Reflections on Florida

March 21, 2015
Shells bonnie

All photos except cypress tree by Bonnie Steward taken in February in the Siesta Key, Fla. area

Reflections on Florida, the state in which I became an adult and also grew up. And those were decades apart.

*     *     *

I turned off the highway and into Tallahassee, Fla. at the age of 21, a fresh-faced bride ready to begin a completely new life.   A family vacation to Florida when I was 12 bypassed the capital city, so I didn’t realize what a truly southern city it was, drawls and all. And different in every possible way from my hometown of Rochester, NY.

Yankee? Meet Rebels.

My young husband would go to law school and I would finish undergrad work and go on to graduate school in this charming little southern town.


Like most folks, I expected to see a lot of palm trees.  Florida, right? Instead, I got romantic cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss.  My winter coat almost got left behind, but I was glad to have it on those cold, North Florida winter days.  North Florida had more in common with Georgia than it did with the hot Florida of our vacations.  I’m not saying summers weren’t hot, they were scorching, but that didn’t keep me from playing tennis in the noon heat. Yes, I remember those days of youth in a small, close-knit town that was, dare I say it? A little inbred.

But I came of age in Tallahassee and have so many wonderful memories of it and the life that my young husband and I made there. I did volunteer work, raised cats and, after my divorce, married a Southern Boy on the rebound. Divorced him there, too.  I started my PR career  in Tallahassee and developed it. I became an in-demand freelance business writer.  I was a charter member of the city’s chapter of Women in Communication. And I’d made friends.

Despite being a Yankee girl in a Southern town, I had a happy, fulfilled life in Tallahassee, and the fact that I didn’t fit the Southern girl profile made the place seem all the more exotic.

assorted shells best

There were compensations. Tallahassee is land-locked, but not that far from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s in the Big Bend of the Panhandle and the Gulf coast was less than an hour’s drive.  As young marrieds, we often piled into a car with our friends–boozed up, usually– and took off to Panama City for its night life– it was on Central time, so we got an extra hour in the bars.  We’d eat seafood in Apalachicola and look for shells every chance we got. It was small town life at its best.


Before I left at age 33, I was well on my way to being a big fish in a very small pond. But I’d been through two painful divorces in four years and was ready for something new.  That something new was California.

So many people ask, “had you always wanted to go to California?” And the answer is “no.”  California wasn’t even on my radar screen. To be honest, huge chunks of the larger world were missing from my frame of reference. My parents were children of immigrants, English wasn’t their first language, although they were super-fluent, but their families were concerned with survival, not the larger world. It wasn’t until I got out on my own that I saw how much more there was to it.

But I had to discover that on my own.

I learned that geographic boundaries were artificial lines drawn to help people feel safe and secure.  I didn’t care about being safe and so I didn’t recognize those kind of boundaries. I still don’t.  The up side to that is that my friends are a diverse group from all over the world.  The down side is that I’d probably be hard-pressed to come up with the same kind of helping team my sick friend has. Not when so many of my intimates remain thousands of miles away.

Sometimes, I wonder, without beam-me-up-technology, who will be there for me if I need help?

It’s a trade-off and the stakes only become clear with age.

CU starfish

My move to California was a fluke, really, a long story whose bottom line was that I needed a change and when one appeared, I took it.  Every now and then I tout the idea of creating our own lives, but for me that didn’t mean setting a plan and following it. For me, well, I just evaluated opportunities as they arose and took them or didn’t.  I didn’t go looking for them, not  until later in life.  The current changed and I either went with it or got out of the water.  For some reason, it worked out.

starfish2After a dozen  years I burned out on Silicon Valley and wanted a more relaxed pace for my life.  Economic developers can say what they will, but Florida will always be a place where work is on the back burner and recreation is the big draw.  Except maybe in Miami, although perhaps even there.  I decided to move to Tampa, Fla., where there was a small business community that was still bigger than others in Florida (except for Miami, which held no appeal).  A job appeared and I took it.  Once there, though, I saw how awkwardly Tampa fit me and how well California’s Bay area had fit.

