Nearly ten years had passed since I’d last been down this way.
Shaun and I had spent hours on I-65, but at the tail end of Alabama, we took an exit and wound around to newly finished country highways, the asphalt black and smooth with fresh paint.
He’d never been to this part of country before, and our GPS didn’t recognize it either. The highways had changed since the maps had been updated, the little screen blinked and skewed wide, showed us driving over nothing land, no roads and no direction.
I felt a flicker of worry – it had been nearly ten years since I’d made the drive to this part of Florida, and I’d never been the driver, the navigator, the one responsible for finding our way there. I’d always been a child, before, or a teenager. A passenger.
But my phone picked up right where the actual GPS freaked out, and we sped along, through little Alabama towns only miles apart. What little city there was faded away the longer we drove, here and there veering off a junction onto a different little highway.
Did we pass the Florida border yet? Shaun asked, and I shook my head.
I don’t think so, yet. But I dunno, I dunno if they’d have border signs way out here.
We’d taken a picture at every state line we’d passed, on our first long road trip together; at the rest stop in Tennessee we were so familiar with, at the Huntsville rest stop with the old space shuttle in Alabama. I didn’t plan on making us stop for a Florida picture – there’d be no rest stop, this far off the beaten path, and I knew we’d be taking plenty of Florida-themed pictures during our week there.
The land had changed, all throughout our drive. The gentle hills and autumn-hued trees of Kentucky gave way to sharply rising gorges in Tennessee, the trees slightly greener, only tipped with red. Alabama seemed like such a strange place, long flat stretches of mostly empty land, the billboard on one mile proclaiming GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU, and the next mile advertising strip clubs, adult bookstores. Over and over again.
I can always tell when we’re getting close to our part of Florida, though. Even ten years later. As we left those small Alabama towns behind, getting closer and closer to our destination, it was almost as if a spell came over me. The air itself felt familiar. I hadn’t been here in nearly ten years, and yet all these places, this landscape – it was all such a huge part of my very earliest childhood. My memories seem to start there, and are more richly colored than memories farther into my childhood, when I was older and could remember more, and clearer.
In Kentucky, we have miles and miles of trees and farmland, but it’s very different from this Florida panhandle, the last few miles of Alabama. In Kentucky, we have so many deciduous trees, limbs and branches lower to the ground, and in spring, summer, even early fall – they are thick with leaves. We drive past and we can only really see the first few yards, before all the limbs and the leaves blur together. You can see the woods go on for miles, but it’s all a watercolor haze beyond the tree line.
But in this area, where I grew up, it’s almost all pine. Not the fluffy, Christmas-type pine tree – long, narrow, downright skinny trunks that rise up and up and up, with what seems like only a tuft of branches and pine needles at the top. We could see for acres through the trees as we whizzed past Conecuh State Forest. The light slanted in between the thin trunks, thin and tawny and incredible close.
And between the stretches of forest – farmland. Familiar enough, in Kentucky, especially in our area, where my work is surrounded on three sides by leased fields of crops; especially the next town over where Shaun grew up, where farming is a way of life and a major source of income. But in Kentucky, our primary crops tend to be soybeans, corn. We’re used to low fields of a fresh green, or else long tall stalks of corn, dizzying in their repetitious pattern.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen an actual cotton field until we drove by them again. It actually took me a minute to realize what it was – the little plants with their white puffs almost blueish in the early evening light. Quintessential Southern, it seemed like – big white houses set way back in the fields, horse pastures with dark fences, and then these rows and rows of cotton. What would have been hay bales in Kentucky were round fluffy bundles of cotton, all rolled up in that familiar shape and yet completely different.
Oh, look, Shaun said, there it is!
We approached the Florida state line, there was indeed a sign. Whizzing past, I knew we were no more than 15 minutes from the place I’d grown up. Then another sign – Blackwater River State park.
