Who says you can’t go home
There’s only one place they call me one of their own.
That song serendipitously starting playing on my car radio just as I was hitting the “home stretch” of West Florida’s I-75 on the drive to my parents’ house three days before Christmas.
I was passing the exit to Ellenton, just north of my hometown of Sarasota. Ellenton is best known for its huge outlet mall, but in an old cemetery up the road from the Coach, Kate Spade, and Baby Gap outlet stores is the final resting place of my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Goddard, who fought in the 7th Manatee Infantry in the Confederacy. Next to Benjamin is his son and World War I veteran, my Great Uncle Bill.
Most of the rest of my family members (the deceased ones, anyway) are farther down the road, in my family plot in Lemon Bay Cemetery in southern Sarasota County. My parents’ house is geographically situated pretty much right in the middle of the two cemeteries, down an old country road that has become less country over the past 30 years, adjacent to a state park that is a prime tourist location for alligator spotting.
For over 20 years, this last stretch of the trip has always been the toughest part of the 16-hour trek from my Washington D.C. suburban house to my childhood home. It always feels like it takes forever to drive the last 45 miles.
The next morning, I was sitting at my mom’s kitchen table eating Cocoa Puffs, just like I did when I was 15 years old. Except that I’m now 45, and my 15-year-old nephew, Sean, now lives in my old bedroom and he is probably going to be annoyed that I ate the last of the Cocoa Puffs when he takes a break from playing video games. He’s at the age when very little does not annoy him. He has an Xbox and a Wii in the spot where I had a little stereo with a (very modern for the 80’s) cassette deck. When I was growing up, I didn’t even have a television in my room, but he has Sony plasma flat screen television with a satellite feed.
I watched him play basketball last night at a multi-school rally held at the high school that I would have attended if I had not attended Catholic schools. My mom and her siblings (and many of my cousins) graduated from Riverview High School.
Because this was an inter-school basketball tournament, there were a few kids from my old high school, easily spotted in the bleachers by their crimson and gold Cardinal Mooney sweatshirts. They looked a lot younger than I thought I looked when I was their age. And I probably look a lot older than I think I look to them. When I was a student at Cardinal Mooney, I wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing an item of clothing that said “Cardinal Mooney” on it after school hours. But Cardinal Mooney kids appear to have more school spirit now than we did during that time of epic ennui of the early 1980’s.
“Losers!” my Former Me said, sitting beside me in the Riverview bleachers, in her favorite outfit of skintight black jeans with zippers on the ankles, worn with lace-trimmed bobby socks and black pumps with a clunky, oversized sweater fashionably falling off her right shoulder. She had an asymmetric haircut – long on one side and short on the other (á la Cindy Lauper) with the long side draping over her heavily outlined eyes. Former Me is 16, and was breaking the gym’s “no food or drink” rules by sipping a Diet Coke without trying to hide it. She always drinks Diet Cokes. She keeps to a strict 600-calorie a day diet. It used to be 850 calories a day, but she still failed to measure up to the girls who could touch their fingers and thumbs when they wrapped their hands around the waists of their uniform skirts, and thus reduced her daily caloric intake.
So, Former Me dropped back to 600 calories a day. She repeats the same daily menu of half a piece of fruit for breakfast with a Diet Coke, a lunch of a hard-boiled egg and a half piece of fruit with a Diet Coke, and a salad of greens and no-calorie Weight Watchers vinaigrette for dinner – with another Diet Coke. And even then, 16-year-old Former Me cannot never break 138 pounds. In another era, those curves that no dieting could flatten would have been considered sexy. In 1981, she just feels hopelessly fat.
“Hey!” I said to the Former Me, “when you are 45, you are going to look at old pictures and wish like hell you could fit into those size 10 jeans again.”
“What a huge loser!” Former Me snarked back. She rummaged in the Gucci purse that she had gotten for Christmas for her pack of Marlboro Lights and her cloisonné butterfly lighter. She closely examined the Riverview gym bleachers to see if she spotted any siblings, aunts, or younger cousins that might rat her out before she self-consciously slipped outside the gym doors for a smoke. Later, I saw her pull out of the parking lot in her 1974 Dodge Dart, followed by a cloud of white dust from the shell path that led to Bee Ridge Road.
There’s a 12-year-old Former Me waiting for the St. Martha’s school bus in front of Davidson’s Drugstore on St. Armand’s Circle, in her blue, plaid school uniform and Bass penny loafers. The drug store was caddy corner to Sarasota’s only disco in the late 1970’s. At 7 a.m., this Former Me gazed at the front of Ruby Tuesday’s and repeated the same promise that she told everyone who would listen. That the very second she turned 18, she was going to leave Sarasota behind without a backward glance and move to New York and live in a loft and dance at Studio 54 every night. She used her babysitting money to buy glitter eye shadow, even though the nuns made her rinse it off when she wore it to school. She used her curling iron to feather her hair just like the actresses on Charlie’s Angels and the models on the cover of Seventeen magazine.
