Category Archives: Narrative

2023 in Florida: The Year I Could Do Without

“Is it OK with you if we don’t trim the tree this year?”

I ask my husband this on Christmas Eve’s Eve, en route to the grocery store to stock up on Tropo Chico and steak. Without missing a beat, he tells me “of course.”

I’ve had merrier years, y’all. 2023 came at me rapid fire.  Oh, it started optimistically enough, with my dad coming back from “he’ll be dead soon” proclamation on Nov. 30 to “he’s coming home and his future looks healthy and incredible” on Dec. 31.

2023 gave me warning signs, though.

I, ever the optimist (despite my press), chose not to see them. Barry’s uncle died rather abruptly and with little warning toward the end of 2022; it was tragic and all too soon (no time is not “too soon” with someone as warm and friendly and funny and loving as Uncle Barry), but I chose to see it as the heartbreaking period at the end of the sentence that was 2022.

A better Italian than I would have taken that as a sign. Clearly, I’ve been Americanized. That’ll teach me. I did not take it as a sign. We commenced with 2023. We camped: Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring in March.

In April, Barry received a call: His oldest friend had days to live. We hoofed it out to The Villages, where he said his goodbyes. There’s a lot around the perimeter of The Villages I would love to explore more; this was not the trip for that. This was the trip for farewells, and for clearing out a home. It’s easy, I should note, to laugh at The Villages, but when you’re staring down the face of losing a lifelong friend, mocking Spanish Springs doesn’t hit quite the same.

And yet we soldiered on. May brought us back to the Florida Keys, first to White Gate Court, then to Bahia Honda State Park. I spent some time thinking about what I could release, professionally. I made decisions to let some clients go; naively, I thought this would be the hardest things I said goodbye to in 2023.

In retrospect, the sargassum along the beach — and the flesh-eating bacteria that washed ashore with it — by our campsite could have been a sign. I chose to look past the seaweed and see the ocean.

My bad.

That was the good half of 2023.

A return trip to O’Leno State Park in July proved… unsatisfying. Mosquitoes were everywhere — and I am not one to complain about them, because they don’t usually care about me, but they were thick — meant we spent most of our time in the camper. The campground water pressure did little to wash the DEET off me, but hey, I’m used to the smell.

And yet, I persisted. We had one hell of an amazing trip to Fort Clinch State Park in August. We camped on the beach — or as close as we could get with a camper.  At twilight, we watched deer in the dunes. I met my podcast producer for dinner at a marina. I felt as though things were looking up.

I felt serene.

All in all, this camping trip was the highlight of 2023.

Things kinda went to shit after that.

My dad went for surgery the following week. The surgery was a success, but, in a freak chain of events, he vomited, went into cardiac arrest, and his pacemaker spent so much time fighting the defibrillator, his brain couldn’t survive. He lapsed in to a coma.

He never woke up from that coma. When he died, he was the healthiest he’d been in almost 30 years. That’s some Universe-screwing-with-you bullshit irony right there.

And if only that’s where it ended. 

Barry’s other uncle died a few weeks later.

We were at his funeral when his mother died.

Less than a month later, his dad died.

If I wrote this script and sent it to an agent, they’d send it back as “too unbelievable.” I get it. I’m still waiting to wake up from this bullshit.

When we went to the Keys again the next month — November 2023 — we were battle scarred.

And so here we are. December, 2023

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned anything political. I don’t have the energy to address that.

I would love to talk about the wins of 2023 — my book, Florida Spectacular, is done, and should be on bookshelves by September. The paper’s doing really well. My mom and I have never been closer. I love my husband more than I ever thought I could love another human. We have enough.

But still.

I miss my dad every day. On his birthday, I had a panic attack that lasted five days. If you’ve never had a panic attack, you don’t get the horror of that. If you have, well, you know. I’m sorry you know. I survived it by telling myself that heart attacks don’t last multiple days.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve avoided dissolving into tears, so I’m gonna call it a win. There’s really no reason to publish this; it’s not exactly a Florida-forward post, and it’s also not what one would conventionally call “cheerful.”

