A few years ago in autumn, an editor connection emailed asking whether I knew any Florida writers. She needed at least one new personal essay for a book called A Florida Christmas. The catch? She was calling on a Monday needing final copy on Wednesday for a book going to press on Friday. (!!!)
"I can't think of anyone," I replied, continuing as any enterprising freelancer might . . . "but I've been to Florida for the holidays, and I'd be happy to provide an essay."
I pitched my premise that evening and wrote the essay as soon as I'd met another deadline the next afternoon. No moss grew under this particular project! The book did go to press that week, but they couldn't get it printed in time for that holiday season and so released it the next year, in 2008.
The book itself is quite nice, with a lovely design and a good selection of stories old and new. I'm happy with the essay, but mostly because it's fun to write fast, it's fun to write about personal experiences, and it was fun to give the finished book to my dad. I will say, though, that had I had another day with the writing, I'd like to think I would have cut it down by quite a bit (with a little distance, one easily sees one's ramblings and redundancies) and fixed the typo I see. But, then again, I did have a specific word count to meet and not a lot of time to work with, so who knows!
I thought my fellow freelancers would enjoy the backstory — and that, perhaps, blog readers might like to see the published piece.
"Snowbirds in Paradise"
I have never lived in Florida, but one set of my Midwestern grandparents wintered there for years. My first visit at Christmastime 1975 left its mark on me. And, as often happens with memorable events or eras worthy of reflection, that “mark” continues to shift and grow.
The family trip itself — an unheard-of winter vacation — was something to revel in. It was HUGE compared to the other trips I had been on. I enjoyed seeing the sites and trying to make sense of the different climate (it was unseasonably cold during our stay yet still nothing like any Christmas weather I’d seen). But as we crammed a host of quintessential Florida activities into a few short days, I also paid close attention to the way Grandma and Grandpa passed the time at their Winter Haven retirement community. I had grown up visiting their busy Iowa farm, where they worked long, hard days for more than 40 years. Theirs was the first retirement lifestyle I had ever seen up close, and I was fascinated.
In those days Florida was held up as the place to vacation. I mean, what landlocked people who aren’t out of their severe-winter-surviving minds don’t dream of taking a break from all the snow and ice and gray? On any given day in Iowa from November through March you can bet that most cold, weary natives are likely spending at least a few moments daydreaming of walking barefoot on a sandy beach, splashing in the ocean, or lazing under a swaying palm tree in a tropical paradise. Iowa has its finer points, but you do have to leave it to enjoy any of those pleasures. And Florida was just plain easier for us to get to then than, say, California, Hawaii, or the Bahamas.
Even as a young child I was drawn to the idea of visiting the Sunshine State. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it frequently starred in books, movies, magazines, and everyone else’s vacation slideshows. Classic TV fare such as Flipper, The Everglades, and Sea Hunt highlighted Florida’s breathtaking scenery and spun many exciting adventures across its sand, surf, and vibrant, rainforested turf.
Naturally the influence of a certain mouse called Mickey cannot be ignored. Every Sunday evening until the series ended, I sat glued to The Wonderful World of Disney. All the kids of my generation did the same, and at one time or another probably every last one of us nursed a desire to visit one (or both!) of the two most incredible amusement parks imaginable. How could we not want to see the magic for ourselves after soaking up the weekly footage from the parks and all the other cartoons, movies, and otherworldly wonders conceived by the Disney machine? Perhaps my attitude simply grew out of being old enough to remember when Walt Disney World’s® Magic Kingdom first opened in Florida. I’m not at all sure now. But it’s comical to recall my staunch childhood opinion that the Florida-based theme park was superior to California’s in every possible way. In my mind, it was newer, bigger, brighter, and all-around better. And Florida just seemed like a more interesting place to visit.
I’m 42 now, making me all of 10 years old when I first set foot on Florida soil December 26, 1975. I was excited to be there, no doubt about it. (Truth be told, I was excited to be anywhere.) Air travel was still a relative novelty, and the swanky-as-far-as-I-knew Delta flight from O’Hare to Orlando did not disappoint. The holiday spirit was palpable, and it was so festive onboard: champagne and decks of cards for the adults, Shirley Temples and plastic wings for the kids. The pretty stewardesses cheerfully offered chewing gum if your ears needed popping (check) and rustled up extra napkins advertising “Your Choice of Cocktails, Just $1.50” and Delta/Camay soap wrappers for kids on the hunt for stuff to cram into a scrapbook (double-check).
I was also worried about how the visit with my grandparents would play out. My worry had nothing to do with not wanting to see them. It was just that I liked to know what to expect before I had to live it, and I couldn’t quite figure out what was in store in Winter Haven. Oh, I’d heard all about my grandparents’ life there, but I needed to see it for myself to understand.
