A decade later, I see Myrtle Beach differently than I did as a girl

My preteen legs run fast to the top of my great aunt and uncle’s Myrtle Beach motel.

It’s pouring rain, and half a dozen of us cousins are racing to the top of the Midtown Motor Inn to see the rain falling over the ocean.

We sit at the top on that green artificial turf that covers the stairs and balcony floors.

We talk, watch the rain, climb on the stair railings like monkeys.

And now, more than a decade later, I drive by that old motel and remember how innocently happy we were running around those floors, swimming in the motel pool, knocking on guests’ doors and running away.

I remember us getting our own motel room for our cousin sleepovers, jumping on the two beds that had coin slots which made the beds vibrate – something you don’t see anymore. I remember grabbing warm towels out of the big dryer to help fold and put on the cart that took the clean towels to rooms.

I’ll never forget our countless trips to the Pavilion – my favorite amusement park that isn’t there anymore. I nearly cried when I heard it was going away.

I’ve been back in the area for about a month, reporting at The Sun News – a paper my family and I drove by tons of times when I was growing up.

But now I’m seeing the things I never saw in my lack-of-understanding-the-bad years.

A prostitution bust.

 

Police arresting someone in connection to drugs in an Ocean Boulevard hotel.

A Coastal Carolina football player charged by police with criminal sexual conduct, which I found in a routine look through police reports early one morning.

Part of me wonders – has there always been this much crime? Or did I just not know of it when I was a little girl? I’m not sure if that question can be answered.

But I’m so thankful for my job – a job that lets me dig into those issues, shine light where some may not want it shined.

I know it’s important to shine that light. I know families on vacation should know what’s going on. And I know locals should know the dangers around where they live.

Though I miss my young years, growing up ignorant to the bad stuff, I’m happy to be back to make a difference in the area that helped raised me.

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Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

Here come the Americans

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We walk down a side street in Lastra a Signa, a small town outside of Florence, Italy, and my father asks me, “Why is everyone staring at us?”

“It’s your New Balance tennis shoes,” I tease him. The Italians – especially the Italian men – wear leather loafers.

Or maybe some know we’re American because we drive down a one-way street into oncoming traffic minutes after we get our rental car. We’re fine – more importantly the rental car’s fine. We now know a red circular sign with a horizontal white line means “one way.”

A 12-day family trip to Florence, Italy teaches us we stick out like sore thumbs in some cities around the Tuscan area. It’s mostly in the places where the locals frequent and Americans don’t venture – but that’s why we choose to visit those places.

Though we don’t have much to offer the Florentines, they have so much to offer us – architecture, history, art, leather, food.

The Italians are welcoming when we arrive in a new place. They’re patient when we can’t understand the language. And helpful when we can’t find the grocery store – and by helpful, they get in their cars and tell us to follow them to the store just to show us themselves.

 

The first authentic meal

I sit in a restaurant ready for my first real Italian meal.

The menu is, of course, in Italian. So my mother, sister and I go for the safe bet – pizza. My brother and father go for the pasta and risotto, not completely sure what will be in the dishes.

The waiter gives me a weird look when I only order one dish. But I ignore the look – I know there’s no way my 120-pound body could eat a normal four-course Italian supper all by myself.

The pizzas arrive about 10 minutes later. One by one the waiter puts them on the table.

It all looks appetizing except for one – my mother’s pizza.

She looks at it with eyeballs almost as big as the eyeballs on the full-sized, unpeeled prawns on top.

She hates seafood.

And she really hates those eyeballs looking back at her.

I quickly tell her to switch pizzas with me – I can tell from her almost-green face she wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

We finally get the hang of ordering after the next few meals.

And we learn what’s proper when it comes to food and drinks – like the chefs don’t cut your pizza for you, but they do cut your steak into strips. Like it’s not polite to ask for cream in your coffee after noon. Like the Italians eat their salads after their main course, not before like we do – it’s to help with digestion, apparently.

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Winery tours

A handful of wood barrels big enough for all five of us to fit inside surround me in a wine cellar at Castello di Verrazzano, an elegant vineyard with a castle and hectares of land that have produced wine for a very long time.

Our tour guide explains the contraption at the top – which looks like an old oil lamp. It’s a colmatori, and it lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

It lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.

As the tour ends, our guide leads us to a nice dining room overlooking the fields of olives and grapes.

In front of me sits a line of four wine glasses – all for me. That’s when I start to wonder if we’ll make it to the next winery tour.

Several waiters come around and fill our glasses up with rosé – a light red wine with some grapes skins – and three other darker red wines, from a bold, smoky taste to a smoother taste.

We are told to drink the wines from right to left and pair each with certain cheeses, cured meats and the most delicious, sweet balsamic vinegar.

By the end, we’re full. We hop into our rental car. And drive to another city outside of Florence for our next tour.

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A walk around Florence

I keep my bag close as we walk around Florence.

The gypsies are like everyone else – they know we’re American and probably have lots of euros in our pockets.

The city’s small and easy to navigate.

The Piazza della Signoria, or the main square, sits right in the middle of Florence.

Hidden in alley ways and on street corners are gelato shops and coffee bars.

Each flavor of gelato is shaped like a mound sitting in an aluminum container with swirling designs on top.

I pick stracciatella – vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate drizzled over that hardens.

There are several palaces were the money-making, business-minded families lived during the end of the medieval time and into the Renaissance period.

My favorite one – the Medici palace. It’s known to the Florentines as Palazzo Medici Riccardi.