But some days lately I feel like sucking breath in and pushing it out again is one hell of an achievement, and no, I haven’t written about Florida nearly enough, but statistically, there’s someone reading this who loves Florida who also had a crap year and fights tears and anxiety more days then they don’t. You are not alone in the racing pulse, the chest pains, the noisy brains, and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re closer to the edge than you’d like to be.

Trust me, we can step back from the edge.

I’m so angry at 2023.

I’m so sad because of this year. I don’t have the energy to camp — we canceled a few great reservations this month — and I miss Florida. I miss campfires, pine trees, and the smell of the woods.

Right now, tonight, with a gorgeous white pine tree lit with white lights and no ornaments and no star fish at the top, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas. I want to feel like sipping hot chocolate and singing along with Mariah Carey. I want to celebrate the good things about my father’s life. And Barry’s parents. And his two uncles. And his oldest friend.

But instead the sense of loss is what I feel. I look around and all I see are ghosts.

I’m sorry. I don’t have a Florida way to end this or a way to wrap it up with a pretty little bow. I’ve hated 2023. 

Every now and then, the good breaks through. I have a wonderful husband. My mother is a fiercely strong woman who rebounds from everything. I can always walk to the water and lose myself in the salt. The Winter Solstice a few days ago, long-celebrated by the pagans, means that death has ended and we now begin the process of rebirth.

2023 hasn’t left me with much, but I’m gonna hold onto all that.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Jimmy Buffett, My Dad, and Florida Road Trips

A man in glasses and a woman in glasses. They are father and daughter, down by the water, like in the Jimmy Buffett song

Jimmy Buffett died last night.

This isn’t a post about that, not really.

While I’ll miss hearing new music from him, I don’t mourn him. I didn’t know him; I have no illusions that I had a clue about the man behind the legend. Few similarities exist between the Gulf and Western icon father and my own dad, but I feel a heartbreaking kinship of mourning with his daughters.

A few weeks ago, my dad died unexpectedly.

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my father. His death was so unexpected, and still so raw, that those memories still assault me at odd times. Grief is like, my friend Tamara says, a ball banging around inside a box. Sometimes it slams into the side of the box, and other times, it doesn’t, and you never know what it’s going to be.

In Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about my earliest experience with Florida’s salt water, with my dad, as we made our way to what would be our forever home in Clearwater:

“Look at that, Cath,” my dad said, his voice reverent. “Look at how clear it is, not like Staten Island at all.” My father still made the sign of the cross on himself when we passed Catholic churches, but not until this moment had I heard such hushed worship in his voice.

I nodded and peered out the window, feeling something new and familiar inside my chest as I gazed at the sandy landscape offering itself to me. I recognized this, much later, as the sense of coming to where I needed to be.

I figure today y’all will see a lot of “Margaritaville” tributes to Jimmy Buffett on social media, but I never had much use for that song. I’ve always been a bigger fan of his B-sides (so much so I wrote this review about his concert a few years ago.)

One song in particular, “Delaney Talks to Statues” has a special place in my heart. Since the day I first heard it, made me think of every wonderful thing about my dad.

Father, daughter/Down by the water

We moved to Florida when I was 7. I loved going to the beach with my dad. Some weekend mornings, we’d get up early and go to Clearwater Beach. Early mornings at the beach — before the crowds — is when you might find shells. I still have some of those shells we collected down by the water so many years ago.

Shells sink, dreams float

There’s a lot more to say about my dad — a lot that doesn’t have anything at all to do with Jimmy Buffett — but one giant takeaway is that he instilled in me a love of road trips.

Shortly after we moved to Florida, my dad had surgery, and he couldn’t work for a few months. Once he recovered enough to drive, though, we’d go on long drives and talk.

This continued for years. As an angsty teen, I’d go for drives with him, and he’d let me talk. He always treated me like an adult in those conversations, those wonderful, rambling conversations that unfolded and went in different directions, much as the roadways we traveled. We never set out with a destination; we simply drove and talked, talked and drove. I saw a lot of Florida’s central west coast on those drives with my father. I remember a lot of trees on those drives, and a lot of love.

