The Tamiami Trail was finished in 1928, five years before my mom was born. It was an amazing feat for its time, built across an impenetrable swamp over 12 years at the cost of $8 million and 3 million sticks of dynamite.
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
From Summertime, George Gershwin
Traveling south from Tampa to Naples and then through the Everglades to Miami, this highway opened up a new vista for my mom, whose Dad owned a restaurant and a liquor store at the “Four Corners” where the road heads east across the state.
This route probably cut 12 hours off the trip to Key West, a trip that over a lifetime became her favorite. Not only can you see alligators and exotic wading birds, you can buy a stamp at the nation’s smallest post office, and, if you take the loop through the Big Cypress National Preserve as she often did, you might see an otter or a panther or a bear. Once you got to the Keys, you could swim with the dolphins.
At some point in her childhood this adventure became imprinted on her mind, the ultimate road trip. She was always one to hit the road, whether it was traveling from Naples to Kent, Ohio, to see my great aunt before there was a freeway, or, in recent years to the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World in Plant City.
But it was no surprise Saturday when she announced firmly that she wanted to go to Key West and tried to get out of bed. She had been saying over and over again she wanted to go, and we weren’t sure where. But in a moment of conviction and clarity she finally told us where she wanted to be, not just in her dreams but in reality.
One of her treasured memories is of her last trip to the Keys with my dad, and I’m glad my sister and her family took her there on a vacation two years ago. Mom was in a wheel chair by then, but she told me often it was best trip ever, as everyone fished and kayaked and watched the blue, blue sea.
“Heaven will be better than Key West,” I assured her, a truth neither comforting nor credible in her pain. Finally she fell into a fitful sleep, exhausted, and I sat beside her late into the night, singing Summertime, from Porgy and Bess. It seemed fitting, since it was a song she sang on the road when I was very young. I was pretty sure daddy wasn’t rich, but she was good looking. I felt safe then. And it was comforting now.
She squeezed my hand, perhaps for the last time. Since then she’s fallen into a deep, mostly peaceful sleep, and now does not recognize us or respond. I sang some more, mostly lullabies, including Wayfaring Stranger, a song I’ve always sung to my own kids, and hope one day one of them will sing to me.
It’s about the road trip that matters:
I know dark clouds will hang ’round me,
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep
I’ll see my father and my mother
They said they’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
Only. Only going over Jordan, a mercy for us all.