The first time we went to St. George Island, Sam was only two. Rob couldn’t get away, and so I flew from Lansing to Tallahassee with the diaper bag, the purse, the umbrella stroller, and the Terrible Two-year-old who threw his sippy cup at the besuited businessman who had the misfortune to sit next to us.
I wasn’t sure about the whole Florida thing – I associated it with idiots from high school who drove down in caravans over spring break so that they could get sunburned, drink too much and have sex with strangers. I knew about Miami from watching TV, the Everglades from watching “Gentle Ben” as a child, Disney because I was a human being living in the world, and West Palm Beach because my in-laws lived there. Mostly, it seemed too glitzy for me (except for the Everglades) and I really don’t like to be hot very much. I don’t like summers here, so it seemed strange to pay money to travel someplace else to be hot and sweaty. It was, however, my parents’ money, so I agreed. They loved St. George. They said it was like the Maine of my childhood summers. I packed up my baby and flew.
Sam and “Papa” flying kites on the beach, their shouts reaching me as I sat on the deck and read. Putting on shoes and running down to climb the tree and rescue the kite, clinging to the prickly branches with one hand while cutting the string with the other, separating kite from tree. A hero’s welcome on the ground from my father and my son, and who knew I could climb a tree?!
They were right, it was magic. Remote, unspoiled, reachable by flying into Tallahassee and driving West, through the town of Apalachicola, across a bridge, and onto St. George, a barrier Island in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no nightlife, aside from a couple of restaurant bars, at least not in the winter. When we visited the Island, every year for ten years, it was too cold for the folks who visited from Atlanta and Memphis; they didn’t come until later. For us, arriving from a place where it was 12 degrees and snowing when we waved farewell to Daddy, it was perfect. No hotter than 70 in the daytime, cool in the evenings, with a variety of sunny and misty days. we didn’t care; we headed to the beach regardless of the weather, collected shells and beach glass, rode bikes, played ping-pong, flew kites, made sand people on the beach, scrambled up the steep rocks of Bob Sykes Cut, and fished. We threw our windows open and left them that way the night we arrived, anxious to hear the waves and feel the moist air after months of dry heat. Sam got a boogie board and paddled into the waves, astonishing passing Southern types who couldn’t believe anyone who “go into that freezing cold water.” We took pictures of sunsets, and called Grandma to the window when a school of dolphins swam past, leaping into the air and seeming to stay long enough for her to see them, every single time. Many times, we saw no one else on the beach, and sometimes we saw a lone dog out for a run, or a fisherman heading to the Cut to try his or her luck.
We went into Apalachicola often, making the half-hour trek across the bridge to eat out, shop at the Piggly Wiggly, or browse the tiny but well-curated bookstore. We ate fried everything, since that part of Florida is really The South; we ate fried Grouper, and fried shrimp fresh from the water visible at the end of the street, and french fries and the ubiquitous hush puppy. I learned to eat oysters there two years ago, and it was a consuming passion for me to try them everywhere we went, fried, raw, in stew and any other way they were offered to me. We were aware, always, of the poverty just around the edges of the upscale restaurants and shops; we saw the oystermen coming into the Piggly Wiggly, dirty and exhausted after a day of tonging in the bay. We saw the affluent folks who sold real estate to other affluent folks, the bankers, and the people wealthy enough to own property where they could live as “snowbirds” and we saw the children in ragged clothes on the playground outside the local elementary school.
Walking down to the beach the minute we had our bags inside the front door, before we even checked out the house. Walking carefully on an unfamiliar path, flashlights in hand, following the sound and smell of the ocean. Flashlight beams catching scores of tiny, white crabs scuttling on the sand, fleeing into holes we had never noticed. A new tradition: going out at night to spot the crabs, careful not to trample them.
