Conch Life in the Florida Keys
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Neptune
~ Lazy Neptune ~
Conch LifePreparing for a Christmas (in) Marathon December 2009

For the first time since moving onto Re Metau, we decided to stay home (or afloat as the case may be) for Christmas. Having been raised with snowy northern winters meant memories of the season corresponded with the conventional portrayal of the holiday; snowmen on the lawn; sleigh rides down the hills; mittens and ear muffs for frosty nights; and fires in the hearth. The steady warmth of the Florida Keys made it a little difficult to get in the Christmas spirit. Celebrating a holiday infused with the traditions of copious gift giving, filling the living room corner with a festive fir, and gorging on vast quantities of Yuletide goodies - all of which are impractical while living on a small boat off a little island - further put us in a Scrooge-y mood.

But the big day was rapidly approaching and the time came for Don and me to grab the proverbial reindeer by the antlers and get our cheer in gear. So with scarcely seven shopping days left, we decided to turn our procrastination into a challenge, and began our Christmas shopping marathon. Our plan was to shop, wrap and ship before sunset – all without stepping foot off the island. And it turned out to be an incredibly amusing engagement.

Bear in mind that Vaca Key was a mere 7 miles long with but one major road traversing it. Almost all side streets abruptly ended at the water in about 3 blocks. There were no shopping malls on this island. There were no shopping malls on any island for 50 miles in either direction. In the city of Marathon (of which Vaca Key is a part), the biggest department stores were a mid-sized K-mart, a Beall’s Outlet, and a Daffy Doug’s Discount Dollar emporium (whose grand opening earlier that year created local fanfare equivalent to a presidential visit). I didn’t particularly enjoy shopping, or shopping malls, but this diminutive retail district meant our gift purchasing options were limited – very, very limited.

Elf Running from a Gator
~ Frightening, but Festive ~
Rather than stress over the meager supply of goods on this little key, we decided to be creative and give our family some fun from afar. We ignored the bigger chain stores, opted to support the local retailers and tried to keep a tropical, Keysee flair with our finds - key lime candy, coconut candles, flip flop art, etc. I planned to send one box full of wrapped gifts to my parent’s house, the primary gathering place for my side of the family. Choosing the ideal present for each person would just introduce too much tension into my island mood and so I chucked practicality and perfection overboard. The dilemma of not knowing who would be present was quickly resolved with the packages arriving sans name tags, and the idea of a gift swapping game began to form. Once I spotted a large plastic cutlass at Daffy Doug’s, a Pirate’s Christmas theme was established.

While Don and I took a lunch break from our shopping spree, we amused ourselves (and bewildered our server) by using the bucket full of condiments and every implement on the table to strategize each gift swapping scenario. Capt’n Mustard brandished the knife (aka cutlass) and plundered the salt from the swabie Spoon, while the Ketchup Bottle guarded his jelly packet with a right pirate snarl – “Aarrrgg!!”  The bucko Barbeque Sauce jumped ship with ‘is Sweet ‘n Low where no one could hornswaggle ‘is bootie. Then right hand mate Pepper commandeered the knife and with it, the honor o’ bein’ capt’n so he could pillage another hidden treasure. Around and around we went until eventually we figured out how to make the distribution of gifts lively, but fair. Our server gave us the local discount, figuring such peculiar table manners could only confirm we were indeed native Conchs.

So on Christmas day, my family found themselves "in possession o’ treasure sent from them old seadogs o’ the Southern Islands’" with instructions on "ow ta share the bootie amongst all the scallywags without riskin’ a mutiny" - all written down in proper piratey prose. Don and I had a lot of fun planning the gift swapping game, and figured if we weren’t going to be there in body, we could still be there in pirate spirit.

Egret
~ Great Egret ~
Picking the perfect present for Don’s mom took a little creative thought as well. We both were stumped for ideas until I recalled an incident that occurred during her visit that past June. Each year, Linda escorted Don’s young girls, Erin and Camryn down for summer vacation. That year, she stayed at a condo right on the beach where her quiet mornings were spent sitting on the shore reading a book. One day we arrived to find her in a loquacious state of fright.

According to Linda, a rather large egret had alighted nearby and proceeded to stare ominously at her; its long, threatening beak ready to attack. Although the sheer size of an egret can be startling, Don and I knew how timid these creatures really are. One small jerk sets them flying away in a squawk. But Linda had been sitting stone still for half an hour, afraid to move lest she be pecked to death.

Don loved to prey upon his mom’s phobias. The alleged giant cockroaches crawling out of the bathtub faucet, the mythical malicious iguanas ready to pounce from the trees, the unlikely school of sharks circling near the shore – Don invented all sorts of phantoms for no other purpose than to make Linda shiver and giggle anxiously. He never thought about killer egrets! It was settled then. Linda’s gift from us was to be a life size egret lawn statue. These were fairly easy to locate locally, but when we found one that bobbed in the wind, our search for the perfect present was over. (I considered myself fortunate to have a mother-in-law with such a fine sense of humor.)

A quick stop for wrapping paper, ribbon and tape, a dumpster dive for boxes, and by 4:00 we could be seen sitting at the City Marina in a flurry of snipping, folding, sticking, and tying. We sprinted to the post office finish line just before closing time. The Christmas spirit had finally took hold of us both and once we returned to Re Metau, I found myself compelled to put up some holiday decorations. There was, of course, no corner of a living room on Re Metau in which to park a 6’ pine tree trimmed with fragile ornaments and electricity hungry lights.

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~ The Paper Pine ~
There was, however, a small shelf that could be temporarily cleared for the kitschy little “Christmas Tree in a Box” (complete with cardboard branches, pop-up star, and origami ornaments) that my daughter Gen had previously sent to me. I dug it out of storage, popped the classic video ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ into the DVD player and proceeded to trim the paper pine. I had acquired two flashing snowflake necklaces from Daffy Doug’s Discount Dollar, draped them on as garland, and was done decorating before George Bailey left his boyhood behind.

With our holiday preparations complete in record time, we were right giddy with the Christmas spirit, and decided to gorge ourselves on a local, seasonal treat – Florida  lobster grilled with garlic butter sauce. The holiday season in Marathon was going to be undeniably different. There were no snowmen, but the City Park had an lit up elf running from an alligator (frightening – but festive). There were no sleigh rides, but we could plane across the glassy water on Dinky Duck. There were no frosty nights, but there weren’t any more sweaty nights either. And there were no fires in the hearth, but the sinking sun set the wintry sky ablaze with pastel hues and Christmas on a small boat off a little island was looking to be very merry indeed.

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Copyright © 2015 Diana E Reynolds - SV Re Metau.  All rights reserved.

“Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  And today?  Today is a gift.  That's why we call it the present.” ~ Babatunde Olatunj