For example, the concepts of retirement community and trailer park were abstract to me. Talk of the many organized activities (which seemed compulsory, to my ears, as imposed by the ominous-sounding Park Association) — coupled with my impression that Grandma and Grandpa’s trailer had wheels and movable walls (huh?!) — also left me concerned. I’d heard them talk about living on a budget and slowing down in their “old age” and pictured them possibly living in some sort of camper parked in a strange nursing home–state campgrounds hybrid. Would there be electricity? A working bathroom? Would the Association make us all play Monday shuffleboard and eat prune Danish at the clubhouse?
All of those thoughts swirled around in my 10-year-old head. But the biggest question going for me was, Will we get there to find Grandma and Grandpa looking and acting like the really old people who go to Florida for the winter? Never mind that I had just seen them looking vibrant and healthy and perfectly normal at Thanksgiving. In my mind, Florida was where all the old people went to, well, get even older. Scary stuff!
So, I confess that I stepped off that plane with trepidation. When at last we exited the freeway and drove through the trailer park’s entrance, I couldn’t have been more relieved. We’d landed in a neighborhood that had streets and everything. There were real buildings and paved drives. The trailers were shaped like regular houses, and many sported strings of holiday lights. My grandparents’ home had a carport, shutters, carpeting, a real kitchen, and yes, a bathroom. Whew!
The next day after breakfast and a round of Florida-themed welcome gifts for the three kids (mine was a silver palm-tree charm), Grandma and Grandpa gave us a guided tour of the park. We met what seemed like everybody I already knew from their hometown, plus a few outsiders from Michigan and maybe a Dakota or two. We saw the “shuffle” courts where Grandpa was, reportedly, King; the sparkling, bustling, well-furnished clubhouse; and the murky swimming hole/swamp where — to my horror — “mature” gals in industrial-strength bikinis and real-live alligators routinely sunbathed. I only caught an eyeful of the former, but apparently neither sight was cause for alarm to the park residents.
This place, I learned, was neither campground nor nursing home. It was Club Med for the thrifty, settled set eager to enjoy some well-deserved R&R. Grandma and Grandpa were there to take full advantage. It amazed me that they did absolutely whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Every day. Kind of like a typical Christmas break for me, except they obviously knew how to make every minute count for something. I also marveled that they seemed unfazed by the disconnect of putting up a tree (theirs was a foil tabletop number), singing carols, and welcoming Santa in shorts, all while the lawn needs mowing.
Each of my grandparents’ days in Winter Haven boasted a nonstop string of leisurely pursuits — enough to make them a tad tired, even harried, from all that concentrated recreation, but none of it was too over the top to complain about. They enjoyed morning coffee at the clubhouse, giant-tricycle rides around their trailer park, and late-morning golf outings. They loved their afternoon shuffleboard tournaments, early-bird dinners, and evening bridge-and-dessert parties. And then there were the group day trips to the tourist traps, weekend pilgrimages to the flea markets, and tons of “neighboring” to keep up with. Their Florida life was full, and naps were encouraged!
I’d never seen them look happier or act more carefree and the truth is, I probably never did again. They had earned their Snowbird wings, and they were smart enough to cherish them for all they were worth.
During our stay we hit as many family hotspots as time allowed. Sea World® was one of my favorites. And it was Holiday Fantasy season at Disney World®. I loved the huge nighttime parade capped off with fireworks and Santa in his sleigh. The impressive water-skiing shows at Cypress Gardens made up for my youthful lack of anything resembling interest in the whole gardens aspect of the place. And, even though we needed long sleeves and blankets the day we hit Clearwater Beach, I was beyond thrilled just to see the ocean and sit under a cabana. Let’s see, I also see from my scrapbook that we visited the Waverly Citrus Packing House. Hmm, that’s odd. Not one memory of that one. Wait . . . uh . . . nope. Nothing. (Who picked that, anyway?)
It’s funny, because even though I have photos and souvenirs from all the big must-sees, it’s Grandma and Grandpa’s “Florida” that left the deepest, most lasting impressions on me. They had citrus trees in their backyard, ’gators in the swamp a short walk from their place (again, no big deal!), and ready access to the beach, shopping, and nice restaurants. They indulged in such exotic regional fare as lobster, shrimp scampi, and Key lime pie. They learned new crafts and played new sports. And clearly, absolutely none of it was worth taking seriously as long as they had plenty of good friends, family visitors, and each other to share it with.
More than 30 years later, it is still a joy to remember my Snowbird grandparents as they were that Christmas in Florida: active, relaxed, and contented. Lucky for me, I got to see their slice of paradise up close — and I am confident I’ll find my own piece of the Key lime pie when the time is right.