The River is Everywhere
by Diane McMahon
Photography by Anne, Inc. – Sloan Bragg
Carolyn Bremer ushers me inside the house on Myrtle Island that she and her late husband built for their family of seven over 30 years ago. We walk through the entry hall and formal living room, to the den whose large picture window frames the May River flowing swiftly past the front yard. Beyond the wooden boat dock is a sandbar and in the distance the edge of Bluffton. This lived-in family room is thick with memories and family artifacts—the repository of a full and well-lived life.
Carolyn’s daughter Julia—who has been showing Pink’s photographer the fossils she’s uncovered in scuba-diving expeditions in this area—joins us. She is a force with a deep and stirring voice. She and her mother easily move into a duet. A lyrical family history unfolds as mother and daughter supply the notes to move it forward.
Water is central to the Bremer family history. Carolyn’s husband spent his boyhood summers in a large house his family built on Tybee Island in 1929. Julia says, “That was the genesis of the role water plays in our family.” When Julia’s father met Carolyn, a lovely girl from Alabama, she didn’t know how to swim. They married and started their family—ultimately two older boys, Julia and two younger boys. When Julia was three years old her mother still didn’t know how to swim. Julia, playing in the water with her brothers, began to drown. Someone threw her a safety toss but the current changed and she couldn’t reach it. She remembers her Mother yelling, “Swim, swim.” The plough mud saved her. She used it to push off and lunge herself little by little to the beach.
Carolyn learned to swim. She got her WSI (water safety instructor) certification and has received awards for two long distance swims. She now loves the water and taught her children to respect it.
The family spent their summers at Estill Beach. In 1966 there was an ad in the newspaper for a house in Bluffton. They bought it. The Bremers were part of a wealthy and prominent family who had emigrated from Germany to Savannah and built a major business. No one could believe Carolyn and her husband were moving their family to the uncivilized wilds of Bluffton. Julia remembers there was no TV or telephone.
There was freedom. Her mother let the boys go exploring, only if they took Julia. They took kayaks and learned every island and inlet in the area. They knew the woods. “I tagged along with the “older boys’ or the “younger boys” depending on what they were doing. I watched and learned…and became better than they were at doing things.” She got her captain’s license and her masters captains license. She was competent from a young age.
During those years, Carolyn wrote a column for the Island Packet titled “Beautiful Bluffton by the Sea.” Julia is her mother’s biggest fan. She compliments her mother’s intelligence and her writing ability. Frequently, Julia enthuses, “I won the parent lottery. I am so blessed.”
Julia grew up and moved to Atlanta. For 14 years she was a surgical technician in a children’s hospital there. She loved her career. It ended when she became dangerously ill. Her doctors discovered she had an intense allergy to latex.
Julia learned to scuba dive in the late 80s. After recovering from the most acute stage of illness her doctors allowed her to try scuba diving again. The difference in underwater pressure provided relief to her chest and lungs. Back here in the Lowcountry she started going on diving expeditions. She shows me some of the fossils she’s uncovered. I ask her about the skill it takes to even see these things in the murky water, buried in mud as they are. She responds, “I think it’s my knowledge of the human anatomy. I can see a tiny piece and extrapolate to the whole.”
I think about Julia’s statement as she goes to settle Carolyn in for her afternoon nap. Over the course of the afternoon, I have discovered Julia is a poet and philosopher with a profound spirituality. She is now her mother’s caretaker; in the painful role of watching a disease take over her mother’s mind. She is a dedicated daughter. And it is extremely hard on both of them.
I look out at the river and think how its constancy has run so deeply through Carolyn’s and Julia’s lives. And I wonder how being by that river all these years has informed the constancy of love that flows between them.
Julia’s favorite compliment about her mother: A friend told Julia her mother was the grooviest dresser ever
Favorite parent moment: Julia’s parents were skinny-dipping and a neighbor jumped in to join the party—clothes and all.
Mama’s Favorite Saying: “Inch by inch it’s such a cinch. Yard by yard it’s really hard.”
Daughter’s Favorite Saying: “Be very, very good. There’s no ice cream in hell.”
Mother/Daughter Favorite Saying: We just want to die with real butter or chocolate in our mouths.