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Some Gulf Coast memories from childhood

Both of my parents lived fairly rooted existences as children. As adults… not so much. Still, they chose to wander across the country from one SAC base to another, taking a brood of children with them. We, the children, however, had no choice. Nomads we must be, dependent as we were upon our parents. Besides trekking from one SAC base to another, we spent some summer vacations with my mother’s parents on the Gulf Coast of Florida. And, whenever my mother did not want to go where my father was going, or whenever we could not, we would return to Florida to live near her parents. It was a bit schizophrenic for me, as the oldest, constantly shuffling back and forth between Midwestern winters, when I’d have to walk to school with bare kneed exposed, and the balmier weather in the south. In the 7th and 8th grades, for example, I was in three different schools, two in Florida, and one in South Dakota. South Dakota–at least on a SAC base–was pretty bleak.

Perhaps the BP spill in the Gulf is the real inspiration for writing down these memories. I fear that the Gulf Coast may never again be what it was when I was a child.

Because memory is so elusive, as well as allusive, I must write this story as a dreamy kind of novel in installments, rather than as a memoir. Childhood memories are often images, sometimes blurred, hazy remembrances of meals, aromas, truly ephemeral. I remember the hot Midwestern summers, a blazing summer sun, playing outside, often by myself, sometimes with friends or my sisters, the humming of crickets and cicadas, the sounds of dirt and stone beneath one’s feet, crunching and crackling.

Much later, on the Gulf Coast, there would be roads of crushed shell, sidewalks of pink stone, travertine perhaps? …and the dread of asphalt pavement on bare feet, with only the balls of the feet and the heals touching the road, while walking to the corner grocer for a Heath ice cream bar. Toffee. Walks to the beach and walking in the water’s edge. I even walked several miles along the beach to a part-time job at the other end of the key during junior high. It was probably a 45-minute walk, but I enjoyed it. I had time then to think and dream.

The meals I remember best were at my grandmother’s… Sunday dinners. She’d make a roast or swiss steak and roasted potatoes that I’ve never been quite able to duplicate and she’d let me help by stirring the gravy, a very important job, since lumps of uncooked flour were most undesirable. My grandmother’s scalloped potatoes and macaroni and cheese (which involved using a double boiler) were the most comforting of foods. Of course, she was a Taurus, and really understood the importance of good food to children.

I also remember cooked yellow squash with butter and some salt, the kind of thing my father would not have liked, since it was seasoned less than he would have preferred, i.e, no bacon fat, but to my childish taste buds, it was comfort food, too. So, too, were the okra in tomatoes, thickened with a bit of corn starch and stirred constantly, just like the gravy. Dessert was uncomplicated… tapioca with some chocolate syrup or jello with applesauce or bananas folded into it after it had partially set. On birthdays, my grandmother would take us all to an ice cream parlor where we could order whatever we liked. In those days, I loved the bubble gum ice cream. I was still too unsophisticated to appreciate flavors like coffee or butter pecan.

From kindergarten through high school I attended 13 different schools. Some of them were in the same school district, but I was still always the new kid. The shy kid who rarely spoke, except to answer a question in class. Most military brats attend a number of schools, but I think I might have a record. Third grade was the worst. Three different schools. That was the year my sister died while we were in Japan. We were supposed to be there for three years, but left after ten months. A hardship return to the states. My mother was never the same after that. She slept a lot and took little notice of what the rest of us did, though we were all still extremely young. There were four of us left and at eight, nearly nine, I was the oldest. My sister’s death was the event that informed most of the rest of my life.

Decades later, I found myself in therapy, after my mother died, dealing with both deaths, trying to understand what had really happened, but only grasping it intellectually. I put together a timeline of losses and realized that my mother had probably abandoned me emotionally by the time she was pregnant with Debbie. I looked just like my father and Debbie did not. We were only 20 months apart in age. I was hardly verbal and certainly not yet rational. How does a child that young learn to deal with an emotional abandonment? I know that I retreated inward. I learned to read early and well. Summers, I read everything I could get my hands on, mostly series books. No one, then, was taking much interest in what I read, so I read to escape.

One of my sisters and I have a favorite food memory of an elementary school that we each attended, though at different times. This was back in the days of food commodities. If you ate all of your lunch, you were allowed to have something extra… a slice of white bed with a very generous serving of peanut butter mixed with honey. Practically nectar for an eight- or nine-year-old child. Or even an eleven-year-old. I ended up back at that same school for the sixth grade after spending a few months there in the third. I never hid any of my food; however, my younger sister was an expert at getting her peanut butter and honey sandwich, whether she’d eaten all of her lunch or not. That sister is now a caterer in that same school district. Another Taurus.

To be continued

And next week I hope to have an update about my kidney donor status, too.

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