Florida – The Sunshine State

I went on my first trip to Florida with Nana and Zada when I was in fifth grade. I’m not sure why I was chosen to go to Miami Beach with them – I was the fourth of the five grandchildren. It was my first time on a plane. I survived the flight without incident. I was proud of myself so I took the unused airsick bag as a souvenir and pasted it in my scrapbook.

It was dark when we emerged from the airport terminal in Miami and the three of us got into a checker cab to go to the hotel. The air outside was surprisingly soft. I had never seen a real palm tree before, but there they were: tall, narrow trunks lining the highway median, dark fronds etched against the violet sky. As I looked out the window of the cab, I could hear the music to the opening of the Jackie Gleason Show playing in my head and I wondered where the June Taylor dancers lived.

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We stayed at the Sands Hotel. I shared a bed with Nana, while Zada had the other double bed. I was excited to go to the hotel pool and show them my swimming and diving skills. Unfortunately my shoulders got sun burned that first day and it was hard to swim after that. My skin was super sensitive and the tropical sun was a new and ferocious challenge.

We spent some time visiting family that I didn’t know and friends of Nana and Zada’s who were also on vacation in Miami Beach. Nana and Zada tried to make me comfortable, but I got terribly homesick. I was embarrassed that I was teary-eyed while we visited with Red Rose (Nana’s friends had colorful names – Goldie, Sugar and multiple Roses).

It got better when Uncle Terry and Barbara, his girlfriend (a year later she became his wife), joined us. Though it was off-season, we went to Hialeah Race Track. Zada, who loved the horses, regaled us with stories about Citation as we looked at the statue of that beautiful animal.

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Uncle Terry, Nana, me and Zada in front of Citation (thank you Barbara for taking the picture; thank you Uncle Terry for sharing it with me!)

We decided to cut my trip short and I went home with Terry and Barbara while Nana and Zada continued their vacation. I came home sun burnt and disappointed with myself. Miami Beach felt to me like another borough of New York City, just sun bleached and hot.

I went to Florida with my parents every couple of years after that to visit the elders. Zada moved to Century Village in West Palm Beach in 1973. My father’s parents moved to Century Village in Deerfield Beach in 1974. One year we took a miserable ride on Amtrak (we arrived 24 hours late!), another year we drove. Those trips, usually during our April break from school, didn’t feel like vacations. They felt obligatory. They could also be fraught.

Zada met and married Laura not long after he moved into Century Village. Laura was no match for our memories of Nana. Even if you took that comparison out of the equation, I failed to see (m)any redeeming qualities. It was later speculated that Zada didn’t want to be a burden on his family, he didn’t have much money, and Laura did, so he did what he thought he had to and married her.

Laura hailed from Massachusetts and prided herself on her fine manners. I think she was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy. During our first visit with her, Mark and I were sitting by the pool playing some kind of board game while our parents were chatting nearby with Zada and Laura. We could easily overhear Laura grumbling about how crowded the pool got when all the grandchildren descended from the north like locusts during these vacation breaks. My mother responded icily, “Don’t worry, these grandchildren won’t be here again!” This was not the only time that my Dad had to calm Mom’s rage at Laura.

Despite that threat, we did go back down to Florida in the years that followed. Although I think it came as a surprise to my parents, they ended up becoming snowbirds themselves about 15 years later when they retired from teaching. They bought a place in Boynton Beach in 1988, not far from West Palm where Zada still lived (he outlived Laura by a number of years).

As an adult, with my own children, we would make the pilgrimage to visit the elders, too. Gary’s parents also wintered in Florida. After renting in various places in the Fort Lauderdale area, they settled in Century Village in Pembroke Pines.

We wanted our children to see their grandparents so we visited at least once each winter. Both sets of grandparents did their best to make it enjoyable – and it was. Except for one thing. I couldn’t escape the feeling that retirement communities were depressing. My parents were as active as people could be: Mom participated in no less than two book clubs, the cinema club, she learned to paint, she made jewelry and ceramics and more. She said she felt like it was the summer camp she never got to go to growing up. My Dad played tennis twice a day, worked out, played cards and continued to read voraciously. They went out to dinner several times a week. They couldn’t have been happier.

