As we drive out of the airport into the city, the first South Florida landmarks I point out are the radiant flame trees.
“The flowers are like flashes of fire!” I say with dramatic flare to engage his budding and already wild imagination.
From the rearview mirror, I can see my “I’m almost 6” year-old grandson buckled and attentive, eyes darting from side to side.
When he gets older, much older, I snicker, I can tell him the Cuban joke about what el flamboyan and marriage have in common. (At first, flowers and then . . . vainas, pods literally, and slang for bull).
Never miss a local story.
But soon I realize that what has captured his attention is not our version of the most colorful trees in the world, the Royal Poincianas.
“What’s the matter with all these people?” he says, waving his hands like I do and pointing at cars whizzing by us, darting in and out of lanes. “They’re crazy. They don’t know how to drive!”
And so begins my topsy-turvy summer plot to plant the seeds that will hopefully one day make my firstborn grandson, the third generation, a vintage Florida-loving man.
I wanted to give “D” what my hard-working, blue-collar parents passed on to me and my daughters: an appreciation for summer, the lifelong joy of sinking feet into soft sand and swimming in tranquil seas, the discovery of creatures like dolphins, crustaceans and manatees.
In other words, love for nature as inheritance.
But while my parents were able to save from immigrant paychecks to rent a Gulf Coast cottage by the sea at a bargain price in summer, in today’s hot tourism market, it takes a small fortune (on credit) to spend four days in a once lovely but now declining resort in overcrowded and overbuilt Captiva.
While my parents fished or bought affordable fresh snapper and grouper, I rush my grandson to an early dinner in a maddening competition for a table, and two nights too many, I’m forced to settle for restaurants that have parking and no wait because the expensive food is terrible.
While my children and I frolicked in clean white sands, when I stop with D for a picnic lunch on the Causeway Islands, my eyes dart from cigarette butts to discarded trash to beer bottles.
I learn that locals have a name for the creeps who crash and litter on these coasts: “Florida Weekend Warriors” — entitled and stressed out (a heady combination) urbanites that come to party hard and fast with no regard for the environment, nor for the most elementary manners.
They’re worse than the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria simmering in the too-warm waters of Florida. These litter bugs flourish and multiply because there are no consequences. State leaders have decimated the ranks of environmental oversight and conservation, and there seems to be no will to enforce laws and fine offenders.
It’s painful to see the decline.
Thank God for wine, the balm of a glorious sunset at our doorstep, and the innocence of my grandson, who learns to dive and swim in the safety of my eagle-eyed watch, and at the pool, in the company of another generation of boys who jump in yelling, “Cannonball!”
I let go of dinner ambitions, and we dine on bread and cheese on the balcony as the sun starts its spectacular descent. D happily downs leftovers from a gigantic takeaway Bubble Room chocolate cake and toasted coconut Queenie’s ice cream, homemade in Fort Myers.
And then, we bolt for the beach.
My newly minted Florida boy takes off his shirt, dives into darkening waters, and swims until the sun completely disappears in a show of purple, orange, and pink.
Yes, Virginia, there is still a summer in Florida — as long you keep your expectations very low, tune out bad drivers and litterers, and revel in the radiance of family and flame trees.
The latter D finally experiences when I round a curve in Captiva and he yells from the back of the car: “Look, Abuela Mom, a fire tree, a fire tree!”