Going home to Florida in June is like entering the steamy heart of my past, my roots, my dad, my family. Each time I go back, I remember why I like it better with a whole continent between us.
Going to Florida to see my 81-year-old dad for Father's Day was not something I would ordinarily do. It's just that he sounded so frail over the phone last month, so unlike this usual feistiness and irascibility.
I can't say that we had a heart-to-heart talk, faddah to son. He's kinda deaf, so it's hard to be all emotional when you're shouting. Unless you're angry, of course. I didn't expect anything to change, or even particularly want it to. it was enough just to see him sitting in the carport as I pulled in under the shade of the huge ficus tree in our front yard. He was white-haired and shrunken, but he had a big smile when he saw me.
I was glad to see him alive, and not with dirt raining down on his coffin. He's a good man, even if he does get angry over stuff he has no control over. Nobody has control over what he gets upset by, but if he wants to shout about the damn Cubans, or Haitians, or New Yorkers who've flocked to the suburbanized corridor of South Florida...whatever.
We had a few quality moments, without the TV on or a newspaper between us, just talking about my future. We stayed away from his. I'll admit I put a positive spin on my five-year plan. He's got enough problems; he needs mine?
I'm glad this was a short trip. I wouldn't call it a vacation to Florida, more like duty. I felt guilty for years because I got home two days after my mother died. I didn't want to take any chances. But actually my old man pepped up when I got home. He still takes his daily bus ride, goes shopping, cooks, washes the dishes, does laundry, takes a walk, naps and then watches TV. The doctor told him if he didn't take it easy he was going to die soon. He didn't listen.
I washed some dishes, did some yard work, then rode a bicycle to the beach and lounged around in the surf. Florida has many charms and the weather is one of them. It rained every day I was there. Luscious, warm, tropical rain, short deluges then steaming sun, with a fleet of clouds sailing across the sky. The Atlantic ocean was clear and green, a warm, womb-like water. Red and gold mangoes were dropping from trees, adding their fermented scent to the pungent, rotting smell of subtropical Florida in the summer. It was a smell that brought me back through childhood, even to that first summer in the back yard of my suburban, Ft. Lauderdale home, where I began my excessive accumulation of UV radiation.
It's a vivid place, a surreal place, and it's not supposed to make sense. We can never escape our roots, the sugar sand and coral rock under the bedroom I slept in since childhood are part of my bones, my being, just like Dad is.
Humans have lived in South Florida at least 12,000 years, their tools and bones burrowing deeper over millennia, and my marbles and wrenches are sinking after them.
By the time Ponce de Leon landed in their part of southeast Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth, the Tekesta locals were living in a paradise which supported a stable population of villages on fishing and hunting and the coontie plant, a source of ground flour later used in making hardtack biscuits for sailors. Not much is known about the Tekesta because they died out from the European disease.
Evidently they had heard about the Spanish from refugees of the Caribbean holocaust going on at the time, because they greeted his landing party with a shower of arrows.The Seminoles who arrived later to the coastal strip of land between the Gulf Stream and the Everglades, had fought and retreated from Georgia down into the long peninsula of Spanish Florida. They weren't included in the treaty which signed over the land title to the U.S. Ever-increasing Americans pushed them even farther south, into the River of Grass with the alligators and panthers. One of the historic battles in their war against America was a surprise massacre of some American coontie farmers on the banks of the New River in Fort Lauderdale. I always stopped in a park commemorating the slain Americans. Some homeless fishermen were there every day, too. Manatees sometimes swam by in the tea-colored river.
Major Lauderdale built a fort near the site of the massacre; the fort is long dissolved. Now the Seminoles have giant bingo halls and gambling fortresses, plus tax-free cigarettes on their reservation. Tobacco, the native revenge. The locals in South Florida became friendlier in the 20th century and invited everyone down. Florida land speculation began the Great Depression after the Hurricane of 1926 burst the bubble. In the 1970's, central air conditioning led to the environmental disaster that South Florida is.
It is still beautiful, but the sheer numbers of people attracted there with their septic tanks and sewage outfalls along with sugar cane and lawn turf agricultural industries in the Everglades have poisoned much of the fresh water with mercury and nitrogen. Algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay and coral reef molds in the Florida Keys caused by this pollution are looting one of South Florida's treasures, the clarity of the salt water and the variety and beauty of sea life. Officials and citizens are making a concerted effort to clean up the worst of the abuses. I was involved in the effort when lived there, but it felt futile.
It's sad to feel so attached to a place and feel helpless to stop the continual destruction, even more so with my father. Destructive habits die hard and saving the environment of South Florida or saving my father from his own behavior appear to have about the same odds. I take the long-term view, everything will eventually rot away or become covered by rising oceans. My dad will be in a better place where he has big-screen TV.
South Florida is a strange place, mildly entertaining as long as you stay on the sidelines. My dad and I didn't have much to talk about other than the news. He reads the Miami Herald and the Ft. Lauderdale News, a thin, Gannett paper like the Marin IJ and USA Today. He loves to watch the Miami television news, which has no problem finding the daily rain of violence and star coverage format it specializes in. Ratings are high for that kind of news, flashing images of crime, crashes, beautiful people, while the ads are mostly for over-the-counter medicine and cars, hard to figure.
He watches Cops, where video cameras follow law enforcement officers into domestic violence scenes, or chasing minorities on drugs with guns. Never any donut shops.
It's weird to have most of my conversations with my dad center around force-fed trauma news. It's something to talk about other than the weather, sure, but isn't life supposed to be deeper than current events? Newspapers will all rot and mulch, we will all become dirt. My father's not afraid of death, neither is he eager for it to begin.
We had an awkward hug when I left, but it was enough. No need to get all emotional, or even affectionate. It was good just to connect. Not knowing whether I'd see him alive again. Knowing that we all slowly become soil.