I felt a tingling of nerves again now, but in a different way from when the GPS lost where we were. That kind of exhilarating nerves, that kind of anticipation before something big and powerful. My phone ticked down the miles, five until the last turn onto the final highway, then four. We were coming in a different angle than I remembered clearly, not from town – I remembered the drive, yes, with my mother, years after we moved, on one of our many, at least annual trips back down to visit her family. I remembered the cotton fields, suddenly, now that we were so close – a very specific memory of my mom maneuvering the highways, sorting through her own memories to find the way on another drive on the cusp of a different sunset.
And then, that particular highway. The railings of a narrow, two-lane bridge over a river – the river, my river.
This is it! I exclaimed to Shaun, start slowing down, it’s coming up.
This stretch of land was not my first home, but very nearly. I don’t have any memories of Indianapolis where I was born, and if I have any of Salt Lake City where we lived until I was two, they are dim and disjointed, one specific image of being held by my mother outside a tall grey building at night, and little more.
But Florida was my landscape, as early as I can remember. My playground. Looking back, especially given how my family has stretched and frayed and reknit itself time and again over the last few decades since we moved from Florida – often I feel like we were happiest there. The most whole and together, the most content. Perhaps that’s not true, perhaps that’s the wishful thinking of a young adult who remembers her childhood as idyllic in her ignorant, protected state. But it is not only a recent wishful thinking – it’s a theory I had recur here and there, again and again over the years – in middle school, again in high school. Maybe we never should have left. Maybe everything would have turned out differently. Maybe it wouldn’t have – maybe we were destined to end up as we have, no matter where we lived. And certainly, if we hadn’t moved, I wouldn’t have my Shaun, my Laureny, my Summer Crew and my #friendsfamily and my Fierce Lady Tribe.
But as I spotted the white fence and the gravel driveway in between, the feeling washed over me again. How could some place I hadn’t seen in the flesh in ten years feel so much like home, immediately?
Not that it was exactly the same. My memories of this place were first of a small child, still a toddler, honestly, into a preschooler – and then from frequent visits as a child that petered out as I grew into a teenager. I’d visited once in high school, on spring break with Rachael and her family in Destin, borrowing Jeannie from her vacation with Alison and her family in Seaside. Mom, Jeannie, and I had made a trip down just after the end of my freshman year in college, that summer before I started as a sophomore. It must have been just before Grandpa got sick, just before the cancer took him from us so quickly.
Which is all to say – my vision of the place was a bit grander, larger in my head than it was in real life, in person as a grown adult who maybe isn’t anywhere near tall but is certainly taller than she was in preschool. The horse pastures out in front were still big, but not quite so sprawling and huge as my five year-old self remembered. We passed through the first narrow stretch of trees that I’d played in with my sisters and uncles so often as kids, and passed into the main living area.
So familiar, and yet so strange. The main house, the same as it always had been, white with a darker roof. The rose bushes, the jutting side room that had been part work room, part mud room, part dog room over the many years I’d run through it, chasing after my older family members.
I had Shaun park next to what I knew to be Nita’s car, because it was the only place I’d ever known to park. This was the first time I’d been back to this place since my grandfather had passed, and suddenly, it occurred to me I did not know how everything functioned without my grandpa here to run it.
The land was still, the house and the trailer still, and aside from the horses we’d passed along the driveway, nothing stirred.
Then Nita came out, hugged us, welcomed us. Beckoned us inside the house for a moment, and told me how she’d had the kitchen and dining room remodeled. That much was obvious to me as soon as we stepped inside – I remembered the dining room particularly from the time we lived there, and all our visits – all of us gathered around that long table, passing bowls of rolls and sides.
But the rest of the house, what we saw on our brief pass through, was the same. The view out the back windows to the pool, the big green armchair nearby. My grandpa’s curious absence in that chair.
And then we said goodbye for now, Shaun disentangling himself from the dogs that loved him instantly, as most dogs do. We left by the same door we’d come in by, and walked across the way towards the trailer where Lance and Tara lived – passing the same trampoline I’d bounced on so many years, Grandpa had dug a pit and fitted it into the ground, so we could run across it and bounce high and then stumble back onto solid ground again. Past the gazebo we all used to sit in, me in Mama’s lap, probably squirming to get down and run off, her arms tight around my middle to keep me from doing just that. Now, weight lifting equipment stood in the center, the smaller barbells littered around it. All of it familiar, and yet slightly different.
