There is something about being able to watch nearly-unlimited movies in airplanes that I find very thrilling. I knew I should get some sleep somewhere between my two flights (El Paso, TX to Atlanta, GA to Fort Meyers, FL) but every time I snuggled into my pillow and put my eye mask on I could only think about the opportunities I wasn’t taking advantage of. After talking myself out of movies for the full three and a half hours to Atlanta, I finally acquiesced. I landed in Fort Meyers at 12:30am only halfway through Meow Wolf: Origin Story and starving. After deboarding (a slow process given that the majority of passengers were elderly folks who had followed the stereotype of moving to Florida upon retirement), picking up my baggage, and shuffling through the swampy night to my rental car, I made a quick detour to the first 7-11 I could find. Never have I ever had such a tasty egg sandwich!
It was an hour drive to Port Charlotte, and given that it was the middle of the night East Coast Time, Cameron was just waking up. I tested out the car bluetooth but he wasn’t particularly keen to be woken up at 6:30am that Wednesday morning. I wasn't on the phone with him for long. To my slight surprise, someone was manning the front desk at my grandparents’ retirement community and I was able to check into my rental unit. It was about 2am at that point so I had no problem falling asleep!
Unfortunately, I was only asleep for about five hours. Given that it had been a dark night, I hadn’t light-proofed the room and my circadian rhythms are very well trained. At 7:30am I called my grandparents and asked if I should come down to their unit for our first in-person hello in four years. After hugs, Grandma set me down for the same breakfast spread I had four years ago: a choice of orange juice or V8, two varieties of cereal, and Little Debbie doughnuts. I poured a half glass of OJ, some Kashi protein flakes, and a glass of coffee. Over breakfast I shared my trip thus far and the anticipated Polish excursion. They talked about the facility’s activities and the weather. Conversation became stagnant fairly quickly, so I started to move through the list of chores my Aunt Midge had given me for my visit. Item one was to show them pictures of my cousin’s new baby–easy to check off the list! Next was to figure out how to turn up the volume on their bluetooth TV-connected headphones. I am not technically proficient, and I’ve become even less so since I can rely so heavily on Cameron’s abilities. I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out how to turn the headphones on before I finally asked Grandpa for help. Another ten minutes later I concluded that Grandpa knew how to adjust the volume, but the maximum volume allowed by the headphones was simply not loud enough for their aging ears.
Not long after Grandpa left for a doctors appointment so Grandma and I were on our own. We traded book titles (her recommending some mysteries and I introducing her to Margaret Atwood) and cleaned up from breakfast. When I asked about her routine she talked about some of the sessions she attends during the week, doing dishes, and some of the sessions she attends during the week (again). I asked her to show me to the gym so I could get a short work out in, but discovered a Tai Chi class already using the space. I excused myself to my room to change and close my eyes for thirty more minutes (this time with my eye mask on) before returning downstairs to Grandma. By that point it was already 11:30. Grandpa had expected to be back by then, but he had told us to go to lunch if his appointment ran long. Both he and Grandma have cell phones but neither of them bring them along when they leave the house so there wasn’t a convenient way to contact him. Forever following routine, Grandma finally decided we would go up to the lunch room without him.
I took a seat diagonally from Grandma so that Grandpa could have his usual place across from her when he showed up. By noon he still hadn’t arrived, however Grandma’s friend (Lynn?) asked to sit with us. The two of them had gone to the same college, and I was grateful for the fresh conversation. Grandma finally agreed to let us order, and as first courses were coming out (around 12:15) Grandpa finally showed up. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my mushroom soup and baked whitefish given my unfavorable memories from my last visit. As is customary for G&G, I saved half of my meal and asked for my ice cream to go so that we could have the same meal for dinner.
After lunch I busied myself with Midge’s other to-dos. First order of business was turning on the computer. Again, I struggled with this initial step and after about ten minutes had Grandpa show me the very obvious button. Once on, I saw that Grandpa knew how to access his email, he just didn’t like to. He also didn’t know his password if he was ever logged off. I told him he could reset it, but he didn’t want the hassle and he didn’t really seem to care. Next, we walked through the process of pulling photos off of his camera and emailing them to Midge. Grandpa is a self-acclaimed aperture photographer and his dark and blurry photos confirmed his self assessment. That process, and writing up instructions, took us until about 3:00.
