Friday marked only the second occurrence in my entire life of its kind: I set foot in South Florida. See, unlike a lot of Floridians, I had never really explored the region that a lot of people like to refer to as “SoFlo”. South Florida to me has always been a bit of a mythical land, like Asgard, Shangri-La, or Dallas*. I had only been there once before, to visit one of my mom’s cousins in Port St. Lucie, many many years ago…when I was, maybe, 10 years old.
*= When you see somebody on “Undercover Boss” enthusiastically choose Dallas as their destination when said boss offers them a trip to literally anywhere, you might as well consider Dallas’ appeal to be as mythical as that of other, actual mythical places.
So a few days ago, we got an invitation to visit my mom’s best friend from high school at her place in Ft. Myers before said friend was scheduled to leave to bring her longtime boyfriend’s mother home to Massachusetts before spending the spring and summer in New Hampshire (which they used to call home full-time, but have now moved to their home in Florida). When my dad asked me if I wanted to come along, I jumped at it. You may remember me mentioning this friend in one of my earliest entries, “You Might Be a Floridian“. Over a decade ago, before my mom’s memory had started to cloud, she had found her friend’s ex-husband online and sent him an email asking about her. He sent a reply back saying that he and my mom’s friend had divorced years earlier, but was able to provide her with contact information. When she and her friend, who I will call L., talked to each other for the first time in over 30 years, it was as though they hadn’t missed a day. One of the first things L. said to my mother was, “You have an accent!” (This referred to the fact that my mom, after growing up in New England for most of her childhood, had long lost her New England accent and currently speaks with more of a Southern accent, although even now the New England accent will occasionally sneak back in.) We have met with her and her boyfriend, who I will refer to as W., many times over the years, even as my mom’s condition has worsened. (I still don’t feel completely comfortable talking about what my mom is dealing with, but I may do so at some point in the future. Only my closest friends really know the details right now, and I still feel like keeping it that way.) L. is genuinely one of the nicest people in the world, not a single mean bone in her body, and she has such a gentle, warm personality that welcomes anyone around her. She wears her blonde hair in a short bob with bangs, her slender frame tan from years of enjoying the sunshine and the beach. She greets everyone in a soft-spoken but friendly voice accented with the same dialect that my mother grew up speaking, New England (specifically northwestern Massachusetts). My mother’s face lights up every time we see her, a sight that is hard for us to see on most days.
We made plans to go down to visit her Friday, but it would be quite a trip. We’d make it a day trip, but it was gonna be around 400 miles round trip. So, we got into the Jeep (a Grand Cherokee that my dad traded in his truck for a few months back so that it would be easier for my mom to get in and out), and after having to leave the local McDonald’s drive through due to their card reader being out of order, we ordered some breakfast sandwiches and iced coffee from the Burger King across the street…but they forgot to put straws for the coffees in the bag (which meant that we had to take the lids off and drink them the old-fashioned way). I had sausage biscuit sandwiches, which were okay…but not quite as good as McDonald’s version. McDonald’s version has a nice, buttery biscuit that is not too moist and not too dry. The iced coffee was good, though; its flavor was a nicely-balanced blend of vanilla and coffee. Burger King’s version had the biscuit a bit more softer than I like, but it wasn’t terrible. I ate the second biscuit somewhere around Tampa. (Mom and Dad both ate sausage and cheese croissant sandwiches.)
We made our way to I-4 and then to the 417. Now, normally we don’t take toll roads (and the 417 is a toll road), but if you need to know anything about Central Florida traffic, it’s this: driving on I-4 through Orlando on a Friday can be hell. Taking the 417 around Orlando ended up saving us about an hour…or so we thought. That hour got eaten back up when we made the switch over to I-75 around Tampa. You see, there is no one particular driving style unique to Florida, and that is because Florida (being a popular tourist destination and retirement state) is a microcosm of the United States as a whole: it is a salad bowl of different states and states’ cultures. And much like the immigrants that have brought their traditions and incorporated them into American culture from the very beginning, the same goes for people who move to Florida from other states (and that includes driving styles). There are many people who drive like idiots on Florida highways, essentially treating Florida’s interstates like a game of Frogger, seemingly crossing into any open space in a lane and waiting until the last possible second to make their exit, which of course increases the risk of an accident. My dad, having driven in Florida for most of his life, has learned from this extremely well and is very well-versed in the Art of Florida Driving. Watching him drive and navigate his way through I-4 traffic, knowing I will at some point have to learn how to do this myself (and it scares the 😈 out of me at the thought of it), I have learned that the number one rule of driving in Florida is Expect the Unexpected. (Also known as “Prepare for Idiots”.)
