Making Friends

Someone asked me if we knew anyone in Bradenton/Sarasota before we moved here. When I said no, she was incredulous. How could we just pick up and move to a new place without any attachments? Actually, that hadn’t even occurred to us. Maybe it was because we had moved quite a few times in our married life. Or maybe it was because we knew people tend to be friendly everywhere you go. I believe people in Florida are especially friendly. After all, most of them (or us) are from somewhere else. The other thing I have discovered about friendships made at this age; everyone has an amazing life story. And most are still building on that story.

We moved into our new house in Florida in mid-December 2001. The date sticks in my mind because we put our Rochester, NY house on the market in September of that year and on the morning of September 11, we were sitting in our (for once) immaculate house waiting for a busload of realtors to arrive and do a walk-through. When they failed to appear much past the appointed time, we made some phone calls and found out about the attack on the World Trade Center. It was a terrible time for our country and we were lucky that, in spite of this, our house sold in just a few months. But it was a difficult time to make changes so we approached our moving date with some trepidation.

Leaving Rochester was difficult. We had good friends there and a myriad of connections through work and activities. But we would see the friends in the summer when we came back to the cottage so the connection wouldn’t be broken. Our three children were scattered in Syracuse and Queens, New York; and Ann Arbor, Michigan so we weren’t leaving them behind. In fact, we hoped to see more of them. After all, Florida is a great place to visit in January and February when New York and Michigan are buried under snow banks and frigid temperatures. And our new house was just two miles from the beach.

Within a week of our arrival in Florida, the Home Owner’s Association sponsored a TGIF at the clubhouse. We left the unpacked boxes and overflowing garage and walked up the street to the gathering. Immediately, our new neighbor from across the street introduced herself and, before the evening was over, invited us for dinner on Christmas Eve. A native of England, she explained that it would be a traditional English Christmas dinner (roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) with poppers and the works. What fun!

When I began swimming regularly at the clubhouse pool, I met a few other people. One night we decided to attend services at the Temple near us. The woman sitting in front of us had a lovely haircut so I asked her where she got her hair cut and she introduced her very tall husband sitting next to her. “He’s a hair stylist,” she said. She and her husband had just moved to Bradenton from California. Within a week I had an appointment for a haircut and the start of an endearing friendship.

Then my oldest friend called and said she wanted to find a rental on Anna Maria Island to get away from the Minnesota cold for a month. She and I met in Virginia, Minnesota when we were nine years old. We were best friends all the way through grade school, middle school and high school. She lived, worked and raised her family in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota and all those years she was great at keeping in contact (I am lacking in this respect). She sent me the address for three rentals on the Island and I checked them out, choosing one that was half a block from the beach on Holmes Beach. It was a second story, above a double garage and had an old fashioned beach feel about it. The following year, she rented again and, to my surprise, she decided to buy a house in Bradenton. Now we live 20 minutes from each other and have regular lunch and coffee dates in addition to bridge nights with her and her significant other.

Two friends from Rochester, New York who were very active in many facets of that city came to visit a relative in the Sarasota area. When they dropped in to see us, I gave them a tour of Anna Maria Island. (Should the Anna Maria Island Tourist Bureau be paying me?) The next two years, they rented across the street and one evening during the second year, they arrived late for a gathering at our house and announced they had just made an offer on a house in Bradenton. Within six months, they had sold their Rochester home and bought a townhouse on the river near downtown. Another friend close-by.

Our children love it here. The beach, The Sandbar (Their favorite beach restaurant – okay, everyone’s favorite beach restaurant) the guest room in our house, the meals prepared for them; what’s not to like. They all visited and then expressed their desire to live here. We would love to have them close, of course, but we knew they were dreaming. Jobs and lives called them elsewhere. Then our son left his job at the University of Michigan to follow his dream in a theatrical realm. We were concerned; he was leaving a steady salary, health insurance, a nice house for uncertainty. But he and his wife (an amazing artist) calmed us down and ended up —- you guessed it —- on Ann Maria Island. One child here – two to go (plus a spouse and a granddaughter.)