When my uncle Lance came out, he took my breath away. When we were all growing up, all my grandpa’s boys, Lance and Luke and Jeff alike, all looked very much like themselves. Similar enough to mark them as kin, but in their youth, all slightly different. In the past few years, I’ve seen enough pictures of all three of them to know they’ve all grown into the Sneddon look. It started with Uncle Jeffy, just something about the jaw and the eyes that reminded me of Grandpa, perhaps because he was older than Lance and Luke, more like I remembered Grandpa when I was very, very young. Then Luke started to look exactly like Uncle Jeffy . (Jeff gets the uncle where Lance and Luke do not, because he was a Grown-Up, when we all lived in Florida. While Lance and Luke were older than me by several years, they were my playmates; we rode the same bus to the same school and even though I was so much younger they had to help me up and down the big steps, I knew they were still kids, like me.)
And I had seen that Lance started to look just like his dad, my grandfather, from pictures. We had this old picture of Grandpa in his Navy days and his eyes were just like Lance’s. Old pictures line my Grandma Ardie’s hallway in her little apartment with us in Kentucky, even though they’d been divorced since before my mom had us – so my grandfather’s face in his youth was very familiar to me, smooth and solid and kind.
I had known that Lance looked like Grandpa, but I had not understood how much until he came down his front steps with a grin on his face. Bigger than Grandpa, bulkier from all his hours in the gym – but the same face.
We hugged, and I gripped him hard around the middle. It wasn’t hard to feel like I was four and he was ten, again. I’m not tall and he certainly is, and for an instant, I felt like a child again. I made some little joke, and he chuckled, and oh – his laugh was just like Grandpa’s. I hadn’t expected that. Grandpa’s chuckle was one of the most distinctive things about him, or it was to me, as a child, and it’s one of the things I miss most, now. A deep, rumbling thing, and it startled me, hearing it again, out of the mouth of his son.
Lance has always been my favourite uncle and I can’t really explain why. I’m sure it stems from those same days I keep talking about, when I was just the smallest of the kids – Jeannie was born in Florida, just a baby really, while we lived there. So I was the youngest of the playmates, and smallest, with a long golden braid flying out behind me as I struggled to keep up with my uncles and my older sister. They didn’t want to wait for me, didn’t want to slow their paces to match my short, stubby legs – but Lance almost always did. Lance waited for me, and held my hand, and gave me a hug. Come on, Emmy. I remember understanding, technically, that he was my uncle – but at that age, he always seemed more like my big brother. My buddy, my protector.
I told Shaun a story about Lance, on the drive down. A specific memory, and a more recent one than all our time in Florida as kids. Grandpa and Lance had both driven up to Kentucky – I can’t remember the reason, might have been they were passing through on their way to somewhere else, unable to resist the urge to stop and visit for a few nights – just as Shaun and I were on our way to Destin. This was still several years ago, I was in early high school, maybe 15, which meant Lance was a young man himself.
I don’t know where my sisters were, this day, this specific memory, but they weren’t with us. It was a warm day, a sunny day, and we had gone on a walk around the property around my mom’s house: down the long side hill to the church driveway, curving around and climbing the smaller, rolling hills, under the tree boughs.
We’d turned around and were headed back, had already started to climb the side hill up to the house again when we heard it – screech – BANG. The unmistakable sound of a car wreck.
My mother and her father immediately took off running. They didn’t take time to think or consider, they just knew there was trouble and someone would be needing help. That sums them up, pretty much entirely.
I stood frozen. I wanted to move – I am my mother’s child, certainly, and I knew I should go help, in whatever way little 15 year old me could.
But I was scared – I recognized the sound of a car wreck the same way Grandpa and Mom and Lance had. People tore up and down the two-lane country highway that ran in front of our house all the time, pushing down the gas pedal once they were free of town, zooming as fast as they could once they were out in the country, the land spread out in front of them, beckoning. In a year or two when I got my own license, I would end up speeding in the same way. It was a wonder we didn’t see more wrecks than we did – but this was the first one I really had ever been near.
