With the arrogant wisdom of the middle-aged armchair homebody, I was of the opinion that retirement and Florida had at least one thing in common – each was the metaphorical equivalent to Limbo, that mythical place where Christians await their ticket to Heaven.
Retirement, I assumed, spelled the end of meaningful existence. As for Florida, well, in my mind it was just a wasteland of over-development choked with kitsch, the beaches littered with pale, northern bodies like so many stranded Beluga whales.
When my mother and Jim, my stepfather, retired and bought a trailer in a +55 community in Florida, their surprise move seriously challenged my point of view. For the past seven years, they’ve spent the five months of Canadian winter working on their golf game, taking line dancing classes and whacking the life out of snakes and spiders that dared to cross their postage stamp yard.
Admittedly, the source of some of my cynicism was in how I missed them through the winter. I even wrote a play called “Snowbirds” in which a retired couple golfing in Florida spend all their time pining for Christmas back home, a sentiment I selfishly hoped consumed my mother and stepfather.
Back in Canada, their reports of glorious weather, February swimming, birds and wildlife, grapefruits off the tree and fresh squeezed orange juice made me increasingly envious until finally I broke. It was the last place on Earth I thought I’d ever stoop to visit, but we planned our March break trip to Florida. We’d pack up our swimsuits and fly south for a couple of affordable weeks, partially subsidized by my mother’s couch.
The anticipation alone was enough to get my 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son through winter in high spirits. As for my SAD-suffering sweetheart, Alison, our plans turned what would have been a winter of dark depression into a season of bright, crisp days that hurtled us toward a swift and certain southern spring.
As for me, I was just looking forward to some sandal-friendly temperatures and promising everyone I wouldn’t ruin their vacation by grumbling too much about the environmental abomination I was sure awaited us.
The omens on the flight down were not good. We sat at the very back of the place in the only windowless seats where the engines were unbearably loud and the bathrooms reeked.
As if in anticipation of the kitsch that awaited, our wire-haired flamboyant steward was over-the-top entertaining. Via intercom, he jokingly identified passengers by seat number as troublemakers, dissed the meager airline snack food and read the in-flight safety manual as if performing Shakespeare.
As we descended into Orlando, he read a poem, a kind of Florida prayer, in which termites and cockroaches and fire ants and every other pest bug imaginable were honoured. The poem ended with a tribute to insect repellent.
As the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign turned off, the steward called over the intercom, “For those of you traveling to Florida to visit your mother” (how did he know?) “shots of tequila are available.” And finally, “Welcome to paradise!” The passengers applauded.
Later in our trip, I asked my daughter to tell us her favourite part. Her answer surprised us. It was stepping out of the airport two weeks earlier. She was absolutely right. Our flight arrived near midnight. When we walked through the sliding doors to find our rental car in the parking lot, a wall of blooming bougainvillea met us. The breeze was warm and fragrant.
As tired as she was, my daughter jumped up and down. “I can’t believe we’re here! I can’t believe we’re here!” I drove with the windows down. Beyond the Orlando sprawl, we passed farmland where silhouettes of horses stood against the pale sky. My horse-loving girl swore she’d never leave.
The next morning, we awoke to sun through little trailer windows and the songs of a thousand birds. Alison and I slept in my mother’s bed. The kids shared the room Jim had built on. The place was so small, Mom and Jim spent each night at a neighbour’s place for the duration of our stay.
Out on their two-person deck overlooking the street, we soaked up the sun. Every person who passed said hello. Many of them knew who we were, had been expecting us. The neighbours introduced themselves. Not a face looked younger than 60.
People walked tiny dogs or rode by shirtless on bikes as if they were eight-years-olds. The less able rode around in quiet electric golf carts. Others just walked, with or without canes. Everyone was cheerful.
The kids set out to explore the neighbourhood, returning every ten minutes to announce they’d found the pool or that an alligator lived in the lake or to describe the house-dwarfing cactus they’d discovered.
They gave us a detailed report of the shuffleboard deck where a dozen people where wiling away the morning. When Mom and Jim returned, they gave the kids their bikes to explore further afield, all in complete safety for the traffic was very slow indeed.
After breakfast, the kids easily coaxed us to the pool, my worrywart mother wheedling about sunscreen. Bah, sunscreen. It’s March! We spent most of the first day at the pool. I played and played with the kids, marveled at the Sandhill crane poking around the lawns, enjoyed the mockingbirds and egrets.
At dusk, tens of thousands of swallows spiralled overhead like a cloud of magnified blackflies. My son said they looked like pepper in the sky. By then, the sunburns were showing up. Red arms and faces where the sunscreen got washed off. By 4am the next morning – Friday the 13th to be exact – my son was throwing up from sunstroke. Alison and I nursed him back to health through the next day, but we felt terrible for not heeding my mother’s warnings. My son felt terrible because the dear boy feared he’d ruined everyone’s holiday.
Of course, he hadn’t. He recovered soon enough to swim a little more and explore the neighbourhoods on foot and bike, to join us on sojourns for fresh squeezed tangerine juice. He reported to us about the old guy at the pool, tanned like an old leather belt, who seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. The guy seemed neither to arrive nor to leave. He was just always there.
I believe my son came to think of the park as a step out of time as if suspended from his world of seasons and semesters, a place where nobody worked or went to school, were you got up when you felt like it and went to bed when you were tired and ate when you were hungry. Where you swam when you were hot and sunned yourself when you craved more heat. Where you drove around in golf carts because you could.
I see my mother’s retirement to Florida differently as a result. She raised my sister and me in poverty, the wife of a fisherman who built our house around us as we grew up. For a long time, we had no running water, no toilet, no car.
When my father died in his mid-thirties, my mother struggled the way many single moms do with crushing financial and emotional burdens. She and Jim met at a time in her life when she was probably most in need of companionship, and they’ve been together since, working several struggling businesses, finally getting into furnace oil delivery. Over time, they built the company until at last they could sell it, making just enough to support a modest retirement. I promise to begrudge my mother and stepfather nothing ever again for retiring to Florida.
After a few days, we continued our vacation in other parts of the state, but my mother’s haven home in that +55 park was like nowhere else. As a result of our short stay, I concluded that Florida is a playground for seniors, a Limbo for those between the life they’ve already lived and the death that will too soon be upon them.
It’s too simplistic to say that life is good in Florida for seniors. It’s carefree. Everyone in the place is of the same vintage and therefore happy for each other and for themselves. Each knows the other as a fellow traveller through the same Earthly time and space. They’ve made it and it’s been all right and now there’s a little more at the end. Each is happy for this sunny day and this sunny day and this sunny day in this land of eternal summer where all the oldest kids have come to play.
All photos © Darcy Rhyno