To get to Leisa Cram's home, I turn onto a narrow dirt road surrounded by marsh that by all appearances leads to nowhere, though she's promised me it leads, in the end, to her home. As I get closer, it's clear that this is anywhere but nowhere; her home and its surroundings are storybook-like, the beautiful house a fitting outgrowth of the nature around it. Leisa greets me on the front porch as I arrive, smiling, gracious and unassuming, every bit in her element on this 150-acre private island in Bluffton that she calls home.
In some ways, she seems as if she's always been here, always a part of the Lowcountry, but as she begins her story, I learn otherwise. She is originally from New Jersey, but Leisa's family acquired a second home in Sea Pines when she was 12-years-old, and it wasn't long before she knew she wanted to eventually settle here. First, she went off to college, studying art history at Colgate University. She returned to Hilton Head full-time in 1976, working for Plantation Interiors, moving quickly into interior designing.
A few years later, she shifted gears, and under the encouragement of her sister Zonnie Sheik, who was in the jewelry business, she opened The Back Door, a costume jewelry shop. Shortly after starting, the business became profitable, and over time expanded to include various accessories, clothing, antiques and furnishings, becoming as Leisa describes it, "a go-to store." Leisa opened a second store, and began partnering with Joni Rosser, who brought her expertise in clothing to the mix. The match worked well, and the business continued to grow.
In short order, however, her life changed amid all this business growth when she met her husband, Peter, and within about three years, married, had two sons, Cooper and Willie, and built the house on Bear Island that she now shares with her family. Six years after Willie's birth, their daughter Lucy was born.
She says she knew, from the get-go, that a life with Peter meant someday she'd travel the world on a boat. As it turns out, she was the woman to do it, the woman who one day said yes to the plans, yes to the timing, yes to bringing along their children, yes to homeschooling while on the boat, yes to all of it. So, in 1999 they bought a 57-foot trawler and named her Onawa. Peter spent several months readying the boat for the voyage while Leisa worked on the interior design, remaking the inside of what would soon become their home. Over the course of the next 13 months, they sailed from Vancouver up into Alaska and back down the North American coast, along the Central American coast, through the Panama Canal and then up to Florida. When she tells stories of the boating community, she says, "The people we met along the way were amazing." As I listen to her, a member of the boating community herself, I can well imagine.
Eventually, some time after returning from her boating excursion, Leisa sold her business to her partner. She became involved with the Boys and Girls Club of Hilton Head, co-chairing six of their galas and serving on the board for eight years. More recently, she's been involved with the Boys and Girls Club of Bluffton, including co-chairing the 2011 Spring Gala. Additionally, while her daughter was at Hilton Head Prep, she worked to build the Arts Guild there into a strong entity.
Four years ago, finding that there was a "creative side of me that was dying on the vine," she began working as a buyer for the retail division of Outside Hilton Head, using her eye for design and fashion to buy women's apparel, accessories and footwear for active women.
As I leave Leisa's home, I can't help but think of Thoreau and his words from Walden about wishing "to live deliberately.and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." All of it, the family, the businesses, the careers, the year on the boat, the community work, all of it, I sense, is indeed just that; she is living deliberately and well.
Her most unusual living quarters: (other than the boat): Leisa and her husband fixed up an old monastery on her in-laws' property and lived in it during their first year of marriage.
Decorating style: Leisa describes her style as eclectic, a mixing of old with new, and many of the pieces in her home have stories behind them.
Significance of her boat's name: Onawa means "wide awake" in Cherokee.
If you could, would you do your boat trip again? "Totally."
Best thing about living on a boat: "By far, it was being together with family."
On their life together, Leisa says: "Peter is the rock that makes all of this happen."