Mom and I pay the toll and cross the bridge to Boca Grande, a seven-mile island off the Gulf Coast of Florida.
The first time I crossed this bridge with my mom, I was six months old. Our family returned every Thanksgiving after that. Except last year. Last year I moved to Canada for my husband’s job and we missed it.
Mom and I are here a week early so it’s just us. She’s recovering from surgery. They took a quarter-size chunk of melanoma from her cheek, and a bruised scar stretches from her eye to her chin.
We meet in the all-white kitchen and she tells me the doctor’s ordered a high-protein diet for healing but she hates the taste of eggs so maybe we could bury their taste in a frittata. I root through her pantry and smile when I find hearts of palm, black olives, and artichoke hearts — at least five cans of each. I can already taste Mom’s salads, topped with all of these briny things and olive oil and lemon juice.
I chop up the artichoke hearts, some onions, mushrooms, garlic and throw them all in a pan.
I love smelling coffee in the morning, Mom says. It means you’re here.
The frittata becomes our ritual, Mom’s and mine, and I wonder how long it’s been since we shared a ritual. We haven’t spent this much uninterrupted time together in years. After the frittata, I write and she reads. Then I run.
There must be certain parts in the brain reserved for the places we return to again and again throughout our lives.
I run down the street along the bay, lined with beach houses on stilts, mangrove islands floating off in the distance, past the croquet court canopied by the monster banyan tree with its city of dripping roots. I run through the two-block-radius town that never changes — all pastels — the seafoam green Fugate’s, one-stop-shop for everything, and the old train depot — pink — that has the Loose Caboose and the best Oreo and Butterfinger ice cream in the whole wide world. I return via the gulf side, on a white sand beach where the waves chase my feet, and I think about how I can’t believe how turquoise the water is this year.
I think about a lot of things on those runs, but mostly I think about time. How while the town and the beach and the way the Florida air feels have all stayed the same, time has pushed us along. How I’m two years older than Mom was when we first came here.
After the run, I peel off my shirt, my sock and shoes, wade into the water, and duck under the waves.
There must be certain parts in the brain reserved for the places we return to again and again throughout our lives. When I’m in Boca, some corner of my mind lights up and everything feels less linear. Less focused on forward motion. More like I’m sitting in a room with my whole life.
Like my arrogant teenage and 20-something selves who believed that the most important and exciting parts of life would happen far, far away from this tiny unknown island are swimming right next to this 31-year-old me, who wants to eat up these moments — here with my mom — and let them nourish.
When, I wonder, did my parents’ mortality begin to ring in my ears like the heavy underwater silence?
I used to hate swimming in the ocean for fear of sharks, the undercurrents, and even just the salt water in my eyes. I preferred the contained chlorinated safety of the pool, where I would play mermaid for hours. But now I love the ocean’s vast, wild beauty. How it stretches far beyond and below what I can see. Back then I karate-chopped the waves; now I let them float me up on my back.
How very few places can hold all of you — every last piece — I think, as these waters that have known me forever pull at my hair and buoy me toward the sky.