Are we there yet?

What had I left in the Florida of my childhood vacations that I wanted my children to find?

Published June 17, 1998 4:05PM (EDT)

The first week I planned to take my kids to the Florida Keys, I was warned off by the man at the Key West Chamber of Commerce. "They're how old?" he asked. When I told him 4 and 1, he said, "You see, that's the week of the Hell's Angels convention and it's likely to be ... uh ... noisy."

A few months later I tried again.

"You see," I was told this time, "that's the week when there's the cross-dressing festival and it gets a little ... uh ... noisy here."

Hell's Angels and cross-dressers are not enough to keep me from an ordinary vacation plan. But this trip was different. Less than a year earlier my father had died, propelling me into a backward journey to find and claim pieces of my childhood. Since my brother died in 1982, my parents and I had formed a shaky tripod of a family; now that I'd lost my father too, it was too easy for me to glimpse a future point where I alone was the keeper of not just my own childhood memories, but of my family lore.

Sam groaned. "How many times do I have to tell you? I don't want to go on that dumb boat."

But a ride on a glass-bottom boat was important, even necessary, to me. I went back to the Florida Keys with Sam and Grace to try to capture some elusive part of myself, to preserve my family as I remembered it from my own childhood. Long before my brother's fatal accident, before the lung cancer that took my father's life, my family vacationed in Florida. Long before South Beach was South Beach, long before my college spring breaks in Fort Lauderdale, long before I rode an oversized tricycle through a boyfriend's parents' retirement village in Pampano, there was another Florida. In that Florida, there was no Disney World and Orlando was rural, a stretch of orange groves in the middle of nowhere. In that Florida, the beaches were deserted and the air smelled of citrus and Coppertone. In that Florida of my childhood, my father is young as he sits at the wheel of the car, directing us, my brother whispers in my ear and the world is happy and full of possibilities.

In the early '60s, my parents packed us into our green Chevy wagon and headed south as the radio played: She wore an itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini. We ate chewy pecan logs bought at Esso gas stations along the way. We watched for South of the Border signs to see both how far we still had to travel and what Pepe had to say: Chile today, hot tamale! There was no Route 95 to take us there. Instead, we drove past tobacco fields, billboards, orange groves.

Florida was where you went for a family vacation then. And you did not fly; you drove. You drove through the night if you had to, stopping at Howard Johnson's along the way for all-you-can-eat fried clams. You drove and you drove because there were no beaches more beautiful, no seafood tastier, no better place to get away. It was, I thought, a good place to go back to. Lacking the stamina of my once-young parents, I booked a flight to Miami for my kids and me, rented a car and went in search of some piece of me that I needed to find.

- - - - - - - - - -

My first clue that things had changed was when I heard myself shrieking to the rental car person: "No red car!" I had read somewhere that the attacks on tourists in the Miami area were always on red rental cars. Clutching my map, I stuck both kids in their rented car seats and headed for the Keys. I already knew that all of the places my family had visited, where my parents had sipped brightly colored tropical drinks and my brother and I had collected whitewashed seashells, were long gone, turned into condominiums or resorts. Refusing to be deterred, I had researched guidebooks before we left home until I found a place where a kid could still pet a dolphin -- my own brother had done the Twist with one on a trip of ours -- find shells and ride a glass-bottom boat.

However, my first attempt at getting Sam on one of those boats was not successful. "I don't want to ride a dumb boat," he muttered. I needed to ride one of those boats again -- and to ride it with my own children. But it could, I supposed, wait. So we drove south, stopping to gaze at alligators, to sip Rum Runners at tiki bars, until we reached our first stop. Right there in the magical-sounding Key Largo was a huge sign boasting glass-bottom boat rides. The crowd depicted on the sign was cartoonish and happy. But when I turned, smiling, to tell my kids we had arrived, Grace was asleep and Sam, eyes glazed from a day of travel, wanted only to get to the hotel and a pool.

I had searched long and hard for the kind of place we used to stay at, where you drove right up to your room's front door and parked there, where you swam in the over-chlorinated pool and ate a continental breakfast of doughnuts the next morning. In Islamorada, turquoise letters perched atop a rocket-shaped sign so large I could not manage to get it all in my camera without switching to panorama pointed us to the perfect motel. "Pool's closed," the woman told me when she handed me my keys. "And don't throw lobster heads out the sliding door. OK?"