Gary’s parents were also quite active. David sang in the choir, performed with the Yiddish theater group, and served on the Board of the synagogue. Paula and David went to shul, socialized with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors and played cards several nights a week. They went to the shows at the clubhouse, and they would use the treadmills in the fitness center. Occasionally they went out to dinner, more often Paula cooked or they ate at the cafe on the premises. They too enjoyed their life in Florida tremendously.

Yet, it depressed me – even before their health started to fail. We would drive into sun-drenched Century Village, the buildings clustered like barracks, the tennis courts empty, the golf course sparsely peopled, the man-made lake with no discernible use just a decorative fountain in the middle, and I would feel the sadness descend. The same thing would happen when we drove into Banyan Springs where my parents lived, though it was less cookie-cutter and usually there were people on the tennis courts. It still felt artificial.

It felt disconnected from the regular rhythm of life. I had experienced that feeling before. When I moved into Cayuga Hall in College in the Woods at SUNY-Binghamton as a freshman I struggled. College and dorm life were supposed to be the best time of my life. Instead I felt disconnected, as though real life was going on somewhere else. I enjoyed college much more once I moved off campus.

While some of the melancholy I felt when we visited our parents’ communities stemmed from the constant reminder of our mortality that is a fact of life there, I think it was really that I never did much like summer camp (or dorm life). Too much forced camaraderie, too much pressure to join activities, too much judging of and by others. Maybe we aren’t meant to live only among our own age group at any stage of life – or at least I’m not. Taken all together, memories, associations and my temperament, I’m thinking, when the time comes, retiring to New York City sounds about right.

10 thoughts on “Florida – The Sunshine State

  1. You are so right and I remember feeling the way you do Then reality strikes and I find that necessity interferes with your younger dreams. And you make adjustments and decide for yourself. Are you going to grow older regretting or are you going to make your life as happy as you can by accepting the reality of growing old and alone? For me, I choose not only making the best of things, but surrounding my life with the things I value most. That includes the most important thing to me, loving being surrounded with family and making a new life. Like a new chapter in my life. With reasonable health, I adjusted to living in Bklyn, instead of Manhattan, living in the woods and loving that, and living in what I had called God’s waiting room to another happy time. As Zada said, paraphrasing Candide, “Make the best of this best of all possible worlds.” So whatever life has in store for you may you always be the Sunshine you are for yourself and your loving and admiring family and friends.

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  2. How very, very interesting on your observations about Florida (and college dormitories).

    Some thoughts on your several points:
    1. Laura was uncomfortable around Zadas family; not to excuse her, but, she was actually nicer with the grandkids and others who were born post nana.

    2. The segregation by age is not something which has distressed me; I think the retirement communities are great-for those who wish to and can partake in it. But having diversity… That could be an improvement… Very interesting your observation.

    3. Linda- you were 10- it was ok to be homesick. You probably missed the gentle nurturing you received from me. Or perhaps it was a reaction to the sunburn.

    4. Lastly, the reason why you were selected to be the first grandchild to go is that you and only you were Linda SUNSHINE.

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  3. Florida has many features that are wonderful. It, of course, has warm winds and sunshine and palm trees. And, for better or worse, those retirement communities provide camaraderie for people who otherwise might have difficulty finding it.

    And, yes, there is surely that sad aspect of older communities. I see my parents losing friends to illness and age all the time. It is difficult and can be depressing. I guess it’s fortunate we each have an opportunity to make choices about where and under what circumstances we wish to live.

    But one thing I know for certain. Wherever you live, there will be plenty of sunshine.

