an essay

Paradise in Memory

Click on the book cover to order.

The introduction from Homegrown in Florida (University Press of Florida, 2012)

Perhaps everyone’s childhood becomes a paradise in memory. Imagine growing up in Montana and seeing the Gallatin Valley every day. Or standing on the front porch of a home on a Minnesota bluff, looking down on the Mississippi River as it unfurls. An Indiana farm is its own version of heaven — I know; I grew up there too.

But we’re talking about Florida here. We have gathered a number of stories about growing up in the Land of Flowers, a place where the rest of the nation looks, often in awe and wonder. Despite the crime and poverty and injustice, Florida still holds many of the dreams of a nation.  Though it doesn’t have the bedrock identity of Boston or New York, or the several-generations-back deeds to Iowa family farms, or the rugged vistas of Colorado, Florida has forged its own perverse character. It is also seen by outsiders as a place where people go to, not come from, as a place somewhat devoid of long-term family histories and geographic identity.


Yet here we have stories from people who are from Florida or at least grew up in the Sunshine State. We have to wonder: what does it do to the trajectory of a childhood to have it shaped in this nearly island state? We hope these stories offer some clues to the diversity of experience on the crazed peninsula.

Tim Dorsey

This all started a few years ago, when Tim Dorsey and I swapped memories of the Florida we knew growing up. We remembered the sun-bleached old Florida, when the closest thing to a tourist attraction was that mom-and-pop place on U.S. 27 where you could “watch Gramps wrestle an alligator.” Where exactly was that place? I can’t tell you now. Did it exist or was that manufactured by memory?

Still, this collection couldn’t just be the recollections of a couple of middle-aged Pillsbury Doughboys (let’s face it, Tim). Florida takes melting pot and squeezes it until it screams for mercy. There’s room for all of us and all of our memories.

Jeff Klinkenberg, who drives the state writing about an authentic and largely lost Florida, helped point me in the right direction. He made a short autobiographical film of his childhood, inspired by finding his late mother’s stash of home movies. He sent the film to a few friends, and looking through it, I saw so much of the Florida I remembered—the old Seven Mile Bridge, the Miami Seaquarium, and the Monkey Jungle.

Michael Connelly as a young swain

But once again: there are all kinds of Floridas in this book—from the immigrant Florida of Fabiola Santiago, the displaced child, to Alisson Burke Clark’s recollection of moving to the Sunshine State in adolescence. There’s the idealized childhood adventure of Robb White’s The Lion’s Paw and the segregated farmworkers’ world that Bill Maxwell also manages to somehow turn into another version of Eden. Lawrence Howe’s faded Technicolor memories of the Panhandle contrast with Michael Connelly’s stark black-and-white account of the first crime he ever witnessed.

Alisson Burke Clark, then a recent emigre from New Jersey

We originally planned to call this collection “Paradise Recalled,” but then too many of the stories were dark and tinged with tragedy. After a while, “Paradise Recalled” didn’t even work as irony.

In fact, we began to wonder how a word like “paradise” could be attached to memories that are cruel and, sometimes, bigoted. Perhaps it’s the same sort of biting wit Key West’s homeless use when they call themselves “freelance residents of paradise.”

So we’re happy to call this collection Homegrown, because that best describes these stories. These stories, like their authors, came from here.

Looking over these stories, I’m reminded that childhood can be brutal, and it’s over much too soon. It’s like that old joke:

The food is lousy here.
Yes, and such small portions.

Teri Youmanns Grimm contributes two poems to the book

While living childhood, we’re often miserable, but when it’s over, we want more. As parents, we seek to give our children the child- hood we wanted, and we measure their happiness against our own. And yet, we the parents want so much that Norman Rockwell ideal- ized life that our children sometimes grow impatient, suffocating on our demands and expectations.

The fact is, childhood isn’t all widescreen Disney and Father Knows Best. The joy of childhood isn’t understood without the tragedies that intervene in young lives. Without valleys, there are no peaks.