I tried to make up for the lack of swimming with a nice walk on the motel's beach. But it was coral instead of sand and our bare feet couldn't take it. By now I understood why my parents were always going off to tiki bars; after the flight, the drive, the tears, the unwalkable beach and unswimmable pool, a tropical drink sounded in order. I posed us all under the large plastic drink that sat at the entrance to the thatched-roof bar and got a snapshot before we went inside. I saw that people wore a lot more orange here than I was used to: tangerine, shrimp, coral, peach. Combined with the cherry red of Sam's drink and the scarlet of my rum runner, it made me feel a little queasy. All of us were happy to go back to our motel and watch "Rugrats" before going to sleep.

The next morning, after our cellophane-wrapped doughnuts and another torturous walk on the beach, Sam still refused to go on the glass-bottom boat. "I look at fish every day," he explained. True, on his bureau sat an aquarium that housed an ever-revolving cast of goldfish, all named Bob and Amy. "But these are different. They're colorful," I said. Sam just rolled his eyes. The good thing about the Keys, I reminded myself, is that you can find a glass-bottom boat almost anywhere.

By the time we reached Key West, I'd have him convinced. I'd fill him with stories of how coral looked when you floated past it, of how my mother -- his Grandma Gloria -- had jumped when a large whiskered fish leaped upward toward the glass, of how rock formations gave the illusion of many things: crosses, arches, castles. I knew it would take more than the promise of a few colorful fish to excite him. But I couldn't let go of my own journey, of how it looked when I gazed down and saw not my own reflection, as I'd expected, but an entire new world. "Fine," I told him as I pulled into the Theatre of the Sea. "We'll go see the dolphins. Maybe even do the Twist with one." "What's that?" Sam asked, suspicious. I sighed. "Like the Macarena. But better."

The admissions woman explained, however, that dolphin contact was limited. "Liability," she said. I thought of my brother in his Madras shorts and beatnik sunglasses twisting so close to a dolphin that, he later told me, he could smell his fish breath. My Florida was slowly receding and this new one, the one of cross-dressers and liability, was taking over. Still, Sam got to pet a shark, group-hug a dolphin and get kissed by a sea lion. I snapped pictures like a crazy person. The farther south we drove, the happier we got. I taught Sam a few lines of "Margaritaville" and we sang it all the way to Jimmy Buffet's restaurant.

In Key West a sign read: HAVANA 90 MILES. We pulled over and bought rings made out of seashells, took a picture of Grace at the southernmost point of the United States. "She's the southernmost baby," Sam said. I searched the horizon for a glimpse of Cuba, where my father had spent time in the Navy during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He used to write letters home with pieces blacked out. That Christmas, he sent us baby alligators from Florida. I craned my neck toward Cuba, but it was impossible to see. Behind me, a man blew into a conch shell and sent its lovely notes drifting across the ocean. Another cut a coconut in half with a machete and I watched as Sam and Grace drank its milk through twin straws.

It was 85 degrees. The palm trees swayed. Even though I had never been to this exact spot, when I closed my eyes and inhaled, the air was familiar and sweet. We were somewhere good, my kids and me. At sunset we would watch a man swallow a sword, another walk on glass. We would eat conch fritters. We would find white seashells, perfect spirals.

"Mom," Sam said, "if you really want to go on one of those boats, we can do it." His hand in mine was sticky from coconut milk. I remembered the way things had looked through that glass bottom as my family glided away from the safety of the shore. My own 4-year-old self had stared down into the unknown waters, waiting for something, anticipating. I remember pressing my face to the glass, amazed at what lay beyond it, until my mother jerked me to my feet. "You don't have to get so close," she said. "What are you looking for anyway?" At 4, I didn't know. But almost 40 years and another trip later, I was beginning to understand. The losses of the last few years had been hard on me, and sometimes the memories of my childhood, of a time that had seemed so "happy and full of possibilities," overshadowed the happy optimism of my life now. Maybe that part of me I was searching for is, like my father and brother, gone, however etched it is in my tropical-colored memories. But this new, older part of me was able to see Florida once again through a child's eyes. Looking at this other family, the one I was shaping now, I realized that we were making our own history, not just here, but every day.

"You know what?" I told Sam. "I don't need to go on that boat either."

We got back in our blue rental car, climbing over spilled Cheerios, guidebooks, maps. I strapped them both in and we continued, my children and I, on our way.

By Ann Hood

Ann Hood is the author of the novel "The Book that Matters Most," published this month with W.W. Norton & Co.


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