Monday, April 20, 2009

A Short Visit to Paradise

Winter was like a visitor who refused to depart although you're so sick of his presence, you can't stand it. You dream of the day he packs up his bags and heads out the front door. He isn't always the most welcome of guests anyway, being frequently demanding and difficult to get along with. You feel this way especially because you know the next time your doorbell rings, it will be Spring standing there. Spring, that smiling, beautiful, young thing - you delight in her company even while acknowledging that she is capable of the occasional tornadic temper tantrum.

It was in the midst of the chilly, damp, depressing dregs of winter that Mom and I made a trip to see the kids where they live now in the Florida Keys. I've been to Florida several times but never to this southernmost part. It is a section of the country that doesn't even have a passing acquaintance with winter.

The Keys have an alien feel for Hoosiers. They are populated by plants you've never seen or heard of. There are the usual palms and palmettos, of course, but beyond that are the gumbo limbo trees, so shiny-barked, they look as if Mother Nature's cleaning crew polishes them every night. There are palm trees with fronds that grow into fan shapes instead of up and down layers. There are trees with limbs that tortuously twist and turn, braiding themselves together. Most of all, are the mysterious mangroves, with their interlocking net of above-water roots, so thick, they create their own islands. Mangrove constructs range from tiny clumps, the size of a breadbox, to vast areas. And, of course, while Indiana remains mired in gray drabness, enormous bougainvillea bushes erupt in explosions of scarlet blossoms in the Keys. Playing counterpoint to the land is the water - ocean on one side, gulf on the other. In some places the finger of land is so narrow, you can see both out of your car windows. And what water it is - turquoise swirled with emerald green swirled with quicksilver. Its so clear, you can watch the angel fish and clown fish and needle fish and barracudas and dolphins and rays swimming beneath the surface. The sky is blue, filled with puffy clouds, along with gulls and herons and egrets and pelicans.

Most of the houses, like the one where John and Lisa live, are as close to living outdoors as it is possible to be. They are built high on pillars with windows all around and screened balconies facing the water side. While we are there, all the windows and balcony doors are open (air conditioning will come later), ceiling fans circle lazily, tiled floors are cool beneath your bare feet. From the hammock on the balcony, you can drift, half-asleep, surrounded by the scent of flowers, the sound of crying gulls and the swish of water against pilings, the feel of a breeze gentle against your skin.

The Keys have a personality too. They are laid-back and tolerant. People flee to the area from other, more up-tight places. Not outlaws necessarily but non-conformists. They want to be left alone to live as they please without criticism or complaint from their neighbors. Most of them are not engaged in whatever an earlier life anticipated for them. Doctors are sailors; accountants are waitresses; lawyers own bars. The Keys provide second chances to do whatever it is you think will make you happy. There are homeless here, some voluntary and some not. Whatever else happens to them, they won't freeze and they won't starve either if they can throw a hook into the water.

In the Keys, you eat fresh fish outdoors looking out across the ocean, and polish your meal off with a piece of Key Lime pie. If you feel like partying, you can travel south to Key West, crossing the awe-inspiring Seven-Mile Bridge. Key West is sort of like a mini-New Orleans. We were there on St Patrick's Day. Bars served green beer and other emerald drinks. Revelers dyed their hair and faces green and wore green clothes and multiple strands of green beads (and probably felt a hungover shade of green by the next morning).

The Keys feature co-existing ethnicities and lifestyles, religions and non-religions, socioeconomic ranges. Residents don't lock their doors or worry about being out alone at night. It seems contradictory for an an area that welcomes the off-beat to have such a low crime rate. Perhaps even criminals take life easier here. Taking life easy seems to be what the Keys are all about and that, in the end, is even better than the weather.

Mom and I hoped that during the two weeks we were gone, Winter would have moved out and Spring moved into Indiana. A week after we got home, it snowed.