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  4. Linda, I so enjoy the introspective take you have on all the experiences that shaped you in your life. In this essay you bring all the happiness, sadness, uncertainty, and duty together in one fascinating package.
    I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Zada during that first introduction to you all at the Catskills in the summer of 1987. He was extremely friendly and inclusive. When Ira and I traveled to FL together for the first time, we of course visited Zada and Laura. She took an immediate shine to me because I had family in Haverhill, the Massachusetts town she was from. My initial impression was to feel sorry for her because of the obvious resentment that she was the person who took your beloved Nana’s place.
    So glad you shared the memory of your trip to Miami with your grandparents, even if it didn’t turn out to be the vacation you hoped it would be.
    We were fortunate that visits to Simma and Laurie were never a hardship.

    Our trips to Florida as kids took us to Disney in 1973 and to an Aunt’s in Tarpon Springs in 1974. Always loved to visit the Sunshine State.

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  5. Another beautifully and introspective essay however I have a different perspective on a few things that you touched upon.

    I was the first in the family to meet Laura and had an on and off relationship with her. When I first met her she was okay, not Nana like for sure. But there was companionship between her and Zada. On that first visit they were not yet married. And all the things we did during the week I was there was okay – not great. On a subsequent visit after they were married I borrowed Zada’s yellow Toyota Corolla for a weekend Jaunt to Miami to visit a College friend. Laura had her own car; if memory serves me correctly a big Buick Oldsmobile I want to say green in color. On my return trip to West Palm wouldn’t you know it I blew the engine of Zada’s car. Do you know that Laura said to me that I should pay for the repairs and Zada forcibly said no! I did make some halfhearted attempt to pay but Zada refused. Laura relented and even though the car was never the same Laura said not another word to me.

    The off side of the relationship, on yet another trip this one with Uncle Mike and Uncle Sid Laura did not shine very well. The three of us visited their apartment in Century Village we were dressed in shorts and tee shirts (at least UM & me) and once entering the apartment attempted to sit on the coach. Well Laura was not going to have any of that. First off she was offended that we came in shorts. Secondly how dare we sit with bare skin on her plastic covered coach? She made us sit at the kitchen table throughout the visit.

    I always enjoyed my trips to Florida visiting family and friends and still do today. Hopefully there will be many more, especially when I eventually retire.

    As far as living in a retirement community and feeling depressed about the environment I don’t share your views. A couple of points.

    As you know I live in one such “active community” and both Cindy and I continue to work full time as number of other residents in the community do as well. I share Zada’s and Mom’s perspective on the progression of life. Living where I do I do not have to cut the grass, shovel snow, worry about any other upkeep out side my front or back doors. Unbelievable freedom! Do you know I came home from work today around 6:30 (left in the morning late 8:30) and you know what I’ve done besides writing (what is amounting to be an essay) – I’ve read 50 pages of the “Goldfinch” a 770 page book of which I have 200 pages left. In my humble opinion that is great.

    Another point, more and more I’m starting to meet some interesting people who I’m finding shared interests with. This was no longer happening where I used to live. So living in these types of communities to me is not depressing but rather invigorating and reenergizing me.

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    1. Steve: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think I remember you telling me the story about wearing the shorts to visit, but I don’t recall the other one. So interesting to get your perspective. As far as your feeling about your community, all I can say is I am so happy for you! I’m so glad that it has been a good move for you and that you find it energizing. It’s great that we have the freedom and resources to make these choices. Thanks again for commenting.

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  6. As an out law member of the Spilken Brody Bakst families for the past 50 years, I continually feel tremendous pride. You are all intelligent, genuine, some more humorous than others and always welcoming. I have tried to follow in Nana’s footsteps, making our home a symbol of love and family and keeping
    important traditions continuing .. Feige, you are quite an inspiration to me! I can only hope to remember all your beautiful words and wonderful attitude about the next phases of life. Living in Regency has been a great decision for Terry and I. It’s great to have our young neice and nephew in the compound!!
    Great memories Linda !

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    1. Barbara, after all these years you as much a part of this family as I am! You are always a generous and welcoming host to family gatherings and we all appreciate it deeply. I’m glad Regency has been a wonderful home to you, Terry, Steven and Cindy! I hope it continues to be one and I look forward to many future visits. Hope you love your new home in Florida too! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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