The Keys House

I was lucky enough to grow up in sunny South Florida, where I wore flip-flops all year round, and winter was only one week in January when the weather dipped below 60 for a couple of days in a row.  I remember thinking as a kid that I never wanted to live anywhere else in the world because I never wanted to be cold. Yet, here I am suffering through winter’s dying grip in the earliest days of March in the chilly Mid-Atlantic.

My grandfather also grew up in Miami and swore he would never leave.  He always said that he never wanted to live north of the Mason-Dixon line. As a true Southern Gentlemen (they were Southern in Miami in those days), he was a man of his word. Charles Jackson Baldwin hardly ventured north of the Miami-Dade County line.  Except for a few years in Gainesville as a student at the University of Florida, and his time in the Army deployed to Europe during World War II, my grandfather was a tried and true South Florida native, spending his entire adult life in the house he bought for his family on a beautiful, quaint road in Coral Gables, not far from the house he grew up in–just across the golf course.

Growing up in Miami had its fairytale perks. I spent almost every weekend down at my grandparents’ Keys house in Islamorada—Lower Matecumbe Key, to be exact. Looking back, I can’t think of a better place to spend so much time. Perhaps it was the ignorance of childhood, but I don’t think I realized how special those weekends in the Keys were until I was much older, and the house was no longer available to visit.

The Keys house itself was nothing special. It was a small concrete bungalow with three bedrooms and an open living space. The casual Florida room in the back of the house looked out to the humble backyard and the creek that opened up into the Gulf. My grandfather had a small 19-foot fishing boat called the “Fishcatcher” that was always tied up to the dock out back when we visited. We would use the boat every morning of our time there; rising before the sun to prepare for that morning’s trip—out into the ocean, or stay close by in the Gulf, Granddaddy’s choice. The Fishcatcher was every bit a part of the charm of the Keys-y feel to the house.

Even though it has been many years since I set foot in that house, I can still hear and smell everything about it as if I was just there yesterday. I can smell the sizzling bacon that my grandmother would fry up to make BLT sandwiches after our long morning out on the boat. I can hear the slam of the backdoor as we would run in and out to clean the fish, feed the birds, or grab a cold drink to take back outside. I can hear and feel the hum of the wall unit air conditioning in the small front bedroom where I slept, lulling me to sleep and breathing gently on my sun-burnt skin. I can picture the Highwaymen Florida-art paintings that lined the short hallway to the bedrooms and that hung above the couches where my grandparents would sit all afternoon, her knitting and him watching golf. I can even hear my grandfather rustling around in his bag of Lays potato chips and sipping his sweet ice tea before falling into a fisherman’s slumber in front of the TV with a lunch tray still on his lap and a napkin still hanging off-center from his collar.

We visited all the ticky-tacky Keys shops and restaurants every time we stayed at the Keys House. My mom and I would explore all afternoon while my grandparents rested. Some of my favorite restaurants no longer exist, destroyed by time, neglect, or hurricane. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Papa Joes. I used to love to go to Papa Joes. I’m also thinking of the original Islamorada Fish Company, which started as a tiny local fish market that served the best fish sandwiches in the whole world (with the exception of the fish sandwiches my grandfather made). I watched the Fish Company expand into a huge national franchise, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Imagine the shock I felt as I was driving across the Louisiana marshes on I-10 some time about four yeas ago, and I looked over and saw a huge sign advertising the Islamorada Fish Company just a few miles ahead. What? In Louisiana? It was nothing but a shack when I was a kid, and it was only located in Islamorada.

Perhaps my fondest memories of the Keys House are the times I spent cleaning fish with my grandfather, which coincided with feeding the birds—egrets, herons, and pelicans– that patiently waited for our unwanted scraps of fish guts or heads. I watched my grandfather as he skillfully cut the fish with the sharpest of knives and retrieved the good eating parts for our frying pan. I memorized the sunspots on the back of his hand, leathered from years of being out in the sun and on the water. I can feel his grip carefully guide my tiny fingers when I asked if I could help.  I remember the first time a Pelican nipped the top of my finger as I handed him a fresh fish head snack, and the lesson I learned that day about the hook on the pelican’s beak. Every true fisherman has felt the pelican’s beak.

Fishing at the Keys House
Fishing at the Keys House

Though it has been years since I spent time in Lower Matecumbe, I still think of it as a childhood home, full of memories, both good and bad. With the exception of my mother, none of the people who made that house in Toll Gate Shores so special are still living, but I can take comfort in the vivid memories of our time spent together as a way of keeping them alive.  Even if the house is no longer standing, the strength of the pictures and stories in my mind will ensure that our Keys House is never truly destroyed.

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