It took us about two hours to get to Tampa, and then about another two or two and a half hours to finally make our way to Ft. Myers. We found our destination with help from the Jeep’s GPS system, and we were glad to be able to get out and stretch our legs when we saw L. and W.’s mother (who I will call F.), as W. was not there at the time; he was at the local flea market selling holographic pictures they had ordered in bulk. More on those in a moment. L. & W.’s House was located in a retirement park where the streets were lined with lots of small, trailer-like houses (not unlike the one that my maternal grandfather lived in up in New Hampshire for many years before his illness, although L. & W.’s house was a bit smaller than what I remember of my grandfather’s home). Their house was a light blue color, a favorite of L.’s, as almost every memory I have of her is of her wearing either pastel blue or pastel pink. The front door (on the northern end of the house) opened to two steps leading up into the combined living room/dining area; the living room section had a squishy armchair with a sky blue cover, a small white coffee table, and a couch that could seat three (and possibly also had a fold-out bed for guests). There was a Roku TV set up, but not on, in the living room, and a radio playing ’70s and ’80s music in the kitchen. At the end of the living area opposite the front door was white dinner table with white chairs that could seat four. The walls were decorated in all sorts of tropical colors and wind chimes present in almost every corner of the room. What caught my eye, though, was their Christmas tree (still up in February). It was not an actual tree, but lights strung up across a conical, Christmas tree-shaped structure, and in almost every space between the lights’ wiring hung a small, glass wind chime. Imagine these spread across an entire Christmas tree. A curtain of seashells separated the door between the living area and the kitchen. Their kitchen was actually the largest room in the house, with their stove and appliances situated on the southern end and a small, narrow hallway on the northern end that led to a laundry room, a bathroom, and the master bedroom. The bathroom was just as tropical in appearance as the rest of the house.
Outside, their front yard had a small palm tree 🌴 and a display out front with a witty message. Out back there was a coconut palm tree (one of two in the immediate area) which had at least a dozen coconuts in various stages of growth attached to it. To the right was an area covered in seashells (which L. had told us were gathered from the beaches of Sanibel Island, not far from the Ft. Myers area), in which sat a lime green lounge chair, some decorations, and several pots with small, round trellises inserted to guide the vines of cherry tomatoes that grew within them. While most of these tomatoes (planted and grown by W.) were still green, there were a few that were ripened enough to pick, clean, and eat right from the vine. We ate a few of the tomatoes, and they were juicy, flavorful, and absolutely delicious. I just wish she’d have been able to put some in our chicken salad that she had made for us. That was delicious, too. L. gave Dad a couple of the holographic pictures she and W. had been selling for most of the winter, one for his office at work (that consisted of three different images of eagles), and one for our house (a black and white image of a girl and a wolf that appeared incredibly three-dimensional).
All in all, we stayed for just three hours, as L. and F. were planning on going to bingo that evening for one last time before they were scheduled to leave for New England the next morning. I didn’t get to see any beaches. Then it came time to make our drive home. After a few moments of me falling asleep in the backseat after just barely leaving Ft. Myers, we stopped at a McDonald’s in Charlotte County to get some burgers, fries, and Cokes for the road. Barely a few minutes into that, one of the packs fries fell straight onto the floor. Back onto I-75, where I watched the sun set from the back seat of the Jeep, mused about the ridiculousness of a flat Earth (assuming such an Earth rotated on a vertical axis), and then hoped I could see stars through our moonroof. Sadly, I did not. My father, at the wheel, all the while did his best to avoid being stuck behind idiotic drivers, those likely to be out in full force on a Friday night. We got back to I-4 before 8:00, refueled at a gas station in Polk County, with ’70s and ’80s rock music blasting on our radio. We found our way back to the 417 and then had to take a bathroom break at a rest stop along the way. We stretched our legs while I consoled my mother, who got anxious. Dad cleaned the fallen French fries from his floorboard and then took his own bathroom break. We took a brief stroll back to the Jeep, and on the way I was able to look up and see both the constellation Orion and nearby, the waxing gibbous moon. We helped my mother back into the Jeep, my dad and I got back in once again, and then we set out on the road one last time, riding the 417 through the various toll booths until we found I-4 and were able to find those familiar roads back to my hometown. We arrived home at about 10:30, a bit tired, a little cranky, and to the greetings of our excited American Bulldog/Jack Russell mix, who ran to us with glee before proceeding to dart around the yard. She kept showering us with wet, sloppy canine kisses, even when we didn’t want her to. We finally settled down for the evening. I didn’t go to bed until 1:00 in the morning on Saturday, a full 18 hours after I had first gotten up. It was the end to what was for sure a memorable day in my mind.