This is just the top of the pile – we have met so many wonderful people who have become good friends. Each brings something special to our lives and (we hope) we add something to their lives. They are our family away from home (except for our son who really owns that category). We bring soup to each other during bad times and celebrate the milestones; We are only a phone call, a short drive or a walk across the street away from each other. Who could ask for anything more.

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Discovering Florida in a Kayak


Paddling through a mangrove tunnel

Paddling through a mangrove tunnel

 Several nights ago, we went kayaking. Summer days are hot in Florida so we started out at 6:30 pm. It’s still hot when you launch but slowly cools off as the sun begins to slide down behind the mangrove trees. We ate an early dinner, loaded the kayaks on the car, placed all the gear in the trunk and drove the short distance east on Manatee Avenue to Palma Sola Bay. We parked on the right hand side of the road, did the kayak and gear loading in reverse, and pushed our kayaks out in the bay. We paddled north towards a small mangrove island in the middle of the bay. As we passed, I noticed a few shore birds in the trees and wondered if this was a rookery. The sun was resting on the tree tops, low enough to cause an uncomfortable glare on the right side of my face. I pulled my hat down low on that side.

Every kayak trip is an adventure and I wondered what this one would bring.

I grew up on water; swimming, fishing, boating in Northern Minnesota so the pull to be on the water is part of my DNA. Soon after we moved to Florida, I signed up for a guided kayak tour that met at a sandy launch site in the quiet inland waters of south Sarasota. After a short “how to” lesson from our guide, our small group launched our kayaks and followed him across the bay. We paddled past a small mangrove island, across the inter-coastal waterway and along the shore to a gentle sloping beach. We got out of the kayaks, walked across the sand to the other side and saw the rolling waves of Sarasota Bay! What a surprise. We ate lunch, and then paddled back. The water was calm and beautiful. I was hooked.

My husband and I talked about buying our own kayaks but had some reservations: would we use them enough to make it worthwhile, where would we store them in our already crowded garage and how would we transport them? Before we had a chance to answer our own questions, we took the plunge.

First, we attended a “kayak try-out” hosted by a local boat and tackle store at a small lake. After taking three or four kayaks out on the pond, we each picked one that felt right to us. We briefly considered a tandem but quickly realized that wouldn’t work; during car trips, we can never agree on the best route. How would we ever manage a tandem?

The people at the store fitted our car with racks on the roof that would hold our new kayaks; we purchased paddles, seat cushions and life vests. A neighbor helped us out by installing holders for the kayaks on one wall of the garage. They would be stored on their sides, one over the other. We were all set!

Our financial investment had now become sizeable so we needed to make it worthwhile; we had to get out on the water. After a few inaugural trips close to home, we decided it might be safer to learn the ropes by joining a group of kayakers who went out every weekend. Fifteen or twenty kayakers would meet at a designated launch site, unload and start paddling that day’s route; down a river, through the mangroves or across a bay. They always stopped for lunch at a nice beach and then turned around and paddled back. The problem was that they were all experienced athletic kayakers who seemed more interested in speed than in stopping to “smell the roses.” Barry and I were always so far back that we would lose site of the group. Many times, we would reach the lunch site about the same time the rest of the kayakers were already on their way back. We were way out of our league.

So we decided to go out on our own. Barry bought a hand-held GPS that we hoped would lead us out of the mangroves. We bought a book on Florida kayak sites and took off on our first trip. We launched close to Highway 41 outside of Palmeto and paddled away from the road and through a bay. Soon we found a small tunnel opening in the mangroves that took us into another smaller body of water. I wished I had brought some colored yarn to tie on a branch and Barry fiddled with the GPS. We found another opening in the mangroves and pushed through, branches scratching at our faces. It was beautiful and quiet, very quiet. A few blue herons waded through the shallows; two white egrets watched us from a low branch. I caught site of a bit of pink and then saw its owner, a roseate spoonbill. We stopped for lunch on a small bit of sand and watched sand crabs scurrying in every direction.

