Death's sunny waiting room
I have two sisters, an older and a younger. We like to pretend we all make our life choices independently, but in fact, every little decision by one sister immediately prompts low-grade competitive anxiety in the others. You had a mercury blood test? Why? Gee, maybe I should too... You're switching to low-carb? Is it working? Gee, maybe I should too...
Major decisions evoke high-grade anxiety, which I am now suffering. One sister and her husband have bought a condo in Florida. The other and her husband spent almost a full winter in Florida last year, and intend to make it an annual practice. Both rhapsodize about the joys of escaping the cold for long swathes of winter and the particular pleasures of their respective habitats of Sanibel and Naples: biking, tennis, golf, sunsets.
I remember Florida vacations in my youth as adventures in untrammelled happiness, largely, I think, because my parents exuded such a childlike excitement in being there themselves. Both were children of immigrants who struggled up from poverty -- to modest middle class comfort in one case, and slightly lesser poverty in the other. My mother used to glow in recollection of a brief sojourn in Miami Beach she once took with her mother; they had to walk a block to the beach from their humble boarding house, but never mind, it was still Florida. For my parents, a week in a "fancy" Florida hotel was a symbol of the immigrant dream come true, proof that they had materially "arrived."
My Florida memories are a brochette of temporal gems strung from one end of Miami Beach to the other.
I remember our very first trip en famille: a magical week at the Delano Hotel in South Beach -- not in its present glamorous reincarnation -- and a terrible sunburn that has me looking quite spacey in a family photograph taken at our dinner table, all of us dressed to the nines, as one did then.
As the family fortunes improved, we worked our way up to mid-beach hotels like the Carillon and the Deauville. Everyone staying at these places was just like us: selfconsciously dapper nouveau riche Jewish fathers, complacent, brittlely groomed mothers and spoiled-rotten kids. Social connection was a snap. The pool-centric days flew by in a golden, sun-drenched blur of heat and water and adolescent group flirtation.
I well remember the excitement around my parents' momentous decision -- quite young, they were in their 50s, which at the time seemed old to us -- to rent an apartment for the whole winter at a glitzy condo further up the beach. They eventually bought a very pink, aggressively mirrored and heavily beswagged apartment in the same building from a rumoured mobster.
By then, we were all married with babies. The condo represented an annually guaranteed week or two of heavenly warmth, outdoor toddler recreation and luxurious nightly excursions to my parents' favourite restaurants. I recall with brilliant clarity my fervent gratitude for these blessed respites from cabin fever and baby-snowsuit hell.
My parents' final North Miami Beach abode was a spacious three-bedroom condo in a building that looked as though it was designed by an architect with a sideline in wedding cakes. By this time, my parents weren't so much nouveau riche as simply riche, and had acquired good taste in decorating. Our children were then old enough to archive their own memories: We all laugh recalling the vast marbled lobby resembling an upscale police station, such was the security level, and the dinnertime "fashion show" under the portico, as everyone waiting for their valet-retrieved cars surreptitiously assessed their own grandchildren's looks, deportment and sartorial turnout in relation to their neighbours'.
By then, all three of us sisters were more than a little jaded, taking an uneasy critical distance from the endless round of evanescent pleasures and material pampering. When our parents died, we happily sold the condo, and the Florida mania went dormant, except for casual weekly winter breaks.
My sisters may have surrendered to Florida's seductive wiles, but I resist the impulse to follow them. For spending the whole bloody winter in Florida is what old people do. It's what my parents did, and look what happened to them. Florida is paradise, but it is also -- as my father, occasionally reverting to a muttered Yiddish expression, called it --death's waiting room. I realize one day I'll probably say, "Gee, maybe I should too" ... but not yet.