We took it all in; we talked about it. It was not a resort, but a place where people lived, and worked and sometimes, suffered terribly. We talked to Sam about it as he grew older, talking freely about the tension between the desire to keep the area unspoiled, and the need for people to have work to do to support their families. After Katrina devastated the area, we drove past the shattered and shuttered remains of homes and businesses along the water on Route 98; within two years it was mostly rebuilt, although the slow flow of promised government aid had frustrated and disappointed many, and caused some to leave the place where they had planned to stay forever. We talked about a lot of things, the four of us. It was time out of the busy-ness that regulated our life at home, and there was a shifting of time and roles as I became my parents’ child again, watched my father fly kites with Sam or work with him on the giant jigsaw puzzle that was begun every year. Sam learned about the Island’s lighthouse, about river conservation, about commercial fishing and about the riggings and sails on the boats docked in the harbor at Apalachicola. He learned about cormorants, pelicans, herons and the lowly gull. On the years we drove home with my parents, he visited Civil War battlefields, learned about historic preservation in Franklin, Kentucky, ate at a Waffle House, and saw Confederate flags flying.
Three years ago, my mother, not in good health to begin with, fell ill and went to the hospital in Apalachicola. She spent the rest of her stay there, in a hospital that serves the poorest of the poor, and has none of the modern, shiny accoutrements of the hospitals we know around here. No fancy equipment for tests, no Kleenex, no padded armchairs for my father to sit in during the hours he spent by her side. There were discussions of driving her to Tallahassee or Panama City by ambulance, and a relative with “connections” offered to send his private plane to fly her wherever she needed to go. in the end, they were able to stabilize her and send her home, but there was a dark question hanging over all trips thereafter. What if it happened again? What if we couldn’t get her treated in time? It was an Island, after all, an Island without so much as a Redi-Care. Two years after that, she tripped and fell coming out of a restaurant. we were back at the hospital, her wrist was broken, they thought; they thought maybe she should see a specialist when she got home. Pain meds and a sling for the long drive North.
Sam carrying a bag of stale bread to the beach, siting regally on the sand with a cloud of gulls hovering overhead. They follow him wherever he goes; he throws pieces of bread to those he deems neediest. He misses his dogs, I think. He does this every year, and every year I think I shouldn’t let him encourage the gulls, that he might be bothering the rare “others” on the beach. It makes him so happy, and I let him.
Last year, a beautiful visit. No hospital trips, lots of sun, many oysters, a house at the perfect location: the point where the beach met the Cut that marks the passage from the bay to the open ocean. Sam climbed the rocks of the Cut while I combed the beach for perfect pieces of glass, shells that caught my eye, and perfect moments of transcendent peace that I seem to find only on that beach. Trying to balance my love of the place with the understanding that it wouldn’t last forever. My parents are old, my mother isn’t well, and it just isn’t a trip that we could afford to make without their help. I tried not to cling, but to enjoy everything fully, to make it a part of me from the salt-freshness of new oysters to the sheer joy of Sam running into the cold waves. Last year, as he paddled out on his boogie board, a school of dolphins came as close to shore as I have ever seen them, their flippers and benign smiles visible without binoculars. They were so close to Sam, that if he had wanted to, he could have paddled out further and joined them in their revels. Maybe they knew; maybe they wanted us to have something wonderful to remember.
This year, the house was selected and reserved, I picked a week to travel, and I fixed the ocean in my mind as the reward for the harshness of winter, of too much bill and not quite enough cash, of struggles with homework and family disasters. Yesterday I got the call from my mother saying that she hadn’t been feeling well, and that her doctor thought it was better if she didn’t spend six weeks on an Island with no decent hospital nearby. I heard the regret in her voice, the sense of losing control over everything because her body refused to support her plans; I could only say that it was okay, that I understood, and that we would try again next year. I knew it was over, that there wouldn’t be a “next year,” that St. George was forever a place in my memories, like my grandparents’ houses in Ohio and Rhode Island, long ago sold to other people, filled with strange furniture, inaccessible to me. I told Sam, who was as mature and understanding as I could have hoped, seeing a part of his entire remembered life slipping away.
In my office, in the dark, I cried. I cried for the ocean I might not see again, the lost possibility of finding peace as I measured my small problems against the grandeur of the eternal ocean, the time spent out of real life with my parents and my child. It’s nobody’s fault, I knew it was coming, but I’m just damned sad. My comfort, at the moment, is that it’s all still there, whether I see it or not. How long can I be sad in a world that has such beauty in it?