Define Family -Part 1

Cedar and pine trees are everywhere, so much greenery. 103rd Street is crazy busy 24 hours a day. Cecil Field NAS is actually pretty cute, especially the area around the pond. This is the first time I’ve actually seen cinder block houses.

The Baptist preacher who came to our door and invited us to his church turned mean and said “That’s ok, we’ll have you anyway,” when we told him we’re Catholic.

Taco Bell is not Mexican food, and I refuse to buy corn tortillas that come in a can from the Winn-Dixie down the street.

These are my immediate thoughts as I remember my first month in Jacksonville, Florida. Culture shock was my malady, and I still remember how it felt. It wasn’t the scenery, landscape, or climate that was new to me. It was the people and how they acted toward us that surprised me. They didn’t know what to make of us, and I was surprised by that. Our upstairs neighbors assumed we were from India. That shocked me because I had only lived in San Antonio where I looked, acted, and felt like everybody else. In Jacksonville, it was obvious that we were not natives. Of course, most people in Florida are not natives, but we looked different from our neighbors.

Jacksonville is in Florida geographically, but it is North Florida and that makes all the difference. North Florida might as well be Southern Georgia because its politics and ideology are Bible-belt conservative, in religion it is largely evangelical Protestant, and culturally it is down-home country style with a tinge of sun-and-sea serendipity.

The cuisine is definitely deep South, and that is what I considered the best part. I loved the fried chicken in Jacksonville. I learned to absolutely love black-eyed peas, collard and mustard greens cooked with ham hocks, and fried shrimp and catfish with hush puppies. My favorite sandwich was the fish club at Captain D’s because they made it superbly with bacon and cheese. Best of all, I learned to make real Southern chicken and dumplings. The only culinary Jax staple I never learned to like was the bowls of green boiled peanuts that were commonly sold at fairs, festivals, flea markets, and some convenience stores. They looked awful and I never worked up the nerve to try them, and I am a culinary adventurer.

Michael and I grew up on Texas barbecue, but we assumed that barbecue is barbecue wherever you go (we were so young). In Jacksonville, the barbecue was different. We went to the Barn Door restaurant during our early days in Jax, and we ordered ribs, chicken, potato salad, beans, and cornbread. We have all that in Texas, but in Jacksonville the smoke smelled different and the barbecue sauce was mustard-based. We had to specify if we wanted tomato-bssed red sauce. The beans were pinto and cooked with salt pork but no garlic. They were fine. The tea was sweet and good. No problems there.

The problem for me was my lack of family ties. I grew up in a large extended family, and as I started out making friends in Jax, I naively assumed they could be my substitute family. We became friends with our upstairs neighbors (the ones who thought we were from India), or at least I thought we were friends. They were also a Navy couple and they had a little baby. I love babies and I had grown up with a little cousin or two being born every few years. The year before we moved to Jax, my family at home had welcomed baby Jonathan and baby Marcus into the fold. I had also been missing my sister and little brother. Missing little ones as I did, I loved holding and playing with our neighbors’ little baby and they noticed. It didn’t take them long to start asking me to babysit occasionally and I happily agreed. I really do love babies and had fun with this one, so I shrugged it off when they promised to pay me later and then forgot to do so. I let it slide. Later on when the we’re moving to California, they said they had a lot of food in the fridge and pantry and they’d give it to us in payment for my babysitting their son so often. I knew this wouldn’t happen when I saw one of their friends loading up their car with the groceries they had promised me as payment. That was when I learned that friends who love you like family are rare and to be treasured. It was a hard lesson.

To be continued.

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