I was scared what we would see, blood, bodies, a crumpled car, people crying. I couldn’t quite move, and Mom and Grandpa were already halfway across the side field.
Come on, Emmy. Lance still stood next to me, and he held out his hand. I was probably a little too big for hand-holding, or at least, I would have felt that way about a minute before. But I was scared, and he must have seen that. He took my hand, and we walked – briskly – down the hill after our parents.
When we got to the scene of the wreck, it wasn’t terrible. A pizza delivery girl, probably only a few years older than I was, had swerved trying to miss hitting a dog. Her car had jerked off the side of the road, but the brambles had kept her from careening over the edge and into a gully. She was shaken, crying, but not hurt, really, and the dog still capered around someone’s yard, happy and carefree.
It is a small memory, and somehow the only clear memory of their entire visit. It is a small thing, and I doubt Lance would even remember it, if I mentioned it to him. But it has always stood out to me, because the Lance I knew as a child seemed to still be the same person when we were both older.
And the same was true during our visit to him, Tara, and his mom before we moved onto Destin. Those two days there on the little homestead were near idyllic – the whole vacation was, truly. But there’s something about reconnecting with people you knew as a child, again as an adult. There’s an extra spark of joy when you find that things, that relationship, is the exact same as you remember it.
Lance and Tara took the time to walk with us down to the river where I had played so often as a child, paddling in the shallows and making fairy castles in the wet sand with my mama. We hiked back through the fire road a long way, and they always stopped to make sure I could take as many pictures as I wanted. We talked, the entire time, out at supper or driving from the house to the Gator Café for a cheeseburger. Some of the time – OK, a lot of the time – Tara and I dominated the conversation. We’re both people who have a lot to say, and I liked that too. I liked getting along with her, getting to know her. I liked the two of us chatting up a storm in the back of the extended cab, while Shaun and Lance chatted amiably, a little lower, a little slower, up front. We drove over to Munson Lake, a place so close I knew I must have been there as a child, and yet I felt sure I would have remembered such clear, blue-green water as this, like a pane of rippled glass spread out, flat. Would have remembered the wooden planks and the suspension bridge – but later that night, Mama assured me we had gone. We rode horses, and I remembered being scooped up in front of Mama, or Grandpa, not really riding so much as riding along, safe behind the saddle horn.
We talked in a way I hadn’t expected – in an adult way, that I suppose made sense, considering we were all adults – sharing troubles in our lives, family situations, and how things had changed. Sharing our theories on life. We all agreed we just liked a low-key time, these days. Some friends over from time to time, some beers and some silliness – but we loved our quiet time, our simplicity. Good food and time outdoors and nothing too hectic or dramatic. When Shaun and I first arrived, we were all polite, perhaps. We all knew what type of behavior was expected of us – but by the end of the first evening, after we all sprawled on couches with dogs draped over feet and laps, watching Dr. Quinn and making jokes about it – I felt at home, once more. Shaun did, we all did. And that feeling only grew in our time there. I did feel at home, I did feel like we fit right in.
That feeling was so strong that on the Tuesday we were scheduled to head out to Destin, to our hotel and our days alone at the beach – I felt a huge wave of homesickness hit me, before we even packed up the car.
Suddenly, I had to get out of there as fast as possible, because I knew the longer we stayed, the more difficulty I’d have leaving at all, ever. Lance helped us pack our bags out to the car and Shaun and I had our last hugs with Tara, and then with Lance.
We made it all the way down the driveway, down the highway, and through the tiny town before I started crying. (Which, as I said later, is not really an accomplishment, considering it takes maybe five whole minutes max to make that drive.) Shaun kept driving, and tears slipped down my cheeks. Not big, heaving, dramatic tears – just gentle tears.
I’d known to expect them, and Shaun wasn’t bothered either. He’s used to it, by now, bless him. He knows he married a woman who is so sentimental, so touched by things that she cries as seemingly insignificant things. We’d even laughed about it, on the way down. I’m gonna cry when we leave Lance and Tara, I’d told him, and probably when we leave for good, too.