I loved my friends, let me start by saying that. And I made some good ones!  I’ve retained my closest and the rest are now simply acquaintances. Or gone. At first I loved my  job, too, for a really long time. And then I didn’t.  But all along the way I saw how sexist and racist the business community was. The powers that be were all older, white men firmly entrenched in the status quo, with a few token women and maybe a black person or two.  People’s horizons were smaller. Overall, people were narrower. There was very little intellectual or creative life, although I know many people who would disagree with me. But then, they may not need as much exposure to larger canvases and taller cotton.

If I’d wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, there, I could’ve. But the pond was way too narrow with an insufficient variety of fish. I was bored.  So I didn’t bother to engage in that way.  Not like I had in Tallahassee.  No, I had more interesting things to do with my energy.

Photo by Bonnie Steward

Don’t get me wrong: living on the Gulf coast was a beautiful experience. In Tampa I lived either on the water or a few blocks from it, and the white-sand Gulf of Mexico beaches were less than an hour a way. A big client was headquartered in Sarasota so I got to take the drive at least a few times month.  It was lovely. And far more affordable than California.  As they say, “location, location, location.”

I had a wonderful teaching gig, adjunct, at University of Tampa, in addition to my day job. I loved my fellow faculty, my students, the teaching. It was all good. Later, I’d come to see how good that part of it really was and wish I could just beam back into that job with those fellow professors and classes.  But I wouldn’t learn that until I taught at a super-dysfunctional California college.  But I’m ahead of myself.

another moon

As alluring as the Gulf waters were, they weren’t enough to keep me. Not when the crashing surf and cliff beaches of my beloved Big Sur beckoned. Not when the Golden Gate bridge awaited my visits across it to wine country.  Not when Union Square clanged and beeped for my attention. And certainly not after my day job became an ordeal complete with secrets, lies and crazy people.  I’ve always been someone who looks at that stuff, evaluates it, and will say, “Oh, that’s what you’re about? I’m out of here.”  At least as far as jobs are concerned.

The sun was preparing to set on my life in Florida. But as usual, there was a twist.
moon siesta keyReaders who have followed along for a while know that the young husband who brought me to Tallahassee in 1972 came back into my life in 2008. We remarried after 27 years apart and that’s when I left Tampa and returned to the San Francisco Bay area. I would have gone anywhere, but he wanted to live there and I was only too happy to agree.

When I think about the number of times I’ve moved back and forth across country it looks crazy. It’s true that I get bored being in one place, and maybe those moves provided me with the kind of stimulation I needed.

And truly, I lived in Florida a very long time, on and off, but I was never a Floridian.  It always amused me when people would proudly say they were fifth generation Floridians. It was a foreign concept. I mean, seriously? What did that mean, exactly?

A Californian I knew long ago once said to me, “You’re more Californian than those who were born here.”  I think she’s right.

Still, when I’m in Florida, every so often a soft, humid breeze caresses my face and a memory of days gone by wafts back. When I hear the rustle of palm trees and the crashing of the Gulf waters on flat, white sand, I’m transported instantly to a different time, a different place and that very different life.

I wonder what it would like to build roots in one place because mine have always been very loose, even here in California. Still, it’s never more than a wonder and there’s a reason.

I have this Brian Andreas Storypeople print up in my house and I believe it with all my heart. It’s all one big world.

This life’s not for everyone, but it is for me.

29 comments on “Reflections on Florida
  1. I think your travels probably make you a more interesting person. Down South and on the West Coast, I think there is more of an air of play first. As a native Mainer, I’m aware of the more closed off, survival first mentality here. The heart of Puritanism is strong in northern New England. What makes it all worth it is our geography. Maine is the most beautiful state (for me) and I would never be able to leave it’s rugged coast, deep woods, and mountains. 🙂

  2. I love Florida, we spent every summer and holidays there growing up. I have fond memories of Florida.

  3. Kim Tackett says:

    Of course you have a Brian Andreas piece in your home. I have one too (of course I do). My story has faded, but I have a few other prints and several books. Still follow him on instagram. Love your description of Tallahassee btw.