Life’s good on our boat

While I won’t paint everything as sunshine and roses in our home growing up — I hate how people deify the dead — I will say that yes, overall, life was good on our (metaphorical) boat. I had two parents who loved each other, loved me, and made sure I knew it. We didn’t have lots of money for big cross-country or international vacations, but we took road trips. My mom and dad both embraced Florida life, never once looking backwards to what they’d left behind in New York. I credit them both with a lot: Instilling in me a love for Florida, for facing life head-on, even when it hurts to do so, and for all the good parts of me.

The Captain and The Kid

My dad and I had a wonderful relationship. Oh, sure, we fought. More than once he left my home in a fit of anger, but he always came back, and there was always a hug and “I love you” after the fight. There’s not a day I’ve been alive when I ever doubted my father’s love.

And in my memories, my love for Florida is tangled up with my parents and their love for it. My passion for road trips is forever linked to those drives I’d take with my dad.

The last drive we took was in 2019, shortly after I’d left full-time work at a local alt weekly. We drove south over the Skyway, out to Anna Maria (another beach we’d visited as a family when I was younger). We drove as far south as we could along the barrier islands, then turned around and headed north along US 41.

That would be our last road trip together.

My dad and I talked about when we could go again, but then… the pandemic came. After that, my dad had some health issues that made longer road trips unpleasant for him. Finally, a few weeks ago, when he was the healthiest he’d been in decades and at the cusp of being able to take a longer drive with me once more, a freak set of circumstances meant we’d never take a road trip together again.

And so this morning when my husband read me the news of Jimmy Buffett’s death, my first thought was of my father — and then of Buffett’s daughters. Because I didn’t know the man, but I knew a man a lot like the man who sang about his daughters.

And so I close with this thought from another Jimmy Buffett song I love; one that also evokes images of my dad, and also my grandfathers: And though I cried, I was so proud/To love a man so rare.

Not How We Do It Up North: Publix Bakery Edition

Last night, a friend made a comment about a new pizza place in St. Pete. This friend was born Somewhere Else (read: not Florida) and made a snarky comment about Floridians shouldn’t rank local pizza because pizza gets ranked by borough.

This led to my suggesting that perhaps people don’t move to Florida for the pizza. The exchange brought to mind a wonderful Florida memory.

When I was 15, I had a summer job at the Publix bakery (if you grew up in Florida in the ’80s, I believe it was the law you had to work at a Publix). In the 1980s, Publix didn’t simply have bakeries; they had Danish bakeries, where women wore orange and brown bell-bottomed polyester uniforms and appeased the customer at all costs. I answered to a stern lady, Lucy, who I estimated as 60-something (of course, I was 15, so she could have been 35 for all I knew; I thought 25 was old). She had short, salt-and-pepper hair she wore in tight pin curls, and everything about her radiated her unwillingness to truck in foolishness. I can’t imagine she loved managing a bunch of giggly teenage girls, because honestly? We were the worst.

One morning, a man came in and asked for a few Chicago hard rolls. I bagged them for him, he took them from me, and proceeded to loudly berate Florida, Publix, the baker and probably the man who harvested the wheat. Why? Because – say it with me – that’s not how they did it up north. This meant, of course (since he hadn’t tasted them), that the Chicago hard rolls weren’t hard enough.

Lucy heard his tirade and approached the counter. Now, she was an old-school Publix customer service type of woman, so I braced myself for a scolding. Although I’d apologized to the customer about the rolls not being like they were up north (let’s put a pin in EVERYTHING that’s wrong with that, just for a moment), I figured I’d done something wrong.

That’s not what happened, What happened next has inspired me pretty much every day since.

She stood next to me and folded her hands on the top of the glass counter. She inquired as to the problem, and the man went into the second verse of his tirade. She listened, nodding here and there. When he wound down, she cleared her throat and spoke clearly, but very softly.

“That’s the beautiful thing about our interstates, sir. They work both ways.”

That’s all she said. The man gaped at her, grabbed his bag of rolls, and walked away.

I have no idea if he complained to the store manager, but if so, I never heard about it. After that, I worked harder for Lucy than I ever had before.

Lucy, I know it’s been 34 years, but you’re still one of my Florida heroes.