A Memoir (1943-2011)
by Howard R. Wolf
I AM, by NASA’s and National Geographic’s standard, to say nothing of Marco Polo’s, Somerset Maugham’s, and Orwell’s, an ordinary traveler, but life compelled me nonetheless to make a demanding journey over time and space: to visit South Florida innumerable times between 1943 and 2012, with the most poignant trips taking place between 1970 and 2011 — the time of my parents’ retirement and death.
My father, Abraham Wolf, died in 1998, my mother, Marian Fried Wolf, on the verge of the summer solstice, June 19, 2011. I returned in May, 2012 for an informal unveiling at The Star of David Memorial on the border of Lauderhill and North Lauderdale in Broward County at the less-than-ceremonial intersection of a K-Mart and used car dealership.
One will find neither hills nor dales in Broward County. The triumph of language over actuality typifies the promise and the disappointment of life in South Florida — if not in America as a whole. I might add that there are no waterfalls at The Cascades, my parents’ condo.
Needless to say, I and South Florida changed considerably from the time of the Second World War to the end of my parents’ lives and the lives of many of their post-immigrant New York City generation who had left, virtually emigrated from, the City to try to enjoy a life of leisure in leisure suits and Bermuda shorts during retirement in the Sunshine State after a half century of labor.
The brochures didn’t mention the loneliness, the indignities of aging, falling real estate values, hurricanes, and a changing cultural environment in which non-Spanish speakers would feel increasingly marginal. For my parents, the legacy of the Lower East Side and Eastern Europe behind it gave way to Little Havana. There was more and better music at their condo’s pool, to be sure, but the rhythms were unfamiliar.
Every important stage of my life has been punctuated and defined — if only temporarily and provisionally — by arriving from New York City, Buffalo, or points overseas, and quaffing trace of ambrosial air of South Florida, with its promise of healing and rejuvenation.
And I have known Florida’s version of the Atlantic Ocean, not the frigid and steel-gray waters of Maine, but the soothing, even healing, undulations of the combers that ease onto the shores of the Lauderdale and Miami Beaches, especially Lauderdale by the Sea, that somewhat funky and tacky seaside resort where I so often sought refuge at the end of Anglin’s Pier from the stress of visiting my aging parents.
When the specter of my parents’ mortality, along with their increasing isolation among a dying generation of retirees, became too gloomy, I would gravitate towards the sea. Once immersed in it, I could see again, if only for a Fitzgeraldian moment, the Florida I had known as a child and feel somewhat revived.
THIS STRETCH of the Atlantic coast is so settled now that it tests the mind to imagine a time when it seemed like a paradise regained to Ponce de Leon as he landed in St. Augustine in 1513. It was perhaps prophetic that he was shot and killed with an arrow eight years later. Paradise on earth tends to be a short-lived experience for most people.
I have seen the landscape of Florida — its inlets and islands (man-made and natural), rivers, lakes, and Everglades — that still-vast, but endangered, enclave of wilderness that many 19th century explorers and travelers thought of as a remnant, if not equivalent, of Eden.
On certain nights in my late mother’s condo, as I walked along its circular paths, lined by pine and cypress trees, I could pretend that I was in touch with a landscape where oranges first had been introduced from Spain in 1560. But these moments were only a “momentary stay” against an elegiac sense of decline and demise.
Where once a trip to Florida had represented a sign of my father’s success, it had become an ever narrowing enclosure after bankruptcy, retirement, and aging had taken their toll. And where Florida had represented to me during WW II the fulfillment of American ideals — when soldiers paraded smartly on Collins Avenue and dashing young airmen trained over its skies — it now seemed in many ways a betrayal of those ideals.
Viet Nam ended for me and many in my generation an uncompromised sense of patriotism, Princess Line cruises made a mockery of travel as an exploratory experience, and the ghettoization of African-Americans in urban islands between University Avenue and the A1A made it impossible to admire without a measure of hypocrisy the facades of Addison Mizner’s stylish faux Spanish buildings and the Liberace-like grandeur of The Breakers.
Most Americans associate Florida with Walt Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center, but I haven’t visited either site of American fantasy. My experience of Florida, not uncommon for sons and daughters of my generation, has been to visit parents in one barrack-like “unit” about which no Kiplingesque ballad can be written and know their condo and the strip malls around it as I know the tree of life on my palm.
