My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.
I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.
They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.
When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.
We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.
As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.
I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.
As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.
One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.
I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.
We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.