When I was a child, our family spent a lot of time in Hollywood Beach, FL. My grandparents had a small ranch house about a half block from the beach with a detached garage that they converted into a guest house. The main house had a television recessed into a white brick wall and a gas fireplace that burst into blues and yellows at the flick of a switch. I remember curling up beside my mother as she read aloud to me from the Reader's Digest -- Humor in Uniform and Life in These United States. Many of the jokes needed explanation, but her laughter was infectious. The scent of her Arpege filled me with comfort mingled with the scents of my grandmother -- Pond's Cold Cream, Emeraude Perfume, Coty Powder as she sat near us in her armchair (it swivelled) knitting something. I keep the scents of both women in my medicine cabinet for times when the olfactory is the boost I need to remember more innocent days.
I learned to swim in the Atlantic as well as at a nearby "beach club." When it came to the water, even the swells of the ocean, I was fearless. Back then, in the late 1950's, the community was hardly upscale. Even then it was quite honky-tonk, yet there was an element of safety -- perhaps more endemic to the era than to the area.
As Fate would have it, my husband and I have dear friends who have a home in Hollywood Beach. Last week, we spent a winter respite there. Their home, unlike that of my grandparents, is in a more upscale area of Hollywood, hovering on the shores of the Intercoastal in an enclave that is far from that across the Causeway which remains not only honky tonk but now bordering on sleazy. Once, Hollywood Beach was simply that kind of seaside town that typically lends itself to pinball machines, beer joints, fudge, taffy, and surf shops. Where my grandparents house still stands, the efficiency motels from the 1950's also remain, but now they have become decadent -- the sorts of places where I believe transients drift through nearly unnoticed -- evading the law, leaving behind dark pasts en route to even darker futures. Maybe that shadowy imagery is my imagination at work, but the ramshackle, salt-eroded, peeling, and faded once pastel motels seem like perfect places to hide out. I walked Hollywood Beach with my friend and tried to find remnants of a clean pastel past, and yet except for my memories (and a few places that are being renovated), little was familiar except for the ocean.
When I was 21, I married a Miami man and moved down there. I made nearly weekly trips (about a 20-minute drive) to visit my grandparents who had moved by then to a more manageable Hollywood Beach high-rise overlooking the Atlantic, not far from their old house. Nineteen seventy-five: Hollywood Beach was failing. Miami was in a state of flux -- a juxtaposition of a welcome Cuban influence and the older snow birds who shuffled along Collins Avenue in white shoes. It was hardly the neon and glitter that it is now.
Each time I return to Florida, my senses suffer an assault: The sweet memories of childhood and the struggle of a homesick young woman who tried to be married in a place as tropically lush as Paradise. On this trip, I concluded that I could not have sustained my identity in either that marriage or a place where the climate remains more or less the same throughout the year. I perceive a lust for glamor in Miami and the tonier surrounding areas that is not "me." I wonder what Ponce de Leon would think having discovered the "fountain of youth" and knowing that fountain is now brimming with cosmetic injections and surgical procedures to keep those my age with a plasticine aura of youth.
My husband and I got snowed in on this trip, only a day's delay but enough to make it a poignant one since we ended up flying out on my mother's birthday. It was all too significant to be in Florida since for as long as I can remember -- long after my grandparents died -- my mother was in Florida on her birthday. It was partially because of the time of year, and more because she did not want to be "here" to celebrate, because she wanted to ignore that day. Because her birthday came on the heels of Valentine's Day, I always sent her either red roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a card that said "Happy Birthday" with the "Birthday" crossed out and circled with a heart.
On the morning before my husband and I were to leave for the airport, as our friends and my husband still slept, I went outside alone and sat on the retaining wall by the Intercoastal. I looked straight across at what once was The Hollywood Beach Hotel, a once lavish resort with private beach front and shops that was just walking distance from my grandparents' house. It was an oasis amidst the otherwise carnival atmosphere of Hollywood. Since those days, it has had many incarnations including a Bible College. Now it is a Ramada. It is barely recognizable save the towers that are nearly obscured by what I think is a parking garage.
Who could have predicted that one day I would sit on that wall looking over at a place that once was? I wasn't planning to cry the way I did that morning of my mother's birthday. My tears came as a shock to me until I accepted them: This was her first birthday when she was not around to deride the celebration. It was the first time I did not send candy and flowers. The first time I did not call her and do a poor imitation of Ralph Kramden's loss for words as he might say "Happy Hamadahamada" which made her laugh in spite of herself. I wonder sometimes if it is foolish to be in one's 50s and miss your mother as much as I miss mine.
My brother called me the morning of my mother's birthday -- not because it was "the day" but just because. As I said "Hello" he asked "What's wrong?" My brother possesses the same uncanny ability as my oldest son to know that something is "wrong" with my simplest "hello." I apologized for what was then an onslaught of sobs and laughter: Remembering her with joy, crying over her absence.
Still not the best of flyers based upon a fundamental claustrophobia and little to do with flight, by the time I got to the airport, I found myself barely able to inhale.
JFK airport was pleasantly chaotic and the winter air was colder than I anticipated when we returned. I slipped on my down coat at the taxi stand, wrapped my scarf around my neck, pulled on my gloves. We drove in over the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and there was Lady Liberty in the Harbor. I remembered the feeling I used to have when the plane banked as it flew into Miami on warm nights...the way I loved the flat terrain, the endless stream of lights, the sweet smell of oranges in the heat. I remember loving the tawdry town of old Hollywood Beach ... the aroma of salt air, fudge, and taffy. I thought for a moment about asking the superintendant in the building where I grew up in New York City if I could walk through "just one more time" now that my parents' old apartment is empty. And then I finally inhaled and exhaled. Enough re-visiting. I leaned against my husband and brought myself back into the moment as we drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, the downtown Manhattan skyline glistening silver in the northern sun.
Follow Stephanie Gertler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StephGertler