IF WORDSWORTHIAN MEMORY SERVES, my mother, brother, and I first took the Silver Meteor of the Seaboard Line in 1943 or 1944. The train left from the impressive, now razed, Pennsylvania Station, with its domed ceilings and Roman columns. This edifice was a testament to the then-emerging American empire whose strength was defined for me by the brisk steps of members of the armed forces who streamed through the station, many bound for foreign shores from which they never would return.
Some of the GIs were headed for billets in South Beach hotels and the parade grounds of Collins Avenue, so I felt as if I were marching with them to a destiny more heroic than the playing fields of my summer camp in Kent, Connecticut and the schoolyard of P.S. 187 Manhattan. Someone had scrawled in chalk behind home-plate — “FDR IS A JEW LOVER” — and I wanted to join the fight against Fascism, even though I couldn’t spell the word. Boarding the Silver Meteor was as close as I could get to the action.
To travel first class in our own compartment was an emblem of my father’s successful garment business. Our family was on the move, on the way up, and we seemed to be heading in the right direction — South. But we and the country in the years to come were heading south in other ways.
Pennsylvania Station would be torn down in 1963, my father would file for bankruptcy, several times, in the 1950’s, and Florida would become my parents’ permanent home in 1970-71 when my father no longer could bear being on a downward-spiral in New York, working at a low wage for a distant relative whom he had hired just after the war.
He thought that Florida would help him “forget his failure,” as he once confided to me on a rare walk that we took around the grounds of his condo.
I tried to console him. After all, my brother and I had been educated, he and my mother had enough money to live decent, if modest, lives; but he wouldn’t listen to me (he never did): “Look, kid, I had my chance in the Big Leagues, I struck out, I can’t even play Minor League ball anymore, I’ve played my last game.” I can’t watch a baseball game today without thinking of him with a sense of sadness.
IF MEMORY SERVES, we first flew to Miami Beach from LaGuardia Airport in the late 1940’s just after the war and before the opening of Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in 1948. One still could see remnants of the 1939 New York World’s Fair on the way to the airport in Queens from Manhattan.
The promise of a “World of Tomorrow” was still in the air in those idealistic post-war years. The invasion of Poland, the bombing of Britain, the Holocaust, Hiroshima — these seemed, then, to be already part of a distant past. The horrors of war sank into cultural amnesia.
As the DC-3 took off, my first flight, I looked down on the remains of “The World of Tomorrow” and believed that we were flying into its fulfillment. My mother looked glamorous in her pre-PETA mink stole; my father’s garment business was booming (every woman wanted real wool and silk after the war); my brother was on the verge of going away to a Midwestern university, the first in our family to cross the Hudson, to go West; and I was about to enter a good private school.
And when we checked into the chic Starlite Hotel in South Beach, I had no reason to think that I, and my family, weren’t becoming fulfillments of the American dream. In fact, my late exilic and rich uncle Ben seemed to have found a home in Miami Beach in his newly opened and swank Dream Bar where a caged parti-colored Myna squawked, “Bottoms Up!”
But Ben’s homecoming was short-lived: his cocktail hostess girlfriend ditched him, the Mafia dry-cleaned his assets, and his Left Wing brothers, other than my market-economy father, gave him the Cold War shoulder. He later committed suicide by jumping to his death on West 54th Street in Manhattan in a courtyard behind the fabled Stage Delicatessen where a pastrami sandwich now bears his name as a tribute.
His unfolding story was to become something of an augury of Florida’s future for me. For many displaced families, especially ex-New Yorkers, the social realities of Broward County made a mockery of the claim made in How To Retire in Florida (1947): “The best place to make a fresh start after retirement … is Florida.”
MY FATHER DIED in his recliner in 1998. He had been watching CNN’s Business Report. I was in South Africa on a Fulbright at the time and didn’t attend his funeral. I wanted to believe when my mother called that he had had a good day on Wall Street. Although he thought of himself as a failure, he left my mother with a sufficient investment portfolio (a veteran of the rag-trade, he would have called it “a bundle”) so that she could live out the rest of her days in relative comfort.
