“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
50 summers ago, I was almost nine-and-a-half years old and getting accustomed to living in the hot, humid, and often rainy conditions in Miami after living for six years in the colder climate of Bogota, Colombia, a huge metropolis that sits nearly 9,000 feet above sea level on a plateau in the Andes.
In July of 1972, it was just my mother and me, living in a cozy apartment in Sweetwater, Florida while Mom looked for an affordable house in Coral Park Estates, a subsection of Westchester, an unincorporated suburb west of the City of Miami proper.
My recollections of the Summer of ’72 are, at best, hazy if not altogether fragmentary. Mostly because of the passage of time and because I was too young to keep a journal, much less think about doing that. However, I also think that the circumstances in which my “reverse migration” back to the area where I was born nearly 60 years ago have something to do with my inability to remember details from that part of my childhood.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”― Marcel Proust
I can’t say this with 100% certainty, but I believe that by this time in 1972 my mother had agreed – in principle, anyway – to buy the house at 1001 S.W. 102nd Avenue from an elderly widow named Eleanor Zimmerman. Mom had known her from when we lived in a house that was just three blocks away to the east in Coral Park Estates that Dad had bought for us not long after I was born in 1963. Mrs. Zimmerman and her late husband Charles had bought 1001 around the same time that Dad bought our house, and because Mom was a friend of Eleanor’s next-door neighbor Lula, they were acquainted. Eleanor wanted to sell the house because it was too much for her – a childless widow – to live alone in. and Mom needed a permanent dwelling big enough for three people, as 1001 has three bedrooms and (when Mom bought it, one-and-a-half bathrooms).
And because Mom rarely ever talked about this, I assume that it was around this time that my grandparents called Mom – via long-distance telephone, which was expensive and a bit unreliable even in the early 1970s – and told her that my older half-sister Vicky was being sent to Miami (against her wishes) because the living arrangement between my Grandaunt Gabriela and Vicky had collapsed due to my half-sibling’s obstinate flouting of Gabby’s house rules.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s – when I was an adult and Mom felt comfortable enough to tell me the backstory of the family’s decision to send Vicky to the United States – a country she claimed to dislike intensely – and return her to our small trinity of Mom, Big Sister, and Little Brother. I won’t delve into that here; that story is a bit sordid, and in any case, I was not aware of it at the time.
The reason I mention this is because in late July of 1972 we were going to our future block off SW 102 Avenue a lot. Not just to visit my mother’s friend Carmelita – who, incidentally, was my godmother – and her Cuban husband Norberto, although I do remember we ate at that house many times between June and August of 1972. I strongly suspect that Mom was going to our future house – which was just three houses to the south of Carmelita’s – to plan the décor, check the appliances to see if they were worth keeping or if they needed to be replaced, and to choose which bedroom I would get.
The fact that my mother chose the smallest of the three bedrooms for me must have been influenced by my half-sister’s impending return. Vicky would have demanded the second-largest room in the house because that had been the living arrangement that we’d had in Bogota from 1969 to early 1972. Vicky was doubtlessly pissed that she had been forced to come back to the States by unanimous family pressure, and she would have been even angrier – if that was possible – had she gotten the smallest room at 1001.
I don’t have any recollection of how – or when – I was told that Vicky was going to live with us in Miami. All I remember from that time – ironically, considering how badly our relationship deteriorated in the ensuing decades – was that I was happy; nine-year-old me loved and missed my older half-sibling despite her obsession with dieting and mercurial temper.
I also remember that because my mom couldn’t take me along on her home-buying errands – and trust me, she had to run a lot of those in July of ’72 – she would drop me off at Carmelita and Norberto’s house so I would not be alone in that small apartment in Sweetwater all day.
“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James
It was around this time that I became acclimated – or rather, reacclimated – to the heat and humidity of South Florida summers after living for nearly six years in the thinner and colder air of Bogota. I spent much of my time in shorts and T-shirts and walked around either barefoot or in tennis shoes with socks. (Mom tried to get me to wear either leather sandals or rubber flip-flops, but I never was comfortable in those, so it was either bare feet or sneakers with socks.)
It was also in late July that Mom told me that I would attend Coral Park Elementary School, which was five blocks away from our future house. That was, of course, the school that everyone in my neighborhood who was enrolled in Dade County Public Schools attended, so there was nothing remarkable about that.
I wasn’t particularly displeased about going to school; I’ve always liked learning and socializing with people in my age group, but I was worried that I would stick out like a sore thumb because I was still only a Spanish speaker and had not yet learned American English beyond a few simple phrases, including “Please,” “Thank you,” and “May I go to the bathroom?”
In any case, by this time in July 1972 Mom was beginning the process of – for the second time that year – getting moving boxes and packing the few books and knick-knacks we had brought from our apartment in Bogota to the less swanky apartment in Sweetwater for our next move. Considering that I did not love that apartment in the El Portal Apartments complex, I was not as unhappy about this move as I had been a few months earlier when Mom told me I had to leave all my toys in Bogota.
Because schools opened a bit later in the summer than they do in the 21st Century, I did not have “back to school” anxiety – yet. To nine-year-old me, Miami summers were a new experience; I don’t remember playing outside with the kids in the neighborhood until it got dark when we lived in Bogota; in fact, this was not a thing in my years in Colombia. If I played outside at all then, it was in a yard – especially in the big house we rented before we moved to our last apartment in a building owned by my grandaunt Maruja Restrepo de Lince.
But even in the period in which Mom was going through the house-buying process, I made friends with the Blanchard brothers – Robert, who was one year older than me, and Patrick, who was almost four years old at the time. I wanted to hang out with Robert, who was a near-peer, but he foisted me off on his younger brother, perhaps because of my disability, or perhaps because I did not speak English.
I also made a few friends among the bilingual Cuban American kids on the block, so I was introduced to the concept of “playing out in the front yard till it gets dark” by them more than by the Blanchard Brothers. Of course, this was not an everyday experience yet since I still had not moved into 1001, but it was around this time 50 years ago that the pattern for summer vacation was indelibly set.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
I’m still not sure when the reunion with Vicky took place; that summer of 1972 seemed to stretch into forever, and my memories from that time are inexact and quite possibly jumbled. I do remember that by the time I started school at Coral Park Elementary either shortly before or after Labor Day, Vicky was in Miami and had her room in the southwest corner of 1001, while I had my smaller bedroom across the hall from hers.
Was Vicky with us in late July of 1972? I honestly do not remember. Perhaps she was, and perhaps she wasn’t. All I know with any certainty is that she was living with us from the time the 1972-1973 school year began, and that I was genuinely happy that she was with us, despite her unpredictable temper and penchant to go on weird diets to lose weight.
As fragmented and inexact my memories of that summer half-a-century in the past are, I do remember that to nine-year-old me, every long, hot, and humid day had at least some promise of adventure and new things to discover.