Next, we moved onto the phones. The home phone was fairly new; it had a touch screen and text display. I think it had initially befuddled them, but by the time I was there to help they had it mostly figured out. Although the phone was clearly designed to be simple and helpful to those who are hard of hearing, touch screens are not especially easy for those who lack dexterity. The primary frustration (which I later learned to also be true with the cell phones) was the inability to push the right button. There was nothing that I could do to help them with that, so we moved onto Grandpa’s new cell. Turns out he knew how to make calls, but not how to hang up on them (a very necessary function for anyone who likes being in charge of the conversation and controlling when it is over. I had him practice calling and receiving calls a few times, as well as navigating to the home screen. Once he advanced to playing solitaire on his phone and Grandma had fallen asleep on the couch, I excused myself a second time to go up to my room for an hour-long nap.
It was a good thing I set an alarm, otherwise I could easily have slept through dinner. Upon my return to G&G’s apartment, Grandpa got started with the nightly cocktail hour routine. Without knowing what I was getting into, I agreed to a martini (with a cherry instead of an olive). Their nightly process is to pour huge cocktails (martinis for Grandpa and manhattans for Grandma), snack on Lays potato chips and a sour cream-based dip, and set up the patio table for dinner while the leftovers warm back up in the oven. If Grandma leaves the patio (typically a few minutes here-and-there to check on dinner) then Grandpa is sure to engage in political arguments about the impracticalities of socialism in the United States. After dinner, any leftover over cocktails have their ice removed and then they are placed in the fridge. As far as I can tell, the intention is to use these leftovers in tomorrow’s mix but they are always forgotten about until someone realizes they are out of clean cups. At any given time you can open up their refrigerator and see half a dozen plastic cups all 1/4-1/2 way filled. If you open their freezer you will see dozens of plastic and Styrofoam cups filled with ice cream. I helped myself regularly to this stash knowing they would not be missed.
After dinner, the pair move to the couch. They scan the newspaper weekly schedule for some overly-dramatic crime show to put on while they doze off. I joined them briefly (so I could finish my second helping of ice cream). The moderately-tuned TV volume paired with the murmurs I could hear seeping from their headphones created an odd sound scape. With the excuse of still being quite tired, I wished them goodnight and was asked to come down between 8:30 and 9:00am tomorrow. Oops! Maybe my 7:30 phone call had been on the early side for them.
At 8:35 on Thursday morning their door was answered by my nightgown-clad grandmother. She was surprised at my early arrival until she realized she simply had slept in. Breakfast was the same fare, although this time I paired my cereal with a tangerine. They had no plans for the day, other than another doctors appointment for Grandpa that afternoon, so I asked we go to the beach. We elected the closest one so that Grandpa could make his appointment, I went off to my room to change, and then we were on the road by 10:00ish. Although my grandfather still drives, I was not willing to subject myself to that so we took my rental car. There was a bit of a struggle finding a place for his walker since I had my largest suitcase filling most of the trunk, but we slid it in next to Grandma in the backseat.
The drive to Port Charlotte Beach Park was about 20 minutes and the biggest appeal is the neighboring bird sanctuary. I had been there on my previous trip and was eager to go again. It’s not a particularly large space, and they ask for a $5 donation, but I quite like seeing all of the native birds. I was reminded of a fact I had learned there previously: Florida and Alaska have the larges bald eagle populations. I find this fascinating given their very different climates. The pelican exhibit was the most interesting. Pelicans are giants, and I learned the American White Pelican gets up to 16lbs, although they look like they could weigh at least triple that. In addition to the birds, there were a few turtles and tortoises and one particularly friendly rabbit. Grandma became obsessed with what she though was a one-legged bird, even though Grandpa and I insisted that the other leg was just tucked under it’s breast feathers.
