Romance at Middleton Gardens

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

The hostess led us to a tiny table between two larger tables where diners were already seated. Maybe people always want the window – she didn’t ask us – but we both felt a moment of resentment to be placed so close to others when there were empty tables in the center of the room.

The gardens were fading with the twilight anyway. Pink camellias pressing against the glass would soon be our only view from the candlelit restaurant. It might have been more romantic were we not actually closer to our neighbors than to each other.

I wriggled to make enough space for myself, and Dave shifted his chair until the man behind him moved to give him room. I suspected I’d hear more conversation by eavesdropping on the couple inches behind me, when I realized I had not heard them say a word.

Our waitress introduced herself as Connie and told us about the evening’s special, then turned to the couple behind me while we decided. As I was considering our rather expensive options, Dave leaned toward me and said quietly, “The people behind you are signing. Our waitress is too.”

I didn’t want to turn to stare, so depended on Dave’s description. They were middle-aged, she blonde, he dark and of Indian or some other Middle-eastern origin. They were communicating strictly with sign, but even Dave could read the affection between them, he said later. The woman smiled at her companion, he smiled back, they touched hands, and once he laughed rather loudly.

Their circumstances softened our resentment, and we accepted some of the romance they projected. Dinner was wonderful, from a creamy she-crab soup to crisp salads to fried oysters and the special, mahi-mahi and potatoes au gratin.

The walk back to our room would lead through shadowy curtains of wisteria, past the black pond that powers the rice mill, up a low-lighted path to dark monoliths that even in daylight would resemble the ruins of a factory. Iron-railed stairs zigzag across ivied walls; chimney pots stab the sky. On the back side of the slabs, glass walls rise above marsh and river. A single light left burning in our room would glow a welcome in the night.

When we go to Charleston, we don’t usually go there any more. What I mean is, the traffic choking that gracious city and the din of construction nearly eclipse the elegance the tranquility we used to think of as quintessentially Charleston.

Oh, sure, jasmine perfumes the springtime air, and azaleas blaze. There’s a stiff breeze off Charleston Harbor, easing the sweltering summertime. The Low Country artisans spread tightly-woven sweet-grass baskets at the feet of tourists. And the little in-between alleys are still remarkably quiet and peaceful for being only a few steps from the hubbub of Meeting Street. We love the docks and the view of ships plying the Cooper River, skimmers cutting through the shallows bordering the mud flats, the sea crashing against the battery wall trying to reach the live oaks still shading Charleston’s front door.

But when we yearn for Low Country ambience, we head for Middleton Place on Ashley River Road.

The oldest landscaped gardens in the New World spread like a hoopskirt on the banks of the river, terraced lawns rippling to the rice fields hemmed by green dikes and fringed in reeds and cattails. When you stay at Middleton Inn, built on property adjacent to the ancestral home of the president of the First Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it’s as though you have the key to a ghostly mansion that is no longer there. Burned by Union troops, all that remains is one wing – itself a mansion by our standards, but only a fraction of the great house that stood here through the Revolution.

As guests at the inn, however, you have access to the grounds at any hour. With the tour buses gone, the gardens and dikes are a birder’s paradise. We logged 35 species in two days, including blue-gray gnatcatchers, white ibis, and a bald eagle high above the ponds.

The rooms at the inn are simple, neutral in color, furnished in near-rustic country style, each with a fireplace where logs and starter materials await the match. We keep the floor-to-ceiling shutters open, preferring to risk a passerby’s glance than miss the rocking flight of a harrier above the marsh.

The deaf couple debated over which dessert to share, finally settling on a wedge of chocolate pecan pie. As they left their table, I could see that their conversation with their waitress was animated and cordial.

When Connie returned to inquire whether we wanted dessert, I asked her where she had learned American Sign Language so fluently. “At home,” she replied. “That was my mother, the lovely lady sitting behind you.

“Her being here this evening was sort of a bittersweet occasion for me: She’s moving to California and I’m going to miss her. But it’s a good thing for her. There’s a large deaf community there, and I know she’ll be happy.”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask about her mother’s handsome friend, or whether they are beginning a new life together. But, grateful for the romance their happiness had lent our evening, I silently wished them well.        

sallies@juno.com