For the first 50 years of my life, whenever I thought about Florida, I pictured a Buick lumbering down Interstate 95 with its left blinker on, from Brooklyn to Boca. The soft occupants of the car, able in the 20th century to retire in their early 60s, were annoyingly referred to as “snowbirds,” or worse, “snowflakes.” They headed toward the land of hurricanes and hanging chads and alligators and coupons, where the state bird was the early bird and a good parking space had less to do with distance from the store than it did proximity to the shade.
When I visited my parents, I snickered at the “condo commandos” who talked way too much about how much they paid for their prescriptions and constantly complained about how chilly 70 degrees feels. I joked about the cars seemingly driven by headless people and winced at the bumper stickers decorated with decals proclaiming loyalty to the NRA and the Confederacy. Writer Cynthia Ozick had a friend in me when she said, “ . . . the whole peninsula of Florida was weighed down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life.”
But the years have shaken me out of my seat at the cynical kids table. Now, my husband and I spend a half dozen winter weeks in the apartment we inherited in Hollywood, Florida. While I don’t foresee living there full time, I can no longer deny its virtues. The never-crowded beach where we sit in sand chairs with our feet in the mesmerizing water. Time — unscheduled and unhurried — to notice the sky, the wild changeable weather, the spectacular sunsets filling our living room window. Even the treat of grocery shopping in Publix, the beloved seemingly everywhere supermarket with its well-lit wide aisles and huge selection.
When I briskly walk the five-mile boardwalk right outside my door each morning, those in their 80s regularly leave me behind. My husband plays golf at 7 a.m. with guys who were friends of my father. Growing older where you can spend much of the year outside is definitely life-enhancing. So are the tennis tournaments and card games and lectures and day trips I once passed judgment on. Not for me perhaps, but, for those enjoying them, they are the fruits earned from decades of less selfish times.
I don’t believe my husband and I are wired for a life of 100 percent leisure, but I’ve been wrong before. Luckily, we have careers where age and experience and wisdom make us better at what we do. If we’re blessed with good health, we can maintain our working life for as long as we want to. Yet suddenly bragging about working till 90 sounds arrogant. The idea is to make the most of each day, which may or may not include hard work. Even I, a list-making Type A, should allow that slowing down and sleeping till 8 a.m. are not signs of sloth. What’s my problem? Am I trying to impress my uninformed younger self that baby boomers still rule the universe? Or my children that I am still relevant?
What I’ve recently figured out is that there is almost another generation between my parents and me. Time enough to carefully plan, without trepidation or fear, the next stage of my life. And if I am lucky, I can relax into warming my bones in Florida the same way I enter the cold ocean water — slowly. I can work on a plan for growing older without growing old. I can see the value of days spent producing nothing more than an appreciation for a life spent well enough to get me to this place. I can lose the attitude.
For now I enviously admire the healthy body image the women on the beach — a surprisingly cosmopolitan mix of Canadians, Europeans and South Americans — exhibit in their two-piece bathing suits. I go to dinner in exotic Miami, which one of our neighbors calls Northern Cuba. And visit lifelong friends, happy campers relocated a bit farther north. Yet tipping my hat to my impatient New York DNA, I still roll my eyes at the DWO (driving while old) putting on his right signal five miles before he turns.