When we made our way to the beach, G&G took claim of a picnic table and I meandered to the water's edge. It is not much of a swimming beach, and there is only one small area from where the water is easily accessible. Wading waist-deep was a group of elementary school children with their teachers and chaperones, using butterfly nets and five-gallon buckets to capture the local sea life. Deciding not to get fully wet, I waded in to my mid-thigh and watched them from afar. Beyond the kids, I saw a few dolphin fins and what I think might have been a large tuna jumping out of the water. I stayed there long enough for the school group to return to shore and start learning about what they had caught. During the process of moving everyone back to the beach, there was a scurry of movement in the nearby water. One of the dads had a throw net and managed to catch a few mackerels, which was a fun addition to the kid’s small aquarium.
I worried I had kept G&G out in the sun too long, and when I returned it was obvious that Grandma was ready for lunch. It was already 11:30, their regular mealtime, so instead of going back home Grandpa elected we treat ourselves to McDonalds. I have not had McDonals in probably eight years, and my fries, fish sandwich, and mango-pineapple smoothie did not make me feel like I had missed out on much. Grandpa and Grandma sure were happy though! When we got back, I showed G&G my wedding album and then made an excuse to have some time to myself while Grandpa went to his appointment. Since I had my swimsuit on already, I decided to go to their pool, however I didn’t really know what to do other than float by myself on some pool noodles and then sit in the hot tub. It wasn’t very relaxing because I was worried someone would come by and tell me I couldn’t be there by myself. After maybe only 20 minutes, I showed myself out again and back to my room.
I felt a little guilty about taking so much alone time, but being the sole recipient of attention and questions is rather draining. Grandma’s questions were starting to get repetitive and all conversation stays polite and level, which ultimately means relatively dull. I allowed myself the excuse that Grandma was probably napping anyways after her morning in the sun. Around 4:00 I got a phone call from Grandma reminding me of the dining area’s elevated dress code for dinnertime, so I took that as my cue to change into a dress and head down to their apartment. Grandpa wasn’t around yet, so Grandma and I sat down to browse more photo albums.
Grandpa returned, and we began the cocktail hour routine again around 5:00. Grandma was very concerned about what time we would go to dinner, since it was outside her regular routine, we we kept assuring her that we would plan to head up around 5:30. Multiple times Grandma got up to grab silverware or start the oven and Grandpa kept reminding her that was unnecessary since we were going to the upstairs restaurant to eat. When we finally did got to dinner, there was no one at the counter to greet and seat them so they just barged in and started filling salad bar plates. Not knowing any better, I followed suit but we were soon told off by the woman managing the serving staff and asked to wait outside until a table was ready. Throughout dinner Grandma was agitated that they were not at their regular table, that it was much louder in the dining room, and that she had no need to save the food she wasn’t going to finish. We made it through dinner, but I felt bad for throwing off their routine.
For what seemed like the dozenth time I reminded them I would plan to leave around 10:00am the next day since I had a nine hour drive to northern Florida. I left them to another evening of crime show TV and a promise to be by the next day somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00am.
I woke up early Friday morning, so I had ample time to pack my bag and go to the gym. I had the fitness center to myself but again I felt I might be interrupted by disapproving residents at any time so I only went on the treadmill for ten minutes or so before I talked myself into returning for a shower. I packed the car before joining G&G for my final meal with them. Farewell hugs were paired with a doughnut and tangerine packed for the road and I waved out the car window as I left at 9:45. I was unsure what to expect, as I never had been on such a long drive by myself. I think the longest previously was seven hours to visit Ella in Coos Bay, Oregon, but I was prepared with podcasts and a list of phone calls to make. I talked to Ella first, but she only could talk as long as her bus ride to work. As she had lived in Florida for nine years previously she had a log of knowledge about my route and a recommendation to get a Publix sandwich for lunch. I also talked to Dad and Cameron at various points, and Ella called back a few hours later only to be disconnected because of bad service. I got through multiple episodes of TBTL, including September 12th’s ‘blursday’ message from Cameron, left three weeks previously. This American Life’s rerun episode about rest stops felt very appropriate and I enjoyed comparing my travels to the people being interviewed.
Thanks to a timezone change, I checked into the hotel ten minutes before the estimated 6:00 I had told my friend. Rachael (or as she nows go by, Alex) and I had met in the fourth grade at Lachenwald Camp in Germany. It was fortuitous that we bunked together and later found out we lived in the same town, as girl scouts from all over Europe attended Lachenwald every summer. I had only seen her once between age 11 and now, and that was when her aunt flew me to Florida for Alex’s 16th birthday. She is now getting married, an event I will sadly have to miss, but the timing worked out for me to attend her bridal shower. Prompt as ever, she and her fiancé met me at the hotel room and then quickly left for dinner.
