GROWING UP IN CLEARWATER, FLORIDA, most of the families in our neighborhood were transplants from somewhere else. At this point, almost all of Florida is populated by transplants, usually Northern, often retired. But my sisters and I are sixth-generation Floridians. When the Scots and the Brits that make up most of our genetic inheritance left the motherland, they plopped down straightaway in Gainesville and Dunedin, trading fog, cold, and Robert Burns for sunshine, flying cockroaches, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Florida was wild then, and messy. It’s still messy, though the highways and sod companies try to hem it in. Florida is like a well-fed body squeezed in a too-small corset. If you’re too prissy, then Florida is not for you. There’s not much puritan in old Florida folk, though there’s plenty of overzealous morality; it just doesn’t bleed down into minding the way our hair gets squashed by our ugly sun hats, or the way we chase lizards out of our homes. If you’re my dead Grandaddy Cook, you wear a squashed sunhat when you visit the local BB&T to drop off your businesses checks. On the way in, you eat a few wild plums growing on the tree outside and toss the pit in the retention pond that shines in front of the bank manager’s window.
Florida landscape has a lush unselfconsciousness, like a beautiful woman eating fried chicken with her hands. She likes fried chicken; she should be allowed to enjoy it, publicly, messy fingers and napkins be damned. In Florida, ivy spills over fresh picket fences, thick cloaks of Spanish moss trail from live oaks, and limestone crumbles under seemingly-solid ground. People’s houses disappear into those pits, and there’s nothing really to do about it, except check your own insurance policy and keep the payments up to date. Even in our most populated cities, alligators eat up old ladies’ Chihuahuas and Pomeranians on the daily. No number of warnings from the local news stations can convince our snowbird neighbors that letting one’s pet frolic near any body of water larger than a bathtub will be a happy event for the cold-blooded creature therein.
I don’t know anyone beyond my sisters and cousins whose family has lived in Florida as long as we have (though it’s possible that they’re a little more proud of the fact than me). I feel a responsibility to the state that’s borne both of deep, abiding love and the fact that I’ve already worked through my embarrassment over doing things differently than everyone else I grew up with. Living outside of Florida now, as an adult, feels inevitable and tragic—an amputation of my self-understanding and way of being in the world. Strangely though, outside of Florida, I’m more able to talk with friends about Old Florida life, and those old, dying habits—mostly regarding food—that set my sisters and me apart for years.
As a child, my dad taught me what plants I could eat that grew in our backyard. When I needed a snack after playing too long in our backyard’s itchy scrub, I’d either raid my mom’s York Peppermint Patty stash or I’d tug a palmetto branch from its rough brown base and chew the sweet white stem. When we drove to Gainesville to visit family and swim the Santa Fe, I caught crawdads while snorkeling around the limestone caves. I’d bring them in to my dad and my aunt who would fix them up along with dinner—until I turned twelve or so, and realized that it was strange to eat something that you’d ever seen in its live state, and even more strange to use your own hands to catch it. My hand was small enough that I could have kept catching crawdads for years, but I’d already been laughed at by a friend when my dad stopped on the roadside to pick up a wet brown paper bag of boiled peanuts. I didn’t need anyone’s eye on me to be embarrassed, and to know that it was weird not to buy your bread in a bag from the grocery store, or to know how to cook okra five different ways.
When I stopped catching crawdads, I started to think our family might be too boisterous. My friend Elaine—a child that my more judgmental adult self would secretly call “a milksop”—had the most tidy and orderly life imaginable. Her parents were Pennsylvania-borne, but not Pennsylvania Dutch. They bought cheese with individually wrapped slices, and when I stayed for dinner, we ate boiled hot dogs with boiled broccoli and various other boiled things. I wonder now if one of the parents may have had some delicate intestinal troubles; why so much boiling? Elaine’s family dished the servings onto my plate so that each food item maintained a spatial barrier from the rest. They were so glamorous to me, and Elaine never finished a meal. I stopped asking for seconds at her house after hearing her dad whisper that my visits were like “feeding the five thousand.”
I envied how Elaine had the good taste to not like so many things, and how her parents exclaimed when her clothes got dirty or when she splashed a bit too much in the pool. I started to notice my absurd bigness of being: the way I ripped my new birthday dress climbing a fence, the way I never bothered to match my socks out of the dryer, the way I ate so voraciously for every meal. In retrospect, Elaine and her parents can’t be held responsible for any of these feelings that started to burble up inside me. They were, simply, city people, and very nice ones at that. I was being raised like a frontier kid while living in a deed-restricted community right near Clearwater Beach, one of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations. Even though I remember flushing with embarrassment and skulking back through the shadowy hallway after hearing the whispered “feeding the five thousand” remark, it was probably true. At eight, I ate comparably to a twenty-year-old man on a lacrosse team.
One element of our lives that I never allowed myself to feel shame over was our love of the river. We spent so many weeks on the Santa Fe in my grandfather’s crumbling old River House. Though it rose almost fifty feet from the shoreline, the walls inside were stained from the floods that came in Hurricane Season. At the River House, I’d wake up to light streaming from the spiderwebby porch, run to the bathroom, run back out, wait for my dad to shoot the cottonmouth that had curled up in our sink, help my dad dispose of said cottonmouth’s body by tossing it over the limestone cliff and into the river, brush my teeth and hair in the ancient, slate-grey mirror, and then run outside with my sketchbook to scrabble down the rocks onto a neighbor’s half-sunken dock. I’d sit there with the dark water slapping the dock’s sides and draw the cypress trees with their knob-knees like black fingers from the water’s edge, and I’d squint to find my favorite alligator sunning herself on the island near the other bank. In these moments, with my pen and some of my mom’s York Peppermint Patties in hand, I’d stop thinking of myself and my twelve-year-old glamour and simply rest.
It’s easy to be free from pubescent angst when one’s alone, and to feel a sweet calm while watching a blue heron stalk the shallows, or to sit only-half breathing so as not to startle the doe and buck that stand watching at the nearby forest’s edge. But one day, as I sat with my sketchbook and my pet snapping turtle (too small to do anything other than gnaw my thumb and float in the saucepan aquarium I made for him), I heard a great commotion from the river. The dock I sat on is on one of the Santa Fe’s many bends, so by the time I could see something coming down current, it wasn’t that far away. Into view floated a family. Tubing is really common and fun, something people all over the US do in warm weather, but these people weren’t tubing. They had rigged a floating city of air mattresses together with rope. The patriarch rode something like an air-filled La-Z-Boy. They were all laughing and jumping and diving from one mattress to pop up next to another. They had big bellies and pink faces, and squashed sun hats on their heads. I immediately recognized them. They were big-living Old Florida people like us, boisterous and clannish and, after air conditioning became common and the snowbirds flew down to fill our cities with Denny’ses and Bob Evanses, they were suddenly odd, even though nothing in themselves had changed. I thought how much fun it would be to ride the Santa Fe on a mattress. As the current swept them closer, I set my sketchbook down and assumed a cool expression. I’d brushed my hair that morning, although cursorily, and I wasn’t particularly grubby for once. I watched them without smiling or frowning, like I was someone else, until the sun-pink boy my age writhed on his mattress and yelled back to the rest of his group, “You guys, this is kind of embarrassing.”
Elizabeth Kaye Cook holds an MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. Her work has appeared in Ruminate, Lilac City Fairytales, and elsewhere.