    • 😉 As it turns out, I have 2 Andreas sculptures and about 8 framed prints. We have just decided to rent a year around apartment in Pacific Grove starting next year, so i will have the wall space I don’t have here, which i s mostly windows. Close call as I was thinking of selling them at my garage sale next weekend!

  4. So wonderful to get to know your life better Carol. “Geographic boundaries were artificial lines…”. Interesting to think about and so true. I will be pondering this all day…

  5. Haralee says:

    What a lovely narrative of your life in the places you’ve lived! Florida is such a vacation place I don’t think of it as a place to stay and live forever. What made you choose Northern CA?

  6. Your post reminded me of that old saying, “The further north you go in Florida, the further south it is.” I admire your openness to change. Very good trait to have. Do you think it was hardwired in you from your immigrant parents?

  7. Jeanine says:

    Florida has always been on my list for a dream destination. I’ve never been yet but really hope to. Your photos are beautiful.

  8. I’ve always felt I should be on the West coast although more Oregon or Washington but I haven’t done anything about it. I admire your strength and courage. I wonder how different your life would have been if you and M. would have been able to work out your differences way back then…

  9. Mellie says:

    Carol- such a great read. As a Georgia native and Florida transplant I truly appreciated. And oh my family has been in Florida since the Civil war and I guess that makes me 5th generation my son 6th – I never got the mentality behind it, but now I do- lol.

  10. Great post…we are semi – Floridians at this point, escaping from brutal Ohio winters and hanging out on Pinellas County beaches with our Lab, Max. I am trying to make it permanent and Mark is fighting hard. Time will tell.

  11. You and I are from very different worlds. My husband and I found Colorado Springs home in 1981 (before we were married) and have never left it. Likely never will. I do envy a bit your moving about, though. I’d like to travel to such places but not necessarily move.

    We are alike in our love of StoryPeople, though. I have several around my house and have given several more as gifts. Love them.

  12. Alana says:

    I grew up in NYC and have lived nearly 30 years near Binghamton, NY. My first two years of marriage, though (1974-1976) I lived in Tampa. It took me 30 years to return for a visit and I’ve been there two more times for visits since. I have never been to the panhandle, but I love the scenery in Charleston and Savannah – I might just be right at home visiting Tallahassee. I’ve even seen some live oaks with Spanish Moss off Bayshore Blvd in Tampa. But, I admit, I love palm trees – I loved them in Florida and I loved them the one time I visited San Diego (also years ago). I enjoyed your pictures – some remind me a little of Sanibel Island, a place I have visited twice and have fallen in love with.

  13. I like to have a place to hang my hat….so to speak, or two places….but I’ve always wanted to wander. I travel whenever I can, wherever I can. I think I am home….in myself.

  14. Loved reading about your background. As New Yorkers, California was never on our radar either but, somehow, here we are – and have been happily for almost 17 years. You definitely have to go with the flow and be open to the possibilities.

  15. Andi says:

    I grew up military so mu family uprooted every 2-3 years, across the country, across the world and I loved it. As an adult when I couldn’t moved far, I moved apartments! I have still gotten in some big moves in and out of the country and it is definitely my favorite kind of adventure!

  16. Roz Warren says:

    I think it’s interesting that you went back and forth between two beautiful places with lots of beaches and excellent weather. I’ve moved around a lot too, but from Detroit to Chicago to Bangor to Philadelphia. If I wrote a similar piece about the places I’ve called home there wouldn’t be one photo of a beach or shells. (Loved yours!)

  17. Corey says:

    Great blog post here, we want to head to Florida or somewhere that way next. We have been down to AZ and states in between there and here. (Minnesota) and we have been to Colorado. Was an amazing experience.

  18. K. Lee Banks says:

    I love your pictures! One of my favorite things to do during Maine summers is to walk along the beach and pick up shells.

    My Dad was originally from Florida and we visited family members of his many times while I was growing up. It was such a different climate from New Hampshire, where I lived until 12 years ago. I was always amazed at how warm the water was, compared to our northeast lakes and ocean water.

    Thanks for sharing!

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