Her decline was more gradual. Because my visits became more frequent, I didn’t see any dramatic downturn in her quality of life. But she began gradually to lose the ability to do much for herself and needed helpers, even though she was in possession of all her mental faculties until the last ten days of her life when paramedics took her to the hospital from which she never came home. Mercifully, she died before I had to act as her Health Surrogate and allow the medical staff to let her go.
I inherited her condo and thought for a year or so that I might make use of it, given the punishing winters in the Great Lake port that I call home. I always had known that “to sell or not to sell” would be my soliloquy. For many years, I thought the condo might be, in the fullness of time, a safe haven and site of reunion for the Wolf family, and a place where I might contemplate the fate of mankind and turn out Tweets of wisdom (once I learned how to Tweet). But it became increasingly impossible to sustain this illusion.
My brother chose a life of expatriation in Portugal, and my daughter a new life in the somewhat Holy Land in 2002, making it improbable that we ever would come together in one place at one time. Not even my parents’ funerals had brought us all together.
Then my rented car was towed from my own parking spot in the condo because I didn’t have a “visitor’s” tag. I decided the time had come to say Farewell to South Florida. I called a real estate agent and put the unit up for sale in a market flooded with foreclosures.
I called an observant friend, and we visited my mother’s gravesite a month or so before the actual anniversary of her death. My friend had stitched together some veils with which she covered the memorial plaque, my mother’s name now inscribed next to my father’s (1908-1998 / 1911-2011), and read the sacred Kaddish. It seemed appropriate to her that these lady’s head-coverings should be stitched together in homage to the fabric of my mother’s life, to say nothing of the life my father had led in New York’s garment business.
Although I am secular, I placed a stone of remembrance on her plaque as well as one each for my daughter, my brother, and his three daughters. Not sure if and when I would return, I wanted anyone who passed my parents’ gravesites to know that this man and this woman were honored and remembered by their children and grandchildren.
THERE IS ANOTHER SIDE to this story of displacement and decline. The New York City world of my parents and their generation faded and disappeared in Florida. There is little trace now of the Jewish, Irish, and Italian “transplants” who first settled in the condominium in which my parents lived for decades.
Like the Seminoles ( “wanderers”), my parents and their generation became marginal to a newly emergent South Florida community. Today, their condo has become a haven for hard-working Central and South Americans, Cubans (of course), Caribbeans, Asian Americans, subcontinental Indians, African Americans, Palestinians, Viet Namese, and just about every ethnic and national group that has turned to America for a renewed version of the Promised Land, as Florida seemed to its first European explorers.
In truth, my parents would not have welcomed this newer world, but then most of us stay fixed on the compass points of our origin. And just because my parents failed to take root in Florida doesn’t mean that a younger generation will fail to flourish there like the Australian Flame Tree, Chinaberry, Hong Kong Orchid, and African Tulip Tree.
My parents uprooted themselves from a habitat which had nurtured them until my father no longer could bear to fail in business again and turned his back on what he took, wrongly, I think, to be a failed life. South Florida’s new exiles have a better reason to be there: a history of poverty, persecution, and the ravages of war — like the immigrants who fled Europe between 1880 and 1914 and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time in New York harbor.
If Florida promised too much in its earlier stages of exploration and development — from eternal youth through renewed potency to an endless round of golf without hooks or slices — and thus dashed hopes and dreams, the Sunshine State may work better for those who have more pragmatic reasons for making it something like a port of safe call.
If the previous waves of tourists and retirees were looking for Gatsby’s “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock,” the current generation of displaced people are looking for a place only, at least for a while, to tie up their small powerless-boats in the calm waters of the Intra-Coastal. Who knows? In the fullness of time, they might yet be docking a luxury yacht at one of the islands of Fort Lauderdale.
(The above is an abridged version of Mr. Wolf’s “Pavane for a Lost World: My Florida.” The unabridged version is available here.)
Howard Wolf is Emeritus Professor at SUNY-Buffalo (English). Author of Forgive the Father (a memoir), Broadway Serenade (a novel), and many short stories, he is a graduate of Columbia U., Amherst College, and The University of Michigan, was a Fulbright Lecturer in Turkey and South Africa, and has lectured in 20 countries. He is currently a Fellow at MacDowell Colony, where he is putting together a collection of 14 stories (Exiles by Starlight and Other Stories) about a single character, “Ludwig Fried,” who lives in the shadow of the Holocaust.