A stone-like bench surrounds the home. It’s where artists and businessmen sat and waited to meet inside to talk business.

The “front doors” of these palaces are at least 15 feet in the air – so the enemies couldn’t enter. A ladder would draw down for the family and friends to enter and exit.

Our tour guide tells us about the women, who were rarely allowed to leave the homes because of all the disease and filth people would just throw in the streets.

Instead, the women would dye their hair and sit in the sun on the terrace. Their idea of hair dye – urine. Yes, urine.

It was all about pale skin and light colored hair.

For make-up, women used white lead, which hardened on their faces. That’s where we get the term, “Cracking up laughing.”

 

Birth of Venus, David bring tears

I see it in the next room and immediately leave our tour group.

I stand on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, look at Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting right in front of me – a painting I studied three years ago in art history. It’s roughly 5 ½ by 9 feet.

Almost breathless, I stare at the beautiful colors – the strawberry blonde of Venus’ hair, the blue and green ocean, the pink of the robe her handmaiden holds.

It’s a feeling I can’t describe – I knew what it looked like in a textbook, but not in real life.

A few blocks down, I round a corner in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

And there he stands over 16 feet tall – David.

His detailed marble body brings tears to my eyes. He’s a miracle by Michelangelo.

With a slingshot over his shoulder and braveness in his eyes, he’s about to take on Goliath.

I stand there and think – if I lived here, there’s no way I’d take advantage of the oldness or history or art or food.

About 48 hours later, I’m stuffed in seat 37B for the 11-hour flight home – a flight I spent remembering all the beauty I’ve shared with my family.

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Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

It’s no secret

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A Sunday was the perfect day to make one – my first pound cake.

Sugar. Butter. Self rising flour. All purpose flour. Milk. Eggs. Vanilla, lemon, almond extracts. And Crisco. You can’t forget the Crisco. Or the fact that unsealing a new can of it is enough to give you a heart attack.

It’s no secret recipe. She would share it with whoever wanted it.

She could have given it out to every single person in the world to make, but nobody could top the way hers turned out.

If you knew Reba Bruton, you knew she loved to cook. And that she was beyond good at it.

She was especially known for her pound cakes. And she was always baking cakes for Cedar Grove Baptist Church’s youth fundraisers.

She passed on Jan. 31, 2017 – two weeks before Valentine’s Day.

My mother found her handwritten recipe lying on the dining room counter a week later.

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Grandma had promised to make a pound cake for the Valentine’s dinner at church – a quaint, southern church outside of Conway, SC.

So, my mother baked the cake.

Her, my father and Papa watched it auction off for $280, the highest price of the evening.

My mother sent me a picture of the recipe the Sunday before Valentine’s Day.

I read my grandma’s handwritten recipe. And remembered her homemade grape jelly I still had. I remembered pouring hot water over tomatoes before canning them with her one summer.

I pulled out her old mixer – one she gave me when I moved into my own house. A tan Oster mixer that also turns into a blender. I’m sure it’s from the late 1970s. It’s mixed hundreds of pound cakes.

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I know my grandma had a good laugh up in heaven watching me fight her old mixer, trying to get the top part to lift up. Nobody told me there was a secret button underneath.

I could hear her saying, “Don’t tear it up!”

As the ingredients mixed together, I gave the bowl a few extra pushes to keep it turning. And looked at how pretty the batter was – just like hers.

I greased up one of her old pound cake pans, the kind with the hole in the middle. And poured the mixture in.

Nearly an hour and a half later, I pulled out a nice, golden pound cake.

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With batter still on my arms, I waited for it to cool. Put a plate on top. Flipped it. Cut it.

Fluffy on the inside and a brown crust on the outside.

Just like hers, but not quite as good.

Follow reporter Hannah Strong on Twitter and Instagram @HannahLStrong

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Two hugs for grandma

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When my grandmother passed away last week, I was writing in my head over the exhaustingly long days. Unable to fully get it all on paper, I wrote small notes on a page full of Hardee’s coupons. Little notes to remember the memories…

…like when she told us not to tell Papa a man “held her hands” when she got a manicure.

…or the time she taught me how to shoot the bird.

…or how a girl goes tinkle outside.

…or that I’d always give her two hugs before I left.

…and the time she cussed when we saw a snake in the river.

She hated snakes. And she was classy but rough around the edges.

As a full-time writer I’m constantly thinking about my life on paper. What I can write to save for later. What I can write to cherish moments forever.

I’m finally decompressing by writing. Surprise, surprise.

Life goes on – which is the hardest part after a death. Or is it your ex calling you sadistic after you get upset he didn’t reach out after the loss? I don’t know. But I do know what a death teaches you – who your real friends are and their true colors.

It’s who sends the long texts. Who follows up to make sure you’re okay. Who brings you chicken pot pie. Who says they are thinking about you. Who drives the distance to give you a hug and share tears. Who sends the flowers, cards, Shari’s Berries.

What’s also therapeutic during the grieving process is comic relief. A cousin getting left at the church after the funeral because our family is so big we can barely keep up with everyone. Or when your uncle’s and cousin’s suits accidentally get swapped – one coming out in a huge suit with a coat to his knees and the other in the back bedroom trying with everything he has to get the pants buttoned.

I also learned what funeral food is in the south. It’s boat loads of macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and about 10 different cakes.

But the best lesson I learned from the week was from my Papa.

“To have good friends you have to be a good friend,” he said.