Some things have always mystified me. One is strong fragmented memories from childhood and the other is the draw, the pull, certain places have on us. I’ve always had this memory of me standing next a big stone wall looking out into a bay. I am with my Auntie Vi. We are watching dolphins play in the water and there was an old stone fort with big cannons. I was three or four.
This memory always perplexed me because my aunt Vi lived in Saint Pete, FL and there are no old forts like that anywhere near. I’d ask my Mom about it every now and then but she didn’t remember anything about standing on a wall watching dolphins or going to a fort. Besides we still lived in Indiana when I was that young. Eventually I just decided it was some wacky conglomeration of various images and memories from childhood and pushed it to the back of my mind.
A few years ago on Thanksgiving my Grandfather died. That was pretty hard. I was pretty close to my grandparents. They had taken care of me when I was very young because Dad was at university and Mom was working. Also Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It was about family. We had left Indiana when I was about five or six and moved to Florida. Up there I had been surrounded by great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and distant cousins. I was the first kid of the next generation and I swam in the love and attention of extended family. Thanksgiving was the time of year when people up north got away and came to visit us in Florida. The house would be full and there would be food everywhere. Thanksgiving was family. Now I was the one living far away. The family was still in Florida but I ended up in Minnesota. I began to appreciate the bone-chilling need to visit family in Florida during late November.
My parents picked me up at the airport and on the ride home they informed me that Grandpa had been moved to a nursing home and was not doing well. We’d be driving up to South Carolina in the morning. My grandparents had retired there years ago to be closer to my grandmother’s family.
We left Tampa early the next morning and arrived in Florence late at night. My Uncle was waiting for us. He had flown in the day before. Grandma was at the hospital with Grandpa. He wasn’t doing well. We’d see him in the morning. About four in the morning I heard someone taking a shower, thought it was kind of odd, but just rolled over and went back to bed. At breakfast I was told Grandpa had died in the night. I missed saying good-by by just a few hours. Family began to arrive. It was Thanksgiving Day and my grandparent’s house was full. I was surrounded by four generations of the family. The house was full of grief. Thanksgiving had changed forever, or so it seemed.
Then we all left. The trip back seemed long, slow, and silent. After a few days at my folk’s house I new I needed to get away. I need to be alone to process things. I spread out a map of Florida on the table to look for inspiration. Saint Augustine caught my eye–the Oldest City, the First City, of America. I had always wanted to go there but it was up in the northeast corner of the state; out of the way, so far north they are almost Yankees. I packed up my folk’s truck with camping gear and headed out.
Sitting on a beach in the dark, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for the sun to rise out of the Atlantic is a good place to think and process. The dark goes gray, then pale, then a kind of white silver. The clouds burn with red, then orange. And it happens. The sun. At first a drop of blood red distorting the line of the gray horizon and then it soars, like it can’t wait to get into the sky. Ever yellowing as it rises. The morning wind rushes toward shore. The surf picks up and the sea birds begin to squabble. A new day.
Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL
When the sun had yellowed and seemed to settle in for its day’s work I decided to go explore Saint Augustine. I wanted to see the fort. For some reason I had a thing for old Spanish forts. I stood on the battlement and looked out over Matanzas Harbor. There were sailboats anchored in the harbor and dolphins playing in the water. I had been here before. This was it. I looked down at the seawall outside the fort. I knew this was where I had been standing all those years ago when my Auntie Vi had lifted me up so I could see the dolphins. I looked back out at the harbor and into the Atlantic beyond. Why had that memory stuck with me all of these years? Why had the desire to visit this place always been in the back of my mind?
When I returned to my parent’s house, I asked my Mom if we had ever visited Saint Augustine when I was a kid. She thought for a moment then said we might have passed through there once when we visited Florida before we moved down here. She thought we stopped there for a bathroom break, maybe. Was that it? A random memory from a pee-break had stuck with me for all of these years? Imprinted the ocean, sailboats and Spanish forts on my mind?
The Castillo still calls to me occasionally. I’ve been back to visit the Old Town a few times since I’ve moved back to Florida, most recently was this week. Two writer friends, Cindy and Gayle, were visiting. We were staying in Orlando so they could visit the Mouse House. Over breakfast on Monday, Gayle was sharing about her current WIP. Part of the book is set in Florida and she was thinking Coco Beach. Something whispered in my ear and I asked if she had ever been to Saint Augustine? Her answer of “No” resulted in a wonderful day trip. As we stood next to the Castillo de San Marcos and looked out at Matanzas harbor, I once again pondered the mystery of childhood memories and the places that draw us.