They took me to a lovely outdoor cabana-type setting with string lights and an on-property beach. As we talked, a little forced at first, we watched dolphins play in the surrounding water. I asked about the upcoming wedding and their new house (which they were days away from taking possession of). Seth, her fiance, let Alex do most of the talking. We dawdled in the gift shop to extend the time out, and by the time we returned to the hotel Seth had fully turned into the talker of the group. Alex had heard all of his stories before, but I was happy to encourage him as they were all fresh to me. Around 9:30 he resigned himself to heading home so that he could get a reasonable amount of sleep before going to work the next day.
Alex and I, however, did not get a reasonable amount of sleep. We had gotten back in the rhythm of girlish chatter and kept at it until two in the morning, sharing stories of how our lives had unfolded the last ten years and reminiscing about the childhood we had shared together. Perhaps her memory is better than mine, or maybe those years held more importance to her relative to her surrounding life, because she was able to recall many more stories from our years together in Germany. Her memories of my family were especially fond.
Five hours later, we woke to catch the last of the sunrise. As the Candlewood Suites don’t serve breakfast, I requested we go to Waffle House for my inaugural visit. The waitress was flabbergasted when Alex shared that fact with her, so she gave me the whole spiel of the menu even though I had already decided on pecan and chocolate pancakes paired with mushroom and cheese hash-browns. The Waffle House was top of mind for me as it is TBTL’s obsession du jour; I don’t feel any need to go back but I enjoyed it for what it was. Alex had an oil change booked for 10:45 and her mom wanted to meet for lunch after that. We elected to sit at the beach for a little while before both of those chores, and upon feeling the water and seeing more dolphins, decided to rush back to the hotel to change into our swimsuits. We returned to the same beach, and perhaps unwisely, kept our chattering up while in the water for the next hour or so.
My hair was wet and unkempt when we were greeted by the Toyota service station employee, but Alex had managed to keep hers out of the water. Luckily, we only had to wait about 30 minutes in the Toyota waiting room, which gave us time to both shower before lunch. There was some stress trying to coordinating lunch with her family, since everyone was getting waylaid by other pre-shower tasks so tensions were naturally tightened. Earlier that morning, Alex and I had agreed that we were very similar people, and I laughed to myself recognizing our reaction to family-related stress as yet another similarity. Alex bristled when she found out that her mom had arrived at the restaurant just one minute before her.
The bridal shower was a women-only event, so I didn’t get to see Scott and Jeff (her dad and brother), but Rhonda (her mom) was joined by Alex’s cousin, aunt, maternal grandmother, and paternal step-grandmother (assuming I got everyone’s labels right). I was almost certain that they had brought me to this same BBQ joint when I had last visited ten years ago. Typically BBQ restaurants have fairly limited vegetarian options, but I filled up on their salad bar, fried okra, and a fried corn fritter appetizer. Alex left the table early, partially (I think) to get away from her family, but also because she had the excuse of needing to do her makeup and get dressed for the bridal shower.
The two of us drove together; it was only ten minutes from the restaurant to the Parish Life Center that was housing the event. Alex was unsure what the protocol for timeliness was for the bride-to-be, but we were fashionably right-on-time! I met her high school yearbook friend, Maggie, in the parking lot, and the two of us stuck together for the rest of the event. Neither of us knew anyone else and I am very good at forcing people to be my temporary friends. Having never been to a shower, I had little expectations, but the pile of gifts displayed on the stage was massive! Alex had shared with me and Maggie that her nightmare was to sit on display while opening presents, but that is exactly what the party culminated to. Luckily, there were various games going on simultaneously which took away some of the attention, but Alex’s tears of gratitude at various gifts and cards did not go unnoticed.