I wasn’t sad, exactly – even if we’d stayed an extra day or two, we’d have had to get back to our lives in Kentucky, eventually. I was sorrowful to leave behind that idyllic time, the land that held me spellbound just as much at 28 as it had at five, at eight, at seventeen. I was sorrowful to leave behind people who I loved, and who I knew I wouldn’t see again for a long time, longer than felt right.
I knew it had to happen, and I knew it was the right thing to let myself cry, let it out. To honor that feeling. When I felt myself nearing too close to genuine sadness, depression, I gave a little growl, shook my head. Enough of that, I said, reaching to turn up the stereo knob, blare some Tom Petty against the glare of our departure.
There are a lot of things I could write about our vacation, in great detail. Good things – visiting the Air Force Museum where my grandpa worked for years and years with Shaun, finding it too smaller in person than in memory, but still awed by the giant planes. How I kept expecting him to come around the corner with a bug hug for me. Or coming over the big bridge into Destin, hearing Shaun exclaim, Oh my God, there’s the ocean. It came out of nowhere! Checking into our little inn, that hotel room that looked like it’d gotten stuck in the 1960s. Shaun’s first time to the beach, the way he was so sure he didn’t like it and was only humoring me – how he waded out first to his ankles, following me, then to his knees, his hips. How surprised he was to find he loved it, the waves crashing around his chest, jumping up into the highest waves as they crested around us. We’ve gone swimming 300% more this year than we have ever before in our entire time together.
The ease of those days, the leisure. Meeting up with my dear Maggie and her two friends for dinner on a big deck, laughter among new friends, drinking beers on an even bigger deck under the bright light of the moon. Parting ways and knowing we didn’t have to see anyone else, our entire time there, if we didn’t want to. Slowly relaxing into nothing, no schedule and no deadlines. Taking walks along the beach and talking to the birds we spotted, blowing bubbles and watching them fly away in the big gusts of wind. Sleeping in, and afternoon naps once we were exhausted by the sun and the surf. Big, long dinners ordering anything we wanted and not sharing each other with anyone else. Days – actual days, plural – alone with each other. Making each other laugh, constantly. Remembering exactly how and why we fell in love with each other, out here in a different city where everything felt fresh and new and exciting, if only because we were seeing it together for the first time.
All of those things are dear and precious to my heart, and I hold them in a special place. Always will.
But that wasn’t anything new to me, or unexpected. Shaun himself is so dear and precious to me, and I can count on that, I depend on that, I never doubt it.
But that Friday, we checked out of the hotel. I was doing good, fighting off my melancholy. Getting out of the ocean for the last time had been hard, leaving the beach for the last time was hard. Knowing as soon as we got back, we’d have a mountain of responsibility and obligation. And that morning, we packed up the car and we got on the road again, started the long journey back home.
That journey took us through that little town I’d lived in, so long ago. Lance had told us, if you want to stop back by on your way home, please do. And I debated with myself, the whole drive. I wanted to. I wanted that feeling of home and familiarity again. I wanted to pretend we could just plunk our own house down in between Nita’s and Lance’s, and pick up our lives there. Help with the horses and repairing fences and keeping Nita company and taking long walks down to the river and sitting around the fire pit at night.
I started crying again. Harder, this time, because I knew we weren’t just headed a few cities over, an hour away – I knew we were headed over the state line again, back up through Alabama and then Tennessee, and that by the time we got to Kentucky, I would feel relief. I’d be ready to be home, with my own things in our log cabin, all the familiar smells and sounds, my kitty in my lap as I laid my head on Shaun’s shoulder.
I texted Lance, told him it’d be too hard to stop by for a few minutes, maybe a half hour, and then do the farewell song-and-dance all over again. Sometime later, he wrote back, told me he understood.
We flew along the highways, mostly empty at ten in the morning, leaving the cotton fields behind. The pines grew thick again, and we crossed over the Florida state line and back into Alabama.
We’d gone down with the anticipation of a beach trip, a quick vacation and some time away – and we got that. And yet, we were coming back with so much more than we’d expected to find.