair in place. “The pain was so mild, I thought sure I had hours to go with you tucked warm inside me.”

No matter how many times my young face would cloud with doubt, Mom would continue in her singsong voice.

“But I was so wrong. And you came swimming out while your father hollered for your sister, only two years old, to call 911 and then . . .” She always paused here, and I held my breath even though I knew what came next.

“And then . . . your father caught you.”

Everyone who knew our family had suffered through this story, which had been embellished over time. There was the other part of the tale where Father had wanted to name me Selkie, but Mom would have none of that silliness. Her children were named after their ancestors.

This story became part of my mythology, my born-and-bred Savannah family lore.

The Winthrop family, we are very big on legends, lore and stories.

But it was my grandfather—Papa, to me and my sister, Allyn—who told the best stories. He regaled us with fantastical tales of a land beneath the water. There lived mermaids and the Kraken; there sailed the great pirates, and the lowly fishermen who found talking fish that offered wishes. There reigned gods and goddesses who ruled the waters with a vengeance, smiting all humans who dared to believe they had more power than the sea itself.

The tales of shipwrecks, of vessels that lay on the bottom of the sea, were the ones that inspired our young minds to dream of breathing underwater and finding treasure. At six and eight years old, we loved stories as much as the hot fudge sundaes we were allowed to have on Saturday nights.

In the evenings, Mom cleaned the kitchen after dinner and then sat on the porch with a cut-glass tumbler filled with the clear liquid we weren’t allowed to drink. Meanwhile, we joined Papa in the mahogany-paneled library. Each as blond as the other, me with blue eyes and Allyn with brown, we crossed our legs on the plush carpet and lifted our chins to gaze up at him as he settled in the large leather chair and narrated his stories. Behind him, a limestone fireplace big enough for us both to crawl into gaped wide, and on cold nights such as the one blazing in my memory, a fire roared and consumed the dried logs from a back garden oak that had been felled by lightning years before. Above the fireplace hung an oil painting of a lustrous steamship with its sails spread wide and its wheels churning the water into whipped foam, the sky clear and bluer than the sea as human figures on the deck regarded the vast sea. The Steamship Pulaski, 1838, stated a small brass plate on the gilded frame.

Shipwreck tales were Papa’s favorite—in particular the shipwreck of the Pulaski. Papa chose that legend again as we sat in our matching red fleece pajamas. We’d taken a hot bath, scrubbed our skin to pink and brushed our teeth—all the prerequisites for a nighttime story.

He began reciting the words we’d almost memorized.

“You see, before she took all those lives, she was a beauty, elegance her specialty.”

“She looked like a beautiful woman dressed in white robes,” Allyn said, meaning the sails.

“Yes,” Papa said. “Everything was right with the world on a breezy summer night, off the coast of North Carolina, and then everything changed.”

“Everything,” I said in a reverential whisper. This was always when our hearts sped up—when everything changed.

“The wooden steamship Pulaski with her double paddle wheels and twin masts sat low in the water for her fourth voyage. She plowed through the restless waves of the Atlantic Ocean.” Papa held out his arms as if they were sails. “Her sleek bow pointed north.” He dropped his chin and sent his gaze toward the fireplace. “Her destination was Baltimore where she’d been built. Her passengers slept soundly