In the end, it was exactly what I would have expected. I was thankful to have Maggie as a table mate since she was able to fill me in on some of the bridal shower superstition: any time the bride breaks a ribbon she is going to have another baby and all of the ribbons need to be bound together and used as her bouquet during the rehearsal ceremony. It was wonderful to meet Alex’s new friends and new family, but I never got over the eeriness of being in a room filled exclusively with women; it felt a bit like a scene belonging in The Handmaid's Tale. Of course having carpooled with the bride, I stayed to help with the clean-up. It took three sizable SUVs to haul away all of the gifts and there was an abundance of leftover cupcakes and party favors to be divvied up.
Alex lingered for a bit before leaving the hotel. She felt bad leaving me on my own but I assured her I already got far more time with her than I had hoped was possible. She had things in her personal life to take care of and we had already spent 24 hours straight with each other. We hugged goodbye and wished each other well. I thought about going to sleep right then but instead I opted to call my friend Jessica while walking to the waterfront park across the street. I was startled by a large snake on the sidewalk and then by a siege of herons that did not mind being mere feet away from me. There was a nice sunset and plenty of people and dogs enjoying the evening view. Once off the phone, I drove to the nearby Piggly Wiggly (the South’s favorite discount grocery store), selected a yogurt and apple for the morning, and then huddled up for some Netflix and a microwave meal back at the hotel. It made me a little sad to realize that was how I was spending my last night in the US, but not sad enough to do anything about it. At some point I realized that in the timespan of a week, I had visited all four of the continental US' timezones.
The next morning (the last morning) I woke up too early. Knowing that he would be awake, I gave Cameron a call. As I talked to him, I decided to head back to the beach for the sunrise. I got there at the perfect time to watch the pinks turn to orange as I walked eastward through the surf. The sun was a huge reddish-orange orb as it came up over the horizon at 6:45- right on time according to my weather app. When I had to start squinting, I took that as my cue to turn around. I knew I had time to kill so I found a beached log and sat to read for a little bit. When I was board of that, I walked back towards my car and found a spot on the beach to set my things as I went for a swim. The water was just as warm as yesterday, but the waves were much larger and there was far more seaweed. I also did not trust myself to go in deeper than my hips because there was a strong undercurrent. My whole focus in the water was to stay relatively close to my bag and not to get pushed too far down the beach.
I probably was only in the water for about ten minutes before deciding to change focus again and start walking down the beach in the other direction. The distant pier which I set as my goal destination was not nearly as far as I initially though, so it didn’t take long to get there. There were more people on this stretch of beach (likely because the morning was moving into the more reasonable 9:00 hour) and because I was moving towards more hotels and restaurants. Along my stroll I passed by a “church on the beach” group, brainstormed my excuse if I got told off while walking through a private section of beach, and debated wether or not I should take claim of an abandoned boogie board I passed by. Ultimately I decided “no” to the boogie board since I didn’t care to try and fight the current again.
With nothing more I wanted to do at the beach, I rinsed off and then headed back to my hotel room. There wasn’t much I wanted to do there either but I didn’t want to leave too early since I didn’t have anywhere else to go. After showering, packing, and dawdling, I left for Props Brewery where I thought I could pass some time reading Ella’s PhD program applications. It was pretty empty when I first got there, so the waitress didn’t mind that I had spread out my computer across a six-person table and was very slow to pick out which four beers I wanted in my flight. That had changed after two hours of drinking, eating, and editing so I packed up and sacrificed my table to a group of rowdy-looking military guys. Again, I was stuck with hours to go before needing to be at the airport and no plan on how to spend them. I elected to find a park I could walk around, so I plugged something into my phone but was open to stops on the way. Ella called again as I drove, so she got to hear my narratives about various beach stops, a surf shop, and Alligator World. In the end, I ended up at the airport three and a half hours before my flight since I simply could not find anything more I wanted to do. Oh well! At least I had time for another beer!
Breakfast with Grandpa and Grandma
The "one-legged" bird
The 16lb American White Pelican and friends
Scenes from my 9 hour drive
Getting close- only 40 mile to Niceville!
My first Waffle House
Morning beach visit with Alex- you can see the later-mentioned pier in the horizon
Alex was pleased that she had answered one of the "Newlywed Game" questions the same as Seth
Alex and I at the bridal shower
My last evening's sunset with one of the herons
Walking along the water for sunrise
Met some hermit crab friends at the surf shop
You could feed the alligators at Alligator World