In 1980, a young couple from eastern North Carolina—my parents—moved to Steinhatchee, Fla., a fishing village about 80 miles due west of Gainesville, to study demonology. I went along for the journey in utero.
I spent the first three years of my life in Steinhatchee. I don't remember much, of course. The heat was a physical presence—I know that much. Otherwise, I recall the caress of asphalt on my tender knees, our home's bare white walls, ugly words between my mother and father, fragments of an exorcism done in my presence, a frequency of fear when we entered our brick church.
We moved back to North Carolina before I turned 4, and Steinhatchee became an anecdote for my parents' reminiscing. I've pieced together tales of a hard life along that strip of Gulf Coast, a desolate plot of poverty, racism and sand gnats. My father, for instance, told me stories about "all-white" towns that threatened the lives of African-Americans living there, violently forcing them out. He wasn't speaking in condemnation, either.
In 2000, when I was 20 years old, I suddenly had the ache to belong somewhere. I visited Steinhatchee, staying with the couple who had been my family's friends and who had given me my middle name. They'd drifted far from my rabidly religious parents.
Six years before my visit, my hosts told me, Florida had banned the practice of net fishing, ending a steady livelihood for many fishermen there. During my childhood, fishermen had supplemented their income at a nearby paper mill. It had closed, too. Stories about loss cropped up at every turn. I understood that living that close to the sea required brittle love.
There were adventures, too: We rode on an airboat while marsh grass waved just below our feet, fish weaving in and out of the deep green, pelicans, gulls and seabirds reeling above our heads in an achingly clear sky. Not until we were more than 30 miles into the gulf did the shallow grass marshes disappear and fathomless deep blue ocean begin. I remember thinking I'd found not only belonging but paradise.
I'd like to say I visited Steinhatchee yearly and learned more about the town hugging the gulf. But I was caught up with college, and Steinhatchee didn't offer many educational or economic opportunities. My birthplace lapsed into a memory tucked away for rainy days, somewhere to visit when leisure was mine.
Since the BP oil spill, Steinhatchee has been in my thoughts much more, especially as toxins continue to leak into the Gulf of Mexico's precious ecosystem. An ache I can't define bloomed across my heart when I recently heard an Audubon Society specialist discuss how birds on shore remain oblivious to death coming their way. They blithely continue their basic rituals, like mating, feeding and nesting. It might take 30 years before the gulf waters along which I was born 30 years ago become whole again. Will I be 60 before home finally feels right?