This was a mermaid-and-manatee filled trip down memory lane. “This” being our week-long visit to Florida’s Gulf Coast to catch up with friends and family we haven’t seen since we left for the Arabian Gulf back in 2014.
This was a true sentimental journey through all five decades — as well as the major themes — of my life.
This was epic.
Our home base for the vacation was my mother’s residence with her companion Richard at Coral Oaks Senior Living Community. The two of them have more fun, and more scheduled activities, than just about anyone I know. We rented the little apartment right on the premesis and availed ourselves of the swimming pool, hot tub and dinning facilities. Many of the other residents were shocked by our desire to swim, let alone go outside in 50-degree temperatures.
First stop was breakfast at Bob Evans on Friday, January 15, with my first swim coach, Dick Smith — the legend who shaped my need for speed and then taught me how to deliver the win. We talked about water, life and death– while my son David watched with wonder. Coach Smith talked to him about “accelerating” with each stroke, and David lapped up the words of wisdom. Dick is now 85 years old but sharper than most people my age.
Second stop was lunch on Friday with “Gannon,” although she now technically goes by “Nugent.” Anyway, I’ll use her first name, Christin, who swam when I coached at James Madison. I like to think that I passed down a little of the Coach Smith legacy to her and the rest of the team back in 2002-2004.
David was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia near the campus and the team was very excited to welcome him to the world. Twelve years later, I was delighted to have the chance to meet Christin and Michael Nugent’s two daughters. All of them live about 5 miles from my mother! Christin and I talked non-stop for two hours, and we could have gone on for two days. The most adorable thing was that her eldest girl, Hadley Drew, kept calling me “Coach.”
Third stop was dropping David and Allan off with my brother Lee and niece Alyssa so they could attend the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game. I honestly don’t believe I have ever seen David more excited in his life. Mr. Slap Shot, aka Johnny Upton, aka Allan Nicholls, was pretty pumped up too — for a Montreal Canadiens fan. While that group enjoyed expensive hot dogs and Molson beer, my mother and I feasted and shopped together.
And that was just day one!
The reminiscing continued into day two with breakfast
at Tiffany’s at Another Broken Egg Company in Palm Harbor, where some of my very best pals — Olga, Alison and Nick — from St. Paul’s School joined me. I realized half-way through my shrimp and grits that these people know me on a molecular level. We literally grew up together, from 1st Grade through 9th! We may be 50 now, but we’re still kids at heart in each other’s company. It’s wonderful to see how successful each one of them turned out to be (although no surprise) and what truly good, kind, caring people they are.
Saturday night, we enjoyed a laid back — and I mean laid back on a lounger sofa — evening at my dear friend Merit’s house. We watched football, HGTV and ate Tandoori Chicken. It simply does not get any better than that! And there are few better than Merit, who has devoted the last few years to helping her dad with health issues and helping the mother of another dear friend in her last years, months and days.
Sunday morning featured a family brunch at Coral Oaks — bringing together my mom’s family and her companion Richard’s tribe. His gang includes a number of military personnel and we had a chance to hear about their many tours in the Middle East and shared some of our stories as well. And this was only a portion of Richard’s family!
Just to mix things up, I invited my dear friend Pamela from my Kenya Peace Corps days, and her husband Tony, to join the party! Pamela now works at my alma mater USF, in the College of Medicine. Pamela and I have a tendency to gab about the crazy days in Africa while our husbands roll their eyes. I’m working on a new book and the opening story takes place at a rural disco called The Octopus Club in Kisumu where Pamela and I hung out in 1987!
On Sunday afternoon, I took a vacation from my vacation by going up to Homosassa Springs, about an hour north from my mom’s place, to see my sister Kathy (who had flowndown from Raleigh) and my stepmother Nora (who had driven up from Naples) at my Aunt Tricia’s house right on the river. We had a glorious dinner of King Crab claws, followed by three homemade deserts. Kathy surprised me with a hand-knitted mermaid-tail blanket, which I will now wear whenever I’m working on my new book.
Kathy and I decided to wake up at the crack of dawn on Monday and head out in the canoe on the river to see the manatees. Even though the air was about 32-degrees, we loved every frozen minute of it. And the manatees seemed to love us. One let us touch his sweet face and whiskers, and then rolled over eager for belly rubs. Manatees, in case you don’t know, are the real mermaids. Graceful and gentle beyond measure — and decidedly NOT DISNEY CHARACTERS with 22-inch waists.
We received a hero’s welcome back at Tricia’s house complete with warm bathrobes and french toast! Another special part to the visit was getting to see Trish’s husband, Dr. Weems Hollowell, who was my father’s first partner at a Neurology/Neurosurgery clinic they started in Largo back in 1971 or so.
I had to zoom away at 8:30 a.m. to make my next appointment with my very best pals from high school and college — Diana, Laura and Merit! I can never get enough time with this triumvirate, but hopefully next time I will! Such amazing, powerful forces they are!
I closed out my visiting schedule with a wonderful afternoon with the remarkable Joe Dineen. Also known as Joe Pie Weed. But best known as other half of the Joe and Beau Show. Yes, Joe was one of my father’s very best pals in the world.
Joe and his family used to come with us to the Virginia farm where we’d canoe, hike, eat pie and enjoy long glorious summer days. Joe’s daughter Kelly remains one of my very best friends to this day! I was glad to have the chance to see Joe again, especially since the last time we saw each other was at Beau’s funeral. You could say that Joe is my extra father, and I know I’m his extra daughter. This visit was important for the both of us.
Our final day in Florida was spent in the way all final days should be spent: at Weeki Wachee’s Mermaid Show. I think my first trip there was also my last, circa 1975, with my mom and dad. Not much has changed in the 40 years in between. There seem to be fewer mermaids, and fewer customers. But the magic remains.
In fact, the magic remains strong in Florida for me. The natural beauty of the Sunshine State is astonishing, especially in places like Homosassa Springs and Weeki Wachee.
My memories of Florida are strong, too. Special times with my dad linger, of course. But I have new times to recall, as well, in these recent experiences with my mother and brother and niece and sister-in-law; my husband and son; my sister and stepmother and aunt; my friends from elementary school, high school, college and Peace Corps; my wonderful old coach, and my former swimmer who saw me become a mother and is now a mother; and my extra dad Joe Dineen.
And how could I ever forget those mermaids and manatees forever sewn into (and now onto) my very being?
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And so it goes…and so it shall continue to go until we are too tired of traveling, which I don’t see happening any time soon. I know that it was a little rough in the beginning for me (staying with all those reminders of my mom and your nana) but in the end, after a few of the women made passes, and I saw the joy in their eyes, it was pretty great! I must add that when I saw this older couple always holding hands and always helping each other, and obviously making the choice of spending their final years together at Coral Oaks, I thought to myself…this does work for some…not for me but for some and they are doing a good thing! Thanks for letting me tag along!