Reborn on the Bayou
It feels like home on the Florida bayou where my dad lives these days. I consider never leaving and the temptation is strong. My family has a long history in the south. My great-grandmother, known in the family as “Mama Q” was born in Georgia and lived much of her life in Leesburg, close to Orlando, before there was such a thing as Walt Disney World. She was almost 100 when she passed.
When her daughter, my grandmother, rejoined Mama Q back in their southern world, it was a blow to me, still a young girl who loved my grandmother more than any other single person in the world, probably because she loved me that much, too. She was a large woman, big-boned and tall, with endless energy and an abundance of affection freely given. She bore eight children. My dad was the oldest, as I was his oldest child.
Born and raised in Michigan, I had no idea people like Mama Q, my grandmother, even my dad (who is kindness personified) were alive in the world. Maybe it’s a southern thing, that loving kindness. You’re born with it, or you’re not. My father’s family are demonstrative, they bestow hugs liberally. They are warm people and have inherited genes from a warm climate.
My mother’s family of reserved easterners loved me, of course, but their love was dignified and quiet, and I came to understand and appreciate that kind of affection, too, in time. It might not have the fierce physicality of my Grandma Hines’s hugs and kisses and smiling eyes, but as Grandma Hines passed early from this world, my mother’s mother became the woman I most connected to, the person who made me feel safe and beloved. It was through her example that I learned to fit my love to Detroit proportions. Most of the time, I succeed.
As a young girl, when I was not visiting Grandma Hines and Mama Q, we wrote letters, the kind with ink and paper. I still see in my minds’ eye the loping handwriting of Grandma Hines and her rendering of days spent picking oranges and grapefruit straight from the orchards, passing the time with Mama Q and her brother Charles Henry, helping Aunt Linda keep an eye on the little ones. My Aunt Linda had a glorious adventure of a life, running away to join the circus, marrying and divorcing the dashing Richard, then contentedly settling down in the place where family roots grew deep.
I have always wanted that. I searched for it my entire life, tried hard to fashion a sweet southern family in the chilly, reserved north.
Grandma died too young, maybe younger than I am today. I was a teenager and remember almost breaking my brain trying to think of a way to keep her here on earth, with me. Of course, she died anyway, and is buried in Michigan, her adopted home, the place where she raised her many children in a rambling farmhouse in Allen Park. It is no surprise really that in midlife my dad reclaimed a patch of Florida to call his own.
Although my mother tried, she never could acclimate to the Floridian heat. Mom’s family, as far back in the States as we can tell, came from Buffalo, New York. Mom has a snow belt constitution; she loves the snow and cold weather, something Dad and I don’t really understand.
My parents did the dance of two homes in two states, with Dad traveling December 26 to Florida and coming up to Michigan some months later…and later…and then hardly at all after Mom tried to move down with him for good. That didn’t last. She could not tough out the Florida summers and she’s back in her beloved downriver, which is what we call the towns south of the city. Meanwhile, here I am, stuck in Detroit, trying to stay warm, trying to make an annual February visit to Florida last an entire endless Michigan winter.
I’m writing from Florida now, where so many of my friends have migrated and where my dad continues to flourish. Every year I want to stay. Every year I realize that home, despite the places in the world that loudly call my name: California, Seattle, Sedona, Oregon, England, Greece, Delos, Athens, Egypt, Florida…home is wherever my heart needs to be, and right now, the central location of both heart and home is icy, glittery, Detroit.
Tomorrow, after two weeks of sumptuous sunshine and sandy beaches, I will pack up my bags and return to my place north of the city that may have a bad rep but is more like a big affectionate cat than a fierce tiger or lion. My home here in the far north reminds me of an igloo, the house surrounded by a few feet of hard-packed snow, though it’s mere weeks until spring.
What I have to do, what keeps me going through the cold, the ice, the snow on the daffodils every single spring, is remember how my southern grandmother, until she was able to return forever to her beloved Florida, kept her sunny sweetness and abiding love through many a Michigan winter. The memory warms me still.