How to Grow Up, According to M.
My childhood memories of Coral Gables are mostly a blur of teal waters, scampering lizards, and pink mansions. I was a little girl in a tropical territory so far removed from my buttoned-up Washington that Miami only seemed magical by comparison. The scent of plantains frying on the grill became a potion and the roll of Cuban accents a spell. It never surprised me that people desperate to leave the memories of World War II behind them flocked to Florida for a new and otherworldly beginning in the 1950s. My personal temptress in this coconut land was a blue-eyed lady at least seven decades my senior. Her name was M.
M.'s condo was a temple to art and travel. Years ago, she had been a painter. Her vibrant paintings—rendered in thick gobs of acrylic—and gold-framed collages, made from bits of stationery and gift wrap, adorned the walls. One painting in particular, a youthful self-portrait, still haunts me. M. could have been a movie star or at the very least a cigarette girl at a top Golden Age cinema. I knew she hailed from Philadelphia, had been married to a state senator, and had eventually met and fallen in love with my distant relative, but that was all I could down pin down about her history.
M. collected trinkets that attested to her many excursions. To enter her kitchen, you first had to break through a curtain of tribal beads and shells. Throughout the rest of the condo were all kinds of trinkets, though I can't recall specifics. I only remember that everything seemed “primitive” in that Noble Savage sense of the word. There were swatches of art and life from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Whether she had actually gone to all those places, I'll never know, but she had enough adventurous photographs of herself to convince anyone that she was a bonafide globe-trotter.
Though raised Jewish, M. always celebrated Christmas with my family. She stuck a menorah up on her mantel place, but never lit it. I had to remind her what day of Hanukah it was, based solely upon what I'd heard on the radio. Of course that information only ever vaguely interested M. She preferred to focus on the feast of Caribbean chicken and piles of dollar store gifts that stood before us on her long dining room table. The following day, we'd go to the beach or mangroves. Unlike so many people even half her age, M. never sat out.
That was M. – an active human being more enthralled by the mood of the moment than by anything outside of the now. It was her philosophy (be here, be colorful, be happy) that taught me to grow up and enjoy myself, even if where I was at the time did not shine as brilliantly as Coral Gables.