Last fall, gazing through the glass wall of our rental and across the screened-in lanai and beyond a row of trimmed bushes and a shallow stream toward the sprawling Champions golf course, I continually caught sight of plentiful birds and squirrels and golfers and golf carts and, at least once, an alligator floating past. This fall, we've heard a host of cicadas and observed a few sandhill cranes, one solitary ibis, a handful of limpkins and half a dozen blackbirds, but none of the other birds—osprey, wood stork, black-bellied whistling ducks, and many more ibises—that engaged my attention on the course last year. Directly across from us the breadth of white—likely ground seashells—under tall trees has expanded. I mostly notice a wide range of powerful sprinklers alternately spraying different sections of the fairways at different times throughout the day. Despite spotting course-bound golf carts on our morning neighborhood walks, we've yet to see anyone golfing. Occasionally, a barely visible golf cart in the distance speeds along a pathway, probably manned by someone in maintenance. The golf course, started 60 years ago, has once again been renovated, "tee to green," bunkers altered, fairways stripped and then furnished with new greens and grasses. It's not ready yet for golfers to return.
Visiting Sarasota family in earlier years, we felt like vacationers. Autumn in Wisconsin didn't seem so problematic then: Sue's allergies were less intense, the ragweed season shorter-lived, and leaving home didn't feel urgent. In Sarasota we became familiar with certain restaurants, supermarkets, specialty food shops, including a yogurt outlet the grandkids enjoyed, and a well-stocked liquor store. We returned annually to a couple favorite coffee shops and breakfast spots, certain museums or libraries to visit with the kids, city parks for walking, a botanical garden, a wooded preserve near the kids' neighborhood, a state park with abundant waterfowl. We drove across Little Sarasota Bay to Siesta Key to stroll or swim at beaches along the Gulf of Mexico or tour a well-stocked aquarium. We went to places where we added some pleasure to the life we shared with family.
But this is a second pandemic year, more intense now in Florida than last year. Last autumn, before vaccine, people expected Covid-19 would run its course and vanish. When we visited our daughter and her family, everyone wore masks and kept safe distance as best they could. The grandkids wrestled with online learning, their parents balanced work from home with work on site, and restraint ruled social interaction. By this fall the two older children and their parents have been vaccinated and only the eleven-year-old hasn't been yet. Sue and I have had our necessary first two inoculations and she's had one more booster shot. At least this year none of us in the family wear masks when we visit at their house.
In Florida, as in too many other states, the pandemic now takes its toll principally on the unvaccinated and the anti-vaxxers, encouraged in their folly by a governor—himself appropriately vaccinated—who insists that citizens, especially school children, stay unmasked while mingling with others. We're persistently uncomfortable being here, disinclined to enter places we often used to go, relying still on curbside pick-ups and home deliveries, uninspired now by the same locale that formerly invigorated us. We've merely traded the familiar semi-isolation of our northern home for the more humid but fiercely air-conditioned isolation of our southern retreat.
We've been visiting family in Sarasota for decades now and often leave moved by the changes they've gone through: our oldest grandchild began college this fall, her brother and sister have continued growing taller and smarter, their parents appreciate their children's expanding maturity and hold their own in their workplaces. Not least of what I regret about the pandemic is how it distracts me from aspects of my life I value most.
In recent days a snowy egret landed on the stream's far bank, unnerving two nearby limpkins. After they departed, only a distant high-arcing sprinkler activated the scene. One day five sandhill cranes honked repeatedly while looking across fairway and stream at our lanai. Another day, during a heavy downpour, three powerful course sprayers added to the inundation at length. Yesterday, briefly, a wood stork and a spoonbill showed up; today an osprey perched in a treetop. I wondered if life here might again become as familiar, as active, as it used to be, even in the absence of golfers.
We'll leave Sarasota soon, expecting to return next autumn, when ragweed will be rampant again back home. Which Sarasota will we visit then, the one our grandchildren were growing up in before the pandemic or the one that now hauntingly makes us unsettled and uncertain about the future? Where we be again?