Some of these stories are heartbreaking. No matter how many times I read Jeff Klinkenberg’s “Nothing I Could Do,” I’m still unable to put that story aside without hearing and feeling the sudden and swift tragedy of a young boy’s death.

Anne Hull’s remembrance of the promise a mother made her children is a quiet tragedy of its own.

And it’s hard to read Lawrence Howe’s fond recollections of his father and his brother without feeling the depth of his loss ourselves. But in addition to the drama, we do have beauty and splendor here. Like childhood, it’s a balancing act of joy and sorrow.

Bill Maxwell

This isn’t a book for tourists. It isn’t a South-Beach-and-cocaine book. Between Miami Vice and the resurrection of South Florida as a movie-star Mecca, the whole state has been spray-painted with the image of a fast-and-loose culture of drugs, sex, and crime. The fact is, that stuff doesn’t play very well in Bartow. (The fact that the state contains both Miami and Bartow makes it some sort of intergalactic model of diversity.)

These are stories (some fact, some fiction) of a vanishing place and a lost time. Bob Dylan once said, “Nostalgia is death.” But this is honest nostalgia. And it’s also a record of a Florida that might be lost forever.

There was a time when South Florida wasn’t yet a concrete jungle, when Cutler Ridge was a mere crossroads, and when Pop was driving us north to visit the family in Ohio, it was easy to con- fuse Orlando and Ocala.

Fabiola Santiago

Florida had the same landmass back then, but it seemed so much smaller, though the strip malls and housing developments had yet to be built on the drained wetlands. Back then, the Florida Panhandle was a great, undiscovered wilderness. Just two decades ago, you could wade out into the Gulf, off of Grayton Beach, and see nothing—nothing, I tell you—in either direction. And now, the high-rises of Destin beckon from the east, and even the locals have begun building towers that loom over the once-pristine bleached sand of that beautiful beach.

No wonder writers like Marjory Stoneman Douglas and John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen have written so passionately about Florida and its exploited natural beauty and resources. As a great poet once wrote in another context, “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die.”

So this collection will serve as an artifact of what childhood was like in Florida. We also hope it’s an entertaining collection of stories.

We all have stories to tell. What started with a couple of conversations with Dorsey and Klinkenberg took on a life of its own. Soon, friends were calling, saying they had stories for me. Stories from strangers arrived in the mail.
Young Tom Petty

The collection here is largely by people I know, people from the world of journalism in which I travel. Journalists tell stories for a living, and most of them do that quite well. That’s how this started, but I hope this book is just the beginning of something. I hope it inspires everyone who grew up in Florida to remember their childhood and to save it, whether as a short story, a recording, or just some story to tell over dinner with your family’s next generation. Maybe local libraries will begin to preserve the stories of their communities. What a tremendous service it would be to create a record of the childhood experience in Florida. For starters, we have this book. Another collection, assembled by another editor, might have an entirely different tone from this volume.  That’s the nature of this diverse state and its varied stories.

When an elementary school was cleaning house some years ago, I managed to snag from the trash pile one of those pull-down maps of Florida that used to hang over the blackboard. There’s no copyright on it, but it’s a dead ringer for the one that hung in Mrs. Pierson’s fourth-grade classroom at Air Base Elementary School in Homestead.  The map hangs in my office at home, and visitors stand mesmerized by it. It shows places that were mythic, not just exits on an interstate.  It’s the Florida before theme parks devoured the middle of the state. Florida has a magnificent and ridiculous history, and looking at that old map brings it all back.

. . . . . . . . . .

The ground rules for this book: Either fiction or nonfiction is acceptable. Memoirs delve into recollection, which is fallible, but the jury decided they would be just fine too. We also allowed some song lyrics, a couple of poems, and an excerpt from an interview.

There was no residency requirement. We have some native Floridians, but most of us came as children from elsewhere, and Florida became home.

For my part, childhood was spent in England, Germany, Nebraska, and Texas, but my three years in Florida were the years that defined me. I moved back right after college, then left, then came back in my thirties and stayed for two decades, divorced and married again and raised seven children there. I live a thousand miles from Florida now, but in some ways, I haven’t left. Perhaps I never will.