“Hey Former Me,” I thought about saying, “you’ll end up living in Washington D.C. and New York, and you’ll work 80 hours a week at sweatshop ad agencies to pay the rent on your efficiency apartment, so you won’t have any time or money left for clubbing. One day, you will fall head over heels in love under those New York skyscrapers that you see in movies. (Actually, more accurately, you’ll be standing on a dock in Long Island City looking at the Manhattan skyline on a cold, January night when you get hit by that thunderbolt.) And you will be very happy.
“One day, you’ll come back to Sarasota and you’ll smile when you notice that the latest incarnation of Ruby Tuesday’s is a boutique for geriatric retirees, that sells stretch pants and bathing suits with skirts.”
But instead, I leave Former Me standing in front of Davidson’s Drugstore, in her school uniform with her glitter eye shadow and her big dreams.
There’s a Former Me at a movie theater on Tamiami Trail, next to Gulfgate Mall. She’s eight years old and is waiting in line with her siblings and cousins to get into the all-day Saturday matinee that, for less than $2, shows an entire afternoon of classic Looney Tunes cartoons and black and white Lone Ranger and Little Rascals shorts. Back in more innocent days before child molesters lurked around every corner, our parents would drop us off for the day with a pocket full of quarters to buy grape soda and Jujubees. I can see my Aunt Polly, in her Ford station wagon, pulling away with a smile of relief after she sees us go safely inside.
“Hey Former Me,” I told her, “that theater will turn into a porn theater by the time you graduate from high school. It will become notorious when another Sarasota native by the name of Paul Reubens, more commonly known as Pee Wee Herman, gets caught with his hand in something other than a box of jujubees in those same seats where you watched Little Rascals reruns, and some loser Sarasota Herald Tribune yellow journalist sensationalizes his arrest. You will empathize with Pee Wee, using the incident as one of many examples of the colloquial pettiness of your hometown and its sad, little newspaper. You will be a huge Pee Wee fan for life.”
There’s a Former Me on Siesta Key, arguing with the bouncer at The Beach Club in Siesta Village over her fake I.D. After a few minutes of arguing, he lets her in to join her equally under-aged friends at the bar to sip her rum and coke and ignore her brother and her cousin, Jay, who are over by the pool tables with a couple of blondes she does not recognize.
There’s a Former Me at the Macy’s in Southgate Mall, which had a previous life as Burdine’s Department Store. While shopping the after Christmas clearance with my mother, I saw this Former Me standing at a cash register in the moderate sportswear department, ringing up a Liz Claiborne blouse for a Canadian tourist. She was keeping one eye impatiently on her watch, waiting for the 9 p.m. store closing so she could meet her homophonically-named best friend at The Beach Club. Collene works in the shoe department of the also-now-defunct Maas Brothers, and also gets off work at 9. She is leaving for college in Miami in a few months. She wants to work in the fashion industry in New York someday.
Likewise, Former Me is poised to leave for college in Virginia, and knows deep down that once that happens, nothing will ever be the same. Until then, she wants to go out every night and have as much fun as possible with her high school friends in an attempt to delay the inevitable changes that are lurking around the corner, if only for just a few weeks longer.
“Hey Former Me,” I wanted to console her, “those college years in Virginia will change you forever, and they will be the best years of your life. You will cherish your college friendships just as much as the ones you are afraid to leave behind in Florida. It’s not an end, it’s another beginning. And you’ll be just fine.”
Sarasota is full of Former Me’s. I walk by them, sometimes acknowledging them and sometimes ignoring them. Some Former Me’s don’t necessarily want to be remembered or acknowledged. But there they are, in unfortunate outfits and bad perms. They are everywhere.
I was at a traffic light on Siesta Key a few days after Christmas, and realized a group of teenagers standing at the intersection was snickering at me. It was the kind of beautiful, warm day that only happens in December if you happen to be lucky enough to be in South Florida at that time of year, so I had my windows rolled down. I got caught at the traffic light singing along to a Cheap Trick song that was playing on a Tampa “classic rock” radio station — channeling a Former Me who sang along to the same song while also driving down this same stretch of Ocean Boulevard not so terribly long ago. Well, I had to acknowledge that it was long enough ago that those snickering kids hadn’t even been born yet. I considered changing my Facebook status to:
“Was mocked by teenagers on Siesta Key for jamming to Cheap Trick when it’s not 1982.”
Who says you can’t go home? Well, I do.
