I’ve lived in Florida nearly all my life. Who among the snow-shoveling crowd wouldn't have some degree of envy for those who enjoy a mild climate year round? Floridians wear shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops during months when Northerners are huddling beside their heat registers, wondering if the sun will ever shine again. The freezing masses migrate south by the millions each year to briefly experience the beauty we take for granted every day, such as exotic flowering greenery, gently swaying palm trees, and the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As they crisp their skin in the penetrating heat, they believe we’re exceedingly lucky to live as we do.
Under the circumstances, it isn’t difficult to ascertain why I was reluctant to admit to anyone that I’d often wished my seeds had been sown in a different garden. They’d think I’d lost my mind.
My family relocated to Seminole, Florida from Fort Wayne, Indiana when I was a little girl. Our move was the result of my father’s acceptance of an engineering position with a large aerospace firm. From the very beginning, I was dreadfully homesick, pining away for my beloved grandmother, and all we’d left behind. It would have been helpful if our new life offered some redemptive charm.
But, it didn’t. Quite the contrary…
Florida seemed a hot, and strange place to live. The bugs were huge, aggressive, and horrifyingly plentiful. The seasons flowed one into another with very little to distinguish their differences except for their names. Back in the 1960’s we were awash in sweat for eight months out of every twelve, as most homes and schools were without air conditioning. Our only relief from the heat in those days (aside from an occasional winter “cold front) was a fan in every room, and hard cool terrazzo floors.
Then if things weren’t unpleasant enough, I was scalped at age five by a crazed, scissor-happy, gum-smacking beautician named Midge.
The back of my long, curly, golden hair had begun matting into mammoth knots a few weeks before, as I tossed and turned on sweltering nights. Since a comb couldn’t be forced through the resulting tangles, my mother let her fingers do the walking, and found “Midge’s Cut n’Curl” in the yellow pages of the phone book.
Regrettably, Midge wasn’t a fashionista. She convinced Mom that I’d look “sweet” in a pixie; that dreadfully short hairstyle of the 1960’s that made any wearer resemble Peter Pan. Her suggestion might have looked adorable on an anorexic supermodel in a mini-dress, but it gave me the appearance of a Q-tip with an overbite. Of course after one look at my nearly bald, post-hair cut reflection in the mirror, I cried as though my heart would break. In a kindergarten world of Barbie doll wannabes with long blonde ponytails, I was practically hairless, and felt like a freak.
Midge was fortunate that I hadn’t yet reached driving age, or I’d have turned her into a grease spot.
Thankfully, we made twice-yearly visits to Indiana for summer vacations, and Christmases. That’s when my spirit came alive. Grandma would teach me neat things that Florida kids rarely learn, such as picking and shelling peas from the garden, snapping pole beans, and how to repel an invasion of Japanese beetles intent on destroying a prized bed of roses. My cousins and I enjoyed pilfering sour green apples from the neighbor's tree, gobbling as many as we could, then waiting to see which one of us would barf them up first. Nights were spent racing after lightning bugs, and catching them in vitamin jars that Grandma saved for us. After watching our little prisoners illuminate the chocolate brown walls to warm, glowing amber, we’d set them free and go find some more.
Winter visits were wonderful too. Christmas was time for snow, and that meant long hours spent sledding down the hill alongside the garage, or engaged in snowball fights, building snowmen, and making snow angels. Like most kids, I loved winter weather, when summer’s tender greenery slumbered under a blanket of white. Of course my adult counter-parts did their share of grumbling as they whipped out their scrapers and shovels to clear a path through it all. But for a Florida kid like me, there was nothing more enchanting than to watch huge snowflakes drop from a cloud, and feel them dissolve as they hit my warm, outstretched tongue.
No matter what time of year we visited, Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a haven, adorned with framed yellowing photographs, porcelain dolls, and vintage furniture, scented with the lingering aromas of spices, baked goods, noodles, and soap. It was a solid, safe place, sheltered by trees and blooming things. The memories created there would feed my hungry heart for the months, and years that followed. Indiana was my world. Florida was just the place where I lived.
Inevitably I began accepting my lot in life, and the homesickness began to fade. I started enjoying school, and made lots of great friends...most of whom I’m still very close with. A few years after graduation, I married a wonderful man, and we had a beautiful daughter.
For a while, there were very few visits made to Indiana, primarily because there was little time or money available for anything other than necessities. As family and career pressures mounted, I began to feel like I did when I was growing up; caught between two worlds, yearning for the sweetness and simplicity that Indiana had always represented, and finding very little of it where I was.
I craved the serenity of my birthplace, where the sprawling farmland had always whispered calm to my heart. I had traveled around the globe for business and pleasure, and had seen many different and interesting places. Yet Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Ft. Wayne, Indiana still held the honor of being the only spot where I felt completely right with the world.
So that was where I went to figure out what was missing in my life.
Being there was like a trip back in time. Blinking back tears of joy, I listened with the ears of a child to the comforting, familiar sounds I loved so well; the creaking porch swing, the wind rustling the shimmering leaves of the lofty maples surrounding the house, and the slight banging of pie pans suspended from the fruit trees in the orchard to frighten off greedy robins. I gathered Queen Anne’s lace by the handfuls while wandering through the adjacent meadow, reveling in their delicate beauty…each one unique.
As the sun faded into evening, I sat quietly on the front porch steps listening as the locusts began their nightly serenade. When I was little, their chorus would ebb and flow, announcing that it was “bedtime” to their audience of one, long before my mother would call me inside for the night. The lightning bugs beckoned to me, twinkling like diamonds as they drifted through the deepening dusk. I caught one in my hand as I did long ago, feeling it gently explore my palm. I opened my fingers, and released it into the cool dark night.
It was a magical interlude, and I was at peace.
The next day I stopped at a drive-in, and sat reminiscing in the same booth where my friends and I had hung out together during my visits, giggling and sharing secrets. Countless servings of French fries and milk shakes were devoured, while comparing boyfriends, discussing clothes, our families, and our dreams. I realized for the first time that many of my girlish dreams had come true .
What was missing was the time to enjoy them all.
It suddenly occurred to me that as I became immersed in the busyness of living, I’d not only forgotten how to slow down and appreciate simple pleasures, but I’d forgotten that they’d always been within my grasp.
I wanted to become more like the girl I used to be; who rocked to and fro on her Grandma’s old porch swing while reading romance novels, enjoying the sounds of nature. I wanted to clear my maniacal schedule to make room for the things that mattered most; tending to my own home in Florida, and realizing the contentment found there with those I love, who provide my greatest joy.
Instead of wishing I’d planted my seeds in a different garden, I finally comprehended the need to do what most discontented people should do…take the opportunity to appreciate the garden already planted.
On my journey through time, I learned a simple truth; when people aren't feeling fulfilled, or their nerves are on overload, maybe it's time to just stop and smell the roses. Or head home for a while, even if it's only in memories.
Perhaps in memories, what was missing might be found again.
Michelle Close Mills ©