“Who ordered the Super Grits?” the waitress says as she delivers our dinners. I expect her to add, “Y’all done come from somewhere else?” but she’s too busy for small talk. The bayside restaurant in Apalachicola, Florida is jammed.
My husband and my friend Becca raise their hands. “Right here,” they say.
“Alrighty,” she says. “And how about the crab cake?”
“That’s me,” I say, taking the plate. God, this looks delicious.
“Gumbo and oysters on the half-shell?” she says, pronouncing oysters as"oh-sters".
Sean takes both plates.
“Shrimp basket?” she asks, holding it aloft.
“Right here,” Sue says, smiling.
“And the grouper,” she says, setting down the basket in front of Becca’s husband, John.
I’m in the Florida panhandle with my family for spring break (though I haven't yet run into former Evanstonian Richard Schulte). We’re in a rented house on Cape San Blas with two other families from Evanston. If you’re counting, we’ve got three cars, six adults, seven children, seven full baths, two half baths, seven bedrooms, six balconies and one elevator (yes, an elevator, which travels from the ground floor to the third floor). Not bad for a rental, eh? Four other families from Evanston have also rented homes within four miles of this one, so throw 11 more kids into the mix.
Never in my life have I stayed in such a grand home. The kitchen is professional -- the décor a perfect combination of Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, and someone else’s attention to every detail. The bed Mike and I sleep in, for example, is a carved mahogany with gauzy, white curtains surrounding every side. It feels very Out Of Africa-like. There’s even a telephone in the elevator, just in case we get stuck somewhere between the ground floor and the third level (where the kids have their own living room, complete with a TV, game table, loft area, and balcony). We’ve only afforded this type of luxury because it’s split between three families.
Many of our friends have opted for a staycation this spring break, and we might have, too, had it not been for this group’s willingness to drive 20 hours with us to this little stretch of heaven. Colorful houses dot the shoreline for miles, many of them as enormous as ours. As my friend Sean said the other day while pointing to house after house along the beach, “A recession… a collapsed housing market… and here’s our silver lining…” suggesting that most of these houses are, figuratively speaking, underwater and willing to open up to renters like us.
Growing up, beachfront homes like this weren’t ever something I spent time in -- let alone visited. A house like this was the stuff of movies, and the people who owned them were gazillionaires who didn’t think twice about visiting less than twice a year. Yet here I am, with my closest group of friends, playing house for a week as if we live here.
We’ve visited the nearby Piggly Wiggly grocery store for provisions. Ordered takeout Chinese as if it’s just another night on Cape San Blas. We’ve washed our clothes in the laundry room, grilled grouper on the Weber in the driveway, talked to locals reeling in sharks and stingrays right off the beach. and sat on beach chairs on the squeaky white Gulf of Mexico sand 100 yards off the back of the house.
St. Joseph Bay lies just two blocks from the front door on the opposite side of the house. The closest town, Port St. Joe, where the Piggly Wiggly is located, has several little shops and a plethora of shuttered businesses. Economically, Apalachicola -- where we dined tonight -- seems slightly more intact than Port St. Joe.
As the six of us adults enjoy our fresh seafood and each other’s company, our dinner conversation pauses multiple times throughout the meal: gulls screech from the harbor; one child points out a pelican; another asks for directions to the bathroom; one holds up her hush-puppy and asks, “Can someone tell me what this is?” As the meal winds down and the waitress hands us our check, we offer three credit cards and request the bill split three ways.
Arriving back at our rented house, we go about what’s become our evening routine: straighten up, tell the kids to find their pajamas, light a fire on the beach, make some s’mores, then assess which kids are “done” for the evening. After the fire, teeth are brushed, bedtime kisses offered, and final warnings about turning off devices are given. The adults gather for an hour or so on the moonlit deck, swapping parenting stories, learning tidbits about each other and our histories -- some new and some repeated for the umpteenth time. We talk about everything except the day we’ll need to pack up and head back home. We hold on to this suspended reality, knowing it will have to come to an end so the next group of renters can inhabit the space.
I’m acutely aware how lucky I am to have found a group of friends willing to share space and time and parenting responsibilities with my family and me. None of us are perfect and none of us are monsters. We’re all just trying our best. Sometimes it’s harder than others, but a week with other families proves how challenging and rewarding family life can be. When a brief storm rolls through and the youngest kids grow weary of each other, tension rises throughout the house: no matter how many balconies, bedrooms or cars we have, the only true foundation we have is our humanity. A week together in this way reminds me of the gifts and challenges each child brings into our lives, and that for every struggle there is a memory to cherish.