When we were ready to leave, Barry reset the GPS to take us back. Instead of following the circuitous route we had taken, it sent us back to our launch site in a straight line through solid mangroves. But the only way back was the way we had entered; through the mangrove tunnel. We paddled close to the mangroves, searching for the opening. After a long rather scary time and several false tunnels, we found the right one, went through and realized we still had another passage to find before we would be back in open water. Well, I thought to myself. We had plenty of water and at least one sandwich left from lunch. That would buy us some time.

We searched for a long time, both of us feeling very anxious but trying to hide it from the other. We split up and inched around the shoreline, staying as close to the trees as possible. Finally, after a very long time, we found the opening. After we went through it, the GPS was useful because there was open water between us and our car. It had been a long day.

But we weren’t discouraged. We’d made it out safely and we had a good story to tell. In addition, we thought we had learned our lesson; this wouldn’t happen again. But, in reality, we had a few more “almost lost” experiences. One mangrove tree definitely looks just like another and the tunnels are often shielded by low hanging branches.

Our trip the other night was in open water, with just a few turns and no mangrove tunnels. On our way back to the beach at sunset, we paddled past the island and I saw more birds resting on branches. In the sky, small flocks were flying in from all directions. This, indeed, was a rookery, a mangrove island safe from predators that the shore birds inhabit for nesting, daytime rest and a good night’s sleep. I paddled as quietly as possible around the island, watching the birds and listening to their calls. This is why I love kayaking.


Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

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Staying Young While Growing Old in Florida


By Jean Steiger

Twelve years ago, my husband and I decided to spend our winters in Florida. We were living in Rochester, NY and the winters were becoming an issue: I had fallen on black ice a few years before and broken my hip. In addition to receiving a diagnosis of osteoporosis, I had become ice phobic. My job demanded trips to nine counties. The driving wasn’t a problem but walking from the car to the office door in winter would send me into a panic.

Florida wasn’t a destination that either my husband or I had ever considered. My parents had lived on the East Coast and we had found it crowded, devoid of parks and preserves and lacking in educational opportunities. So we decided to visit the West Coast. We started with a condominium rental on Marco Island and a visit with friends living in Naples. Marco Island was quickly discarded (very little beach access if you didn’t live on the beach) and Naples soon followed (lovely but it had a wealthy snob attitude that put us off). We drove north along Route 41 until we hit Sarasota where we quickly discovered St. Armand’s Circle (a shopper’s haven) and settled in for a three day stay at a motel on Lido Beach. We liked Sarasota – the new library, a lovely downtown area, a feeling of space, tons of educational opportunities. But something was missing. We visited Lakewood Ranch which was in its infancy at the time. It seemed a long way from the beaches and a bit too uniform for our tastes. We hesitated.

One day we went for a ride along the Gulf of Mexico, through Long Boat Key. The view was lovely but it was obvious that the beaches were unavailable to anyone without property on the Island. This was an exclusive community and not what we were looking for. Then we went over the bridge and entered a whole new world. Funky beach houses lined the road; every color, every shape but none more than three stories high. Small restaurants and shops popped up here and there; people walked the streets in bathing suits and shorts and a casual bedlam seemed to exist everywhere. Best of all, the Island boasted miles of beaches and hundreds of parking spaces. This was our kind of place.

This place was Anna Maria Island and, within a year, we had bought a house two miles up the causeway from the Island. We could be on the beaches in less than ten minutes, but we could also be in Bradenton and shopping for necessities in ten minutes. Sarasota was a bit of a trip – 30 minutes when traffic was light and 45 during the prime winter months. But who cared? We were retired, after all.

We sold our house in Rochester and employed a contractor to upgrade our tiny ancient cottage on Honeoye Lake, one of the smallest Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. This would be our summer home. And – a big And- we decided to become Florida residents! Now we were really committed. What we hadn’t expected or realized were the amazing people we would grow to know, the number of activities and educational choices this part of Florida had to offer and how this combination would conspire to keep us young, even as our years continued to accumulate.

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