A few years ago, I sat on the beach with my granddaughter watching the summer swells roll in. I value a day at the beach, but one on which my granddaughter puts down her cell phone and talks to me is priceless. During a lull in the conversation, without taking her eyes off the gentle surf, she asked me a simple, yet oh so thought-provoking, question, “Pa, where did you come from?” Like a magic carpet, her six unassuming words carried my thoughts away to another place and time—to that wonderful place and time I came from.
As I pondered my reply to her innocent question, I couldn’t help allowing a small warm smile to begin at the corner of my mouth and spread across my gray-bearded and weathered face. Thinking of where I came from always brings that smile and warmth in my heart that is sometimes difficult for me to put in words.
“Well, Brittney,” I said as I slid my arm around the little girl who taught me years before how deep one could love, “since you asked, I’d be happy to tell you where Pa came from.” As I looked past the swells and to the horizon, staring at nothing in particular, I remembered that gentler time and simple, safe place . . . where I came from.
“You see, sweetheart,” I began, “the place I came from, our doors remained unlocked day and night, and no one seemed to give it a second thought. You never lost your car keys; they always hung right there in the car’s ignition. If you were late for church or had detention, everyone knew it and at least thought they knew why. In fact, where do you go to church was usually a question asked when you met someone new—not so much to know where they worshiped, but who they were. And around our church, moss hung from the live oaks like the long gray beard of an old Southern general.
“Where I came from, boys were taught by their fathers that you must stand for something, else you would fall for anything. That you respected women—all women—and you showed it in little ways such as opening the door for them, even if it was easier and quicker for them to do it themselves. That it was not the end of the world if two boys fought after school. That you never sought that fight nor did you run from it. It was assumed that one would lose, and one would win, and everyone knew the only thing used in that fight was your two hands and to stop it was as simple as saying uncle. More important, where I came from, parents, the school, the police, and certainly not a lawyer were ever involved, and somehow, we all seemed to survive. In fact, many times, the two young fisticuffers left as friends. Imagine that.
“Where I came from, we would never think of missing the Fourth of July parade, and when the flag passed, we stood, took off our ball caps, and held our hands over our hearts. Our water came from the kitchen tap, and you could not buy a bottle of the stuff if your life depended on it. Because, where I came from, no one would pay for water, not with all those garden hoses lying around.
“Where I came from, we surfed, and in our town of Ft. Pierce Florida, the surf was bigger than in Miami, but the beaches less crowded than Cocoa. Paddling the inlet between North and South Beach was a rite of passage; Monster Hole was yet to be named. The beach was coolest when the sand was hottest, and Archie’s on the Beach was old, even then. About as close to vandalism that we came was when we took wheels off any car from Miami parked at the North Jetty and stacked them on the roof—still an acceptable exercise where I came from. Jaycee Park on South Beach was the end of civilization, and there was nothing south of there, except some really great make-out spots, as I recall.”
“What is a make-out spot, Pa?” my granddaughter asked, which quickly redirected my attention from that spot over the horizon that had held my gaze and back to those wide innocent eyes that could always look into my soul. “That is something older people do, sweetie—much older,” hoping to regain the momentum of my story without admitting that the “much older” I described was about 16, just a handful of years more than she was. Lord, perish the thought!
“Anyway,” I stammered, “back to your first question,” as I searched the horizon to that more comfortable spot and away from her second.
“Where I came from, going to a Little League ball game was a social event, and who played could not matter less. The water in the lagoon was clear, while my future was still hazy. 25th Street was still unpaved and more like a washboard than a road, and in the summer, the black sand turned the bottoms of your feet dark as coal. Your Nanna, my mom, would swat my butt if I put those dirty feet in the white sheets of my bed. Butt swatting was a regular event where I came from, performed with vigor by my mom, dad, the neighbors, teachers, and any other grownup who caught you misbehaving. No one got angry if a neighbor swatted your butt; it was assumed that the grownup was right, and you were again wrong. My parents thanked them and then made me do the same. Somehow, though, I not only survived all that butt swatting, but also grew up without therapy.
“Where I came from, our school breezeways were as open as our hearts, and we could cram more into our lockers than you could pack into the trunk of a ‘57 Chevy. The perfect lunch was fried clams and a dog steamed in beer from Lum’s, and we were free to leave school and drive there because the school was fenceless and without gates, guards, and fear. No one ever thought about coming to a school to hurt a group of kids where I came from.
“Where I came from you could breathe deeply the smell of the Dandy Bread baking as you caught air over Tickle Tummy Hill. And it was a fact that Jinx dolls really worked . . . sometimes. Shirts were madras. Shirttails were long. Ferry loops seldom stayed attached, and the National Shirt Shop was the only place to shop. There was no “west of town,” unless you wanted to go boar hunting, and Orange Avenue was “pre-extension.”
“Where I came from, the TVs were black-and-white and had no remote. I hurried home from the bus stop to watch Paul Revere and the Raiders on Where the Action Is, and all three channels came in fine if you adjusted the rabbit ears or the aluminum foil wadded around the ends of the antennas. On that black-and-white set, I watched the Beatles introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show. I could not stop my foot from patting to their beat . . . nor for the next 50 years.
“Where I came from, most greetings were followed by ‘Did you eat,’ followed by a plate of high-in-calories and high taste warmed by my mom’s or granny’s willing hands and warm heart as she hummed around a half-dozen small pots on the stove. Where I came from, most of the restaurants served biscuits and gravy by a waitress who called you baby. As you left, that waitress called out, ‘Y’all come back now, y’hear.’
“You know, Brittney, come to think of it, I am not sure why I was in such a hurry to leave where I came from. I guess I thought I was grown. After all, I had a good Christian raising and a 12th-grade education, and I thought nothing could stop me. Thinking back, part of being so sure of myself was also tied to where I came from.”
I paused, wondering whether I had answered her question. The quiet lasted for a while, interrupted only by the slow and gentle cadence of the waves. Then, in her tender nine-year-old voice, she said simply, “Sounds like a nice place.”
We together stood and turned to face each other, brushing the sand from our jeans, as if choreographed. I put my arm around her, and we began to walk to the car, as I said, “It was, Brittney; it really was.”
Keepin’ the Spirit Alive