I was born in Jackson County, but moved to Bay County, Florida when I was three years old.
My earliest memories are of little hands playing in white sugar sand, the uncomfortable feeling of the gritty granules stuck in my bathing suit bottoms.
I’m told I was a fish, swimming and diving when I was four years old. I loved riding the waves of the Gulf of Mexico on my little rafts and watching my parents gear up for snorkeling or scuba diving.
I never truly understood that I was a Floridian. Not until my parents took us the furthest we had ever been, Rhinelander, Wisconsin for a family reunion.
We stayed in a cabin on a lake. It was so lucky that two girls around my age were staying in the cabin next to ours. There was an island in the middle of a lake, so my sister, myself and the girls would swim to it every day, a small raft trailing behind us.
It was then I told the girls about Shell Island, a place I’d frequented many times. The island in the middle of the lake was different, filled with thick woods and I commented about not having to worry about alligators there.
“Alligators?!” One of the girls said. “You mean you’ve seen one?”
The question confused me. Of course I’d seen an alligator.
“What about sharks, dolphins?”
“All the time.”
“What’s the ocean like?” The other girl piped up.
I answered all of their questions, from dolphins to sharks to that one time I faced a barracuda. I told them about the Jetties and manatees and the one time a thousand silver fish chased my sister and me out of the water.
“So do you, like, surf?”
I didn’t, but I thought it would be funny to tell her I did. The truth was, the Gulf of Mexico was usually no good for surfing unless a big storm was heading our way.
But it was fun to be a mystical creature from Florida who swam with sharks, wrestled alligators and communed with dolphins and manatees.
As I got older, I almost forgot again that I’m a Floridian. I forgot that it wasn’t quite an everyday occurrence for most people to see dolphins jumping in the bay or throw blob jellyfish with my siblings at the Bailey Bridge as a game.
I thought nothing of it when my first dates with boys were on jet skis or on their family’s boats, didn’t realize not everyone grew up trying to catch poppers on an island.
I couldn’t understand why my mom wouldn’t let me exit the car in just my bathing suit and no shoes when we were out of town.
“I do it all the time!” I argued.
“This isn’t Panama City Beach,” she smiled.
And I saw nothing abnormal when I was 14 and got sea-sick on my dad’s boat. I never usually had an issue with motion sickness, but this time was different for some reason.
My dad noticed and said, “Well, I’m going to keep fishing. I’ll drop you off over here.”
It was an island. He dropped his 14-year-old daughter off on an island alone.
We both thought there was nothing strange about it, and it was paradise for me.
The water sparkled around me. Dolphins came right up to me and I studied hermit crabs in their shells. Snowwhite sand coated the back of my calves and I soaked in the sunshine, staving off the sea-sickness.
A couple hours later, my dad came to pick me up. We had fresh fish for dinner that night.
Once, when manatees were endangered, my father was very concerned. He piled us all up in the car and preached to us the whole way to Crystal River.
“This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Manatees are going extinct and you need to see them up close.”
We stayed in a cabin and rented a small motorboat. We were instructed to be careful, that manatees moved slowly and their backs were often torn up by motors.
Our boat steered through the marshes, looking for the gentle mermaids.
We found them in a clear spring, the water 72 degrees year-round.
I’m told I jumped out of the boat, eager to get started. Since the water was so cold, my siblings didn’t last very long.
But I stayed in the water for an hour. My parents let me play with the mermaids, their little fish at home in the water.
They were gentle, curious creatures. They nuzzled at me as they ate the seagrass. I remember feeling a deep sadness in my heart that I may never see them again.
That sadness was tempered when I heard the bark of an alligator and I quickly swam back to the boat.
Thankfully, due to conservation efforts, manatees are no longer endangered. My kids will enjoy their sweet presence as I have.
My son has told us since he was three that he wants to be a deep sea diver. I take him to the Bailey Bridge when it’s warm, which is a quarter-mile from my home, only bringing a snorkel with me for his entertainment.
He’d stay there all day if I let him. His face barely leaving the water, just long enough for him to exclaim, “I see a fish! I see a fish!” or “Look mom! A hermit crab!”
One time he brought me a bone all excited, and I had to explain to him that someone had eaten some chicken wings and had discarded the remains in the water.
My daughter has always had an obsession with water. She’d fill up every cup in the house and take turns pouring one cup into another and another. For the life of me, I could never understand how this entertained her so much.
Even now that I’m grown, I find it funny leaving Florida. I speak to people in other states, their faces screwed up in curiosity.
“Where are you from?” They ask. “I can’t place your accent.”
Others know exactly where I’m from, them being from my area themselves or having family members from here.
I’ve dubbed it the Gulf Coast accent.
A little bit of country, a little bit of rock-and-roll, and a little bit of the slow drawl of a beach bum.
I never was a kid who ever wanted to leave. I loved my town, loved being surrounded by water, loved staring out at the Gulf, watching the sunset make a new painting every night.
I cried deep, deep tears of despair when the BP oil spill affected my Gulf, my home. I wept as I read the new reports of our sea creatures dying, my beloved dolphins washing up on shore dead.
I remember moving to Jacksonville and experiencing a major culture shock. I had no idea what feeling “landlocked” meant, living less than 10 miles from the coast my whole life, the bay always within a 5-minute walk.
And I was still in Florida.
I love being out on the gulf. I love being physically in an everchanging, mysterious part of the world, looking at the surface of the water and wondering what secrets lie beneath it.
I love knowing when spring is coming, not because of any groundhog, but because I walk out my front door and see pink, red and white azaleas lining my street.
Or because it starts to rain every single day. Soon, the daily fifteen-minute summer showers will be here.
Soon, I’ll take my kids to Shell Island, I’ll watch them chase the poppers lining the shore, finding the perfect colorful shells to take home.
I’ll watch them as they stare wide-eyed beneath their goggles, their little hands pointing at the colorful, tropical fish swirling beneath them at the Jetties.
We’ll trek back to the car, our feet squeaking in the sand, feeling the heat of the sun through our suits.
There are too many other memories to count. Florida permeates every memory of my childhood. From the sunsets, to the gulf, to the islands, to 4th of Julys spent out on a boat, to jumping off the rocks at the Jetties, to scalloping, to picking scuppernongs, blueberries, peaches, grapefruits, oranges and wild blackberries, to music played with the gulf keeping time…
Yeah. There’s something about being Floridian that’s pure magic.
I guess I really do live where other people vacation. ❤️