Sure, you can geographically go home. My old high school is still there, and I am sure is still filled with tortured adolescents in unflattering school uniforms, probably still starving themselves to fit into sizes they were never genetically meant to wear. I know from my alumni newsletter that Sr. Mary Lucia is still in charge, and I’m certain is still enforcing her Draconian standard of conformity with pink demerit slips. My parents’ house is still there, and still has a resident antisocial teenager. Although they have sadly passed away, my grandparents’ house is still on the same corner, now occupied by strangers who pick the mangoes and the key limes from my grandmother’s beloved trees. It’s all still there. And it’s still my hometown, but can I still call it my home?
More importantly, do I want to?
I don’t know if preserving the past is always a good idea, because not everything in our past is worth preserving. The fact that my hometown has been my mom’s family hometown for over 150 years makes my Sarasota roots more poignant and hard to escape. Sarasota is filled with ghosts. Family plots. Former Me’s. Historic markers extolling the exploits of my ancestors. Houses where grandparents and great-grandparents and great-aunts once lived.
The morning that I left to return to Takoma Park, my mother loaded me down (as she does every year) with citrus from her own beloved trees. I drove back up I-95 with a trunk filled with lemons, grapefruits, oranges, and tangerines.
I had no idea what to do with a trunk full of citrus fruit. I already have a freezer full of frozen juice, and I can only make so many lemon tarts. I finally decided to make marmalade. I love marmalade. And I had finally found something from my hometown that I would have no problem preserving.
Back home in Takoma Park, I emptied all of my mom’s citrus fruit into the kitchen sink, and proceeded to scrub, peel, seed, and dice 30 pounds of lemons, tangerines, sour oranges, and grapefruit for marmalade. It took the better part of three days to make over 30 jars of marmalade!
Which, of course, I packed into a priority mail box and, except for a few jars saved for me and a few friends, sent back to Sarasota to my parents’ house. All of those oranges, lemons, and tangerines leaving Sarasota as dewy, freshly-picked, ripe fruit, and returning as something a lot sweeter, mellower, and well-preserved.
Sort of like me.
Sarasota Mixed Citrus Marmalade
I do not have a lot of fancy canning equipments, since I do not make preserves often. I wish I had a huge, copper canning pot to make preserves. I do not. So I use a heavy stock pot to make my preserves, and I use a large pasta pot to process the jars. I put 2 dish towels in the bottom of my pasta pot, add water, and only process 2 or 3 jars at a time. The dish towels anchor the jars and keep them from bumping the bottom of the pot. It works adequately for the occasional canning enthusiast.
I did buy a little, cheap canning kit such as this one that supplied me with a few things that make this much easier, and it was dirt cheap.
I’ve found that some grocery stores and hardware stores (Shoppers Food Warehouse or Strosnider’s Hardware in the Washington D.C. area) carry canning jars year round. During the summer months, you can find them much easier.
About 30 pounds of mixed citrus (which will yield, after it has been seeded and the pith has been discarded, about 20 pounds of fruit and peel)
2/3 of a cup of sugar for every pound of fruit (about 13-1/2 cups of sugar for 20 pounds of fruit)
6 pouches of liquid pectin (3 packages, each with 2 pouches of pectin – obviously, less pectin if you have less fruit)
1. Peel citrus fruit (being careful to leave bitter pith behind), and cut peel into small strips. Put into a large, stainless steel stockpot.
2. Peel and discard white pith from the citrus. Remove seeds, and chop fruit up, discarding as much membrane as you can. Place into the stockpot with peel.
3. Cover the fruit with twice as much water as fruit, and let overnight, covered, at room temperature – at least 15 to 20 hours.
4. The next day, measure the citrus mixture and add 2/3 of a cup of sugar for every pound of mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower heat and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
5. Add the pectin and stir to distribute. Bring back up to a boil for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let marmalade sit for about 5 minutes to settle.
6. Skim the froth off the top of the hot marmalade and remove any seeds or stray bits of membrane that have risen to the top.
7. You can eat all of this right away (HA!) or you can the follow canning instructions here published by the USDA.
8. This makes about 30 half pint jars of marmalade (canning jars are usually sold in units of 16, so you will need 2 half pint units, or 2 pints.)
Because I had more lemons than anything else, I also made this amazingly good, and very easy, lemon-ginger marmalade from the Fine Cooking magazine website:
It was a huge hit with everyone who tried it.
Both marmalade recipes are pretty awesome with homemade bread. I made a French baguette from Ciril Hitz’ wonderful book, Baking Artisan Bread.
It snowed the night after I finished my bread and marmalade, and nothing in the entire world was better that night than sitting in my kitchen with warm bread and freshly-made marmalade, while the snow fell outside my windows.
In my home in Takoma Park, far away from my hometown, and all of my Former Me’s.