“I had heard the whispered tales of immortality, the deepest mystery.” “Xanadu” by RUSH
So much of my family’s history is littered with lore. Stories that have been handed down from father to son, but never verified, our own personal unicorns. Everyone swears they know the person who saw it happen. It’s like the classic YU story of four guys who drive down to Miami for a weekend. Everyone says they know one of those guys. In the story, the four returned late Monday and informed their teacher that they missed the Monday morning final exam due to a flat tire. (The teacher granted them a retest the next day. One question, “Which tire?”)
Or the story of George Washington’s comments to one of his generals at the start of the crossing of the Delaware. “Shift that fat a-- Harry...but slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” Washington, the father of this country, was one of the most dignified statesmen of his time, but he was also human. So, historians file that under “so unbelievable it must be true” and that takes us back to Florida in the 1970s.
Growing up with grandparents who had migrated to Florida,
(Isn’t that a requirement when you hit a certain age?)
I spent my Christmas vacation in North Miami Beach, Florida. The five of us would spend winter breaks in their condo.
(Don’t you mean “yeshiva break?”)
In the 1970s, “yeshiva break” didn’t exist yet.
There we were—three kids, two parents, two grandparents—in a two-bedroom condo. My grandparents gave my parents their bedroom and they slept on the pull-out sofa in the living room. I slept on a cot 10 feet from my grandparents. I don’t remember it feeling crowded, because we had always spent Christmas vacation like this.
Christmas week in Florida was a magical experience for me. Flying on an airplane was just the tip of the iceberg. Everything about Florida was magical...to me. The air felt different. The orange juice tasted different. Palm trees lined the streets. Wild salamanders played by our feet, like Florida’s answer to squirrels. One minute it was warm and sunny, the next it was raining, but on only half the street. We visited Parrot Jungle and watched the Mold-A-Roma machine make a plastic animal in front of our very eyes. Every day we went swimming in the condo pool and tried to make friends with other kids our age who were there for the same reason. Even wilder to middle school me, was to watch people walk around the outdoor mall at 163rd street, in December, in shorts, while one unfortunate fellow stood in front of the bank in a Santa suit. My grandfather once told me that he knew the man in the Santa suit, from shul.
“You do grandpa?” I asked at the age of 6.
“He is the gabbai of the shul. He was the only person in town who had a beard big enough for the job.”
When I was 12 years old, my grandmother got sick and the door to that world closed on me. We no longer travelled to Florida. Winter Christmas break became as lonely and cold as the Night’s Watch, from the miniseries, “Game of Thrones.” My grandparents continued to spend Passover with us at our house in White Plains, New York, but it wasn’t the same. Magic like this can’t be “bottled” and transported. Once you leave Shangri-la, you lose the magic of being there. My grandmother passed away when I was in college, but my grandfather continued to visit us for Passover. With each passing year, I felt the Florida of my childhood slipping farther and farther away.
When I was 27 years old, Grandpa invited me to visit him in Florida. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I had to wait because I was raised not to invite oneself to another person’s home. I had no idea why he had not invited me sooner, but I didn’t want to dwell on things I could not change. Returning to Florida as an adult was like one visiting their childhood home years after they had moved out. You spend the first five minutes standing around checking your memories against what your eyes and ears are registering. It wasn’t my childhood, but it still felt like I remembered it. In the fabled Samuel Taylor Coolidge poem “Xanadu”, the author pines to return to paradise. To me, the fresh orange juice was “the milk of paradise.”
Nostalgia is a word that means to return “home to pain,” but for me, returning to my grandparents’ condo for the first time in 15 year was nothing but surreal. There were no painful memories of those family vacations, only adventures. The world we remember is so much bigger and our adult selves can only digest that in small stories like when I was 5, I wandered off in a Zayre’s department store. My mom called dad on a store phone, “Don’t panic, but I’ve lost David.” I was too busy having an adventure to notice that I was no longer standing next to my mom. Or when I was 10, my dad took me fishing on the pier in Miami. We spent a morning impaling live shrimp on a hook in the hopes of catching a fish for Grandma to clean. All we did was feed the fish while the pelicans circled around us like vultures.
More powerful than my memories were my grandfather’s memories. It was on that trip in March of 1995 that he told me about the “unicorn.”
David Roher is a USAT certified triathlon and marathon coach. He is a multi-Ironman finisher and veteran special education teacher. He is on Instagram @David Roher140.6.
He can be reached at [email protected]