To Florida, with Love

To Florida with Love:

As I watch Hurricane Irma spin, zig and zag threatening to destroy any part of Florida that gets in her path, I'm 1,300 miles away, and yet, I feel so connected.

In part, because my closest childhood friend has just evacuated her home in Tampa. I think about her, along with her husband, kids and dogs, leaving most of their lives behind to escape the storm, now in a shelter questioning what "home" really means and what "home" will eventually look like.

It occurs to me, even for those of us who never called Florida "home", it's a very real part of the fabric of our lives.

For this child, growing up in Ohio meant annual trips to Florida to visit my maternal grandparents.

Grandma and Grandpa VanZandt had found their retirement dream in the idyllic gulf coast town of Venice.

Every March, my family of four would pile into an oversized sedan, and head south, dreading the drive but excited to escape the grey Ohio skies.

Once we arrived in Venice, it felt and looked like a different world filled with humid tropical air, pastels and palm trees.

The storefronts showcased bright, floral, sleeveless dresses and the green lawns were dotted with flowering trees.

Even the daily dose of rain was brief, warm and welcomed.

My grandpa would impress us with oranges he had "just picked off the tree" as my grandma would add slices of avocado to our salads, while complaining about the air-conditioning "draft", and detailing her golfing adventures.

These trips would introduce me to the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, shark's teeth hidden in the sand beneath my toes, and swimming QUIETLY in the pool at my grandparents' "adults only" condo complex.

As my winter skin would burn and blister in the surprisingly strong spring Florida sun, my grandma would run outside and pluck an aloe leaf from the plant, slice it open and soothe my skin as I would pray for the bright red pain to turn golden brown.

At week's end we would shake out the sand, pack up the car and return to sweaters and chilly, damp, northern air. On the long drive home the kid in me would wonder "why doesn't everyone live in Florida?"

Now, decades later, my grandparents are gone, but Florida remains special. Both old photo albums and new digital files are filled with memories I've made all over the state, from the fabulous sights, sounds and tastes of South Beach with my husband to the magical mouse in the castle with our three kids.

And I realize the "sunshine state", the place that has brought me so much pleasure and comfort, is now in so much pain.

But please know, even from 1300 miles away, we feel it, too.