Winter Pelicans

Nanny and I sit together on a bench at the Dunedin Marina, watching pelicans. Sailboats tied to a wooden pier move slowly up and down as a metal hook clangs against a mast. I breathe in the fish and tar smells that the wind has mixed into something deep and full. I am four and don’t need a sweater. As we look out over St. Joseph’s Sound, Nanny’s loose dress flutters. She smiles at me, and I rest my head against the soft powder of her arm. I want to always, always be here with her where it is warm, where one whole person pays attention just to me.

All of us piled into the station wagon to drive to Florida for this winter visit, my sisters and I taking turns asking Daddy questions about the Spanish moss hanging from tree branches like heavy green tinsel. But my sisters are already home in Maryland and back in school–Mamma and I are staying extra nights to keep Nanny company. Nanny’s voice drips citrus honey when she talks to me about birds. We like to see ducks at the little pond near her house, or watch cardinals eat seeds from the feeder under the orange tree behind her house. Those blue jays are bullies, she tells me. They won’t let the other birds have anything!

I like watching the back-yard birds, but pelicans are my favorite, standing on the dock like wobbly clowns to beg fishermen for snacks. When they stretch themselves out to fly, their big heads are straight as arrows while their strong wings push them up. Look! They use their necks like a net to catch fish, Nanny tells me. We watch them climb, then dive straight into the shining water. They bobble on the surface with full pouches, then shrug wiggling fish down their throats.

How can they eat the fish without cooking them? I ask my Nanny, but she can’t explain it. I feel sorry for the fish in the darkness of the pelican’s tummy without room to swim around, and having to die to be someone’s food. I try to think about how hungry the pelicans are and how hard they work for their supper.

In a few days, I will get on a big grey bus painted with a running dog. I’ll hold my pretty Mamma’s hand, and sit next to her for hours and hours, dozing through stops as we ride north, back home to Hillcrest Heights and to me being the youngest again. We ride back  to waiting for the warmth of spring and for all the things I can’t have just yet.

59840924535__48059005-33e6-42ab-bd03-ddaea02fceb7Almost fifty years later, I will forego all my Christmas traditions and take a trip south with the family I’ve made. At a Mexican resort, I will drink coffee with the husband every morning while we watch light come up over Banderas Bay. A pair of pelicans will display their awkward beauty as they skim reflections over the water. With perfect grace, they dip their wing tips almost to the surface, then ride the sharp hill of wind cast up by the surf.

Waves will crash on the crescent beach, then sigh their way back home again as my grown boys feast on onion rings and hot peppers from the buffet. I won’t miss shopping or decorating or meal planning. I will float on my back as the solstice sun hangs in the sky. I’ll open my arms wide, winging gratitude to the pelicans over my head. I will bask in thankfulness for having everyone and everything I need, right here.

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Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.