Florida. The 3rd most populated state in our country, with close to 100 million annual visitors, 50+ million headed to Disney World alone. This trend has been on the upswing ever since central air conditioning turned humidity into a tame house guest. With a climate that is gentle on the joints and boasts endless miles of open beaches, those with grand means and those with meager resources, fly like snowbirds to the Sunshine State. “In 2011, the first of the baby boomers reached what used to be known as retirement age. And for the next 18 years, boomers will be turning 65 at a rate of about 8,000 a day”(AARP). And you guessed it, most of these folks are headed right into this condo-complex playground. Many of my retired relatives and friends have sold off their northern homes, or at least shut the water off and lowered the heat for the winter months, donned their summery coral and teal wraps, and settled in any number of the coastal Florida havens.
Last October it hit me, either I plan to visit the condo state or never see many of my loved ones again, so, last week I embarked on my retirement tour. Before I had properly greeted my mother and her older sister (87 and 89 respectively) I let the sunshine and big blue from their balcony seep into my B&W soul; yes, it’s been a dreary winter up north. Thankfully, in my short week in Florida I received a sufficient blast of vitamin D to awaken my drive and resolve to keep stepping forward.
Turning away from the wall of windows, there they were, ready for a hug. Two snowbirds who have been escaping the months defined by sleet and snow for over a decade, coming to this same condo facing nothing but a palm tree lined white beach and aqua ocean stretching forever. Oh, what a brilliant migration, I thought. These two sisters who have overseen dinner parties and elegant luncheons, as well as travels all over the globe, done primarily in their 80’s when widowhood allowed such tramping are equally committed to engaging with family and friends as well as discovering the unknown world beyond their sphere. Spending a few days with them, I heard story after story of adventure in the wilds of Alaska and the pyramids of Egypt, cruising the Mediterranean, tasting scotch in Scotland, enjoying the theater in London and frescoes in Spain, powering through the locks of the Panama Canal and receiving the Pope’s blessing in Rome. They never tire of learning. Of meeting people. Of living.
We drank fresh orange juice. Walked along a pristine beach. Dove into the warm surf. Ate local seafood. And over the course of my week visited aunts and uncles and cousins and my godmother. Each gathering was another opportunity for stories that sparked even more memories. I knew what they saw when they looked at me. It is the same when I peer into my niece or children; I see myself way back when. Together we were all transported back in time, and for the hours we shared, their faces, which are lined with every twist of life’s cruelty and joy, sparked nothing but a youthful demeanor. Their strong laughter shot out across the veranda, skimmed over sand, and blasted into the white capped waves on the far off sandbar.
Life being lived despite dire diagnosis or now needing a cane, here is a generation of people who know work. Sacrifice. Passion. Who have given their all. Who know loss. Who know love. Who now order the fruit salad and white wine and sometimes remember their teenage antics far better than breakfast. I am more than delighted to be sitting around the table with them, I’m proud.
The conversations continue well past dessert and tea. As we discuss the ills of the day, they inform me how much better life is than it was the 1930’s. I question them, really? You really think so? After all, I ask, aren’t our global issues far worse than the problems of the past? No, their voices rise like a Shakespearean chorus to describe the horrors of endless bread lines and children left homeless and dead-ends for women. War. The big War. We leave it there.
For now, a red sun sets inside the inter-coastal waterway and ends our afternoon festivities.
Florida, be kind to those who make pilgrimage to your land. Don’t let them down. They are relaxing now. The rest of us will strive to make them proud.