We were in Jacksonville, and my mother wasn’t crying. Note the progress.
To understand her emotions, we need to go back in time, to a two-year stretch in the 1970s. During this dark period in our family history, my mother wept often, shedding tears for what she’d lost (her life in New England) and for what she hadn’t cared to gain (a new existence in northeastern Florida).
I have no memory of our Jacksonville days, my infant brain having been too soft to hold on to the hard truths of Florida’s sticky heat, pervasive snakes and monolithic seasons. I am, however, a product of my mother’s recollections. Growing up, I heard about the barren neighborhood streets (too hot to play outside), the palmetto bugs (flying cockroaches) and the convicts in our forested backyard (they were trapping water moccasins).
My mother finally cracked a smile when my father told her that we were moving back to Massachusetts. She would never have to return to the area.
But then she had grandkids. Now a trip to Florida was inevitable.
Florida is the rare state that can satisfy the vacation needs of multiple generations, from seniors to toddlers, always-tired parents to tireless spring breakers. In April, my parents rented two condo units on Amelia Island, northeast of Jax (a common nickname; see also River City and J-ville), for a week-long family holiday including my niece and nephew, whose combined age I can count on my fingers. As part of the trip, I was going to drag — I mean, escort — my mother back to Jacksonville. I had two intentions. I wanted to help her find peace with this city, and I wanted to know: Is Jax really that bad, or was my mom being a tad melodrama-diva?
To prep her for the outing, I interrupted her lounging session at the pool one afternoon to ask her to name some positives of living in Jacksonville. Her like list included Atlantic Beach, catfish (live, not fried), the oak trees draped in Spanish moss and year-round iced tea. In New England, iced tea appears on menus as a seasonal beverage.
Our plan was to go backward, then forward, past to present. The day started off cold and rainy. We wore our Yankee finest — sweaters, jackets and socks. We drove to our old house in the Beauclerc neighborhood, passing the silvery downtown skyline, which had experienced a vertical growth spurt in the 1980s. Before crossing the St. Johns River, I noticed a big bowl on my left, the Jaguars’ football stadium. My father mentioned that this area had once been rough and disreputable; now, fans flow through the streets wearing teal fright wigs and animal-print face paint. Civilization restored.
For recreation, my parents would pull our 17-foot boat by trailer to Goodbys Lake, off the northward-flowing St. Johns River. We would set sail around sunset, but not for romantic reasons. “We couldn’t go earlier in the day because of the heat,” said Mom.
We drove in circles looking for the boat ramp, losing our way among the strip malls. We pulled down a leafy side street where a sign read, “Gun and Tackle Club.” My mother had a flashback moment: “I think I took you here to swim in the pool.” I hoped she’d dressed us in bright orange bathing suits.
Behind a Hooters, I found a marina and asked an employee for help. He directed us over a bridge and across the street, to a large parking lot with a concrete slope leading to the water. A small vessel carrying two fishermen floated by, a picture of the great outdoors framed by urban decay. Neither parent remembered the abandoned buildings with broken windows.