San Jose Circle
Just south of Palm Harbor, on Alternate 19, a two-lane highway running along Florida’s central Gulf Coast, a sign features a cheerful Scotsman wearing a kilt and holding a bagpipe. “Welcome to Dunedin: Delightfully Different,” it reads. As a small child, in the early 70’s, this town where my grandmother and great-aunts lived filled me with wonder. When I was fourteen—uprooted and deeply afraid—I arrived there with my older sister to start high school while my mother languished in a hospital up north. My sense of wonder had been displaced by the slow creep of understanding: I might never see her again.
The youngest in a combined family of seven, I was both spoiled and anxious. I could often forget the unpredictable violence that punctuated my early life. In a world where children are at the mercy of their parents, and where mercy exists, Dunedin’s San Jose Circle– a traffic ring fringed with swaying palms and fuzzy-needled evergreens–became my compass.
On childhood visits to Dunedin, I rode in the way-back of a loaded station wagon as my father drove south from our home just outside Washington, DC, away from winter and to this small Florida town known for oranges and pelicans and old people. Daddy turned left from Alternate 19 onto a wide street paved with red brick. As car tires thrummed over the rough surface, our mother gazed out the window, then looked back at us and smiled. Spanish Moss dripped from the boughs of trees like living tinsel, and a warm breeze carried the scent of orange concentrate from a citrus grove and nearby processing plant.
Daddy navigated slowly around the arc of San Jose Circle. A solitary wooden bench faced west, where the afternoon sun angled over the water of St. Joseph Sound. East of the circle was an elementary school, and directly south, a small pond where raucous ducks clamored for pieces of stale bread. Daddy turned left, pointing us north, then parked in the driveway of my Nanny’s house. When she came out to greet us, she opened her arms wide, her face aglow. She smelled of fresh-baked bread she had waiting to slice for us.
After dinner, we would walk to the end of San Jose Street for sunset. Across St. Joseph’s sound, shadows lengthened the tips of mangroves edging Caladesi Island, the protective strip of land between Dunedin and the open Gulf. I waded in chill December shallows next to old wooden pilings and sank my toes in low-tide muck. When the salt breeze turned cold, I snuggled in between my parents and basked in the gentle raspiness of Nanny’s voice as she pointed out a pelican flying close to the water or marveled at the close of another beautiful day.
On sunny winter mornings, my great Aunt Ruth watched me place pennies on the railroad track behind her house on Douglas Avenue, just a block from Nanny. I’d wait with my hands pressed over my ears for the train to rumble past, feeling the ground shake under my feet. Sometimes a muscled arm waved from the conductor’s window, and a friendly smile shone out for this blonde little girl and the elderly woman standing with her. After the caboose went by, Aunt Ruth, lean and straight where Nanny was round and soft, helped me search for the flattened copper ovals I would later show my big sisters.
Aunt Ruth lived with her own big sister, Dora, called DoDo, an oddly childish nick name for someone who seemed to me old beyond time. On late morning visits, as we filled their small house, I sat on a wooden stool that exuded a faint and friendly scent of dust. I drank sweet, fresh orange juice that Aunt Ruth poured for me into a jam jar. After the grown-ups finished their coffee and talking, Aunt Dora would play a hymn on the slightly out of tune upright piano that she had only recently learned to play. She answered our applause with a girlish smile to each of us in turn.
Over the following decade, two of my father’s sisters also moved to Dunedin, adding points of contact to San Jose Circle. The winter I was fourteen, my father decided to sell our house in Washington and move our family south, too. My mother’s lover–her best friend, Michael—was dead. The basement bedroom he rented from our family sat empty and cold. Before my father typed his resignation letter at the kitchen table, he had seen my report cards riddled with failures; he had smelled the pot smoke lingering on my jacket when I came home from junior high school.
When he took early retirement, Daddy could not foresee that my mother’s long-delayed ulcer operation would lead to infection after infection, to two additional surgeries. He would drive from his temporary job in Virginia to briefly visit my mother in the hospital, as all of us prayed for her unlikely recovery.