By Tony D'Souza
I first came to Florida the way I imagine many Midwesterners did: as a kid, uncomfortably strapped into the back seat of my parents' car.
We traveled to Longboat Key during the mid-'80s, and I remember those trips as a 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old being filled with mental and physical tests along the lines of what the first monkeys shot into space must have suffered. I'd stare forlornly out my window at the bleak wintertime fields of Illinois and Indiana, then return to fighting with my younger sister over her elbow having crossed the invisible line that separated us. Our parents would be stiff as statues in the front seat; how they endured us, I still don't know. When we'd finally roll up at Siesta Beach, my sister and I would sprint across the sand, dropping our winter clothing from our pale bodies like mummies unwinding from their bandages. It was always January, and we always dove right into the water.
We were a middle-class family from suburban Chicago. My father was a corporate insurance broker with big accounts he was proud of: Motorola, Boeing, Caterpillar. He worked hard and we rarely ever saw him. Vacation was the two weeks a year he was in our lives every day.
In Sarasota, we'd stay at The Colony, wander around St. Armands Circle eating ice cream cones, my mother pretty in a cornflower-patterned sundress, my father wearing a lime-green Hawaiian shirt covered in orange parrots. I'd find myself staring at him when he didn't know I was looking. I'd spent most of the year seeing him in either a business suit as he'd head off to work, or in his Hugh Hefner-style lounge pajamas that he'd put on immediately when he'd come home, which was always late at night. Seeing him in the daytime was as weird to me as crossing paths with a flamingo. I had no idea where he'd gotten that Hawaiian shirt. I hadn't even known he owned other clothes.
My father could be funny; he had a quirky set of rules about Florida. The first was that we were on vacation, and therefore we had to wear shorts and flip-flops, even if it was cold. We had to get tans while we were here, so we had to go to the beach, even in the rain. He and my mother deserved a break, so my sister and I were not allowed to fight, or we would never come back to Florida. My sister and I could stay up as late as we liked, as long as we sat on our balcony with him, letting him triumphantly beat us at Uno.
But my father's most important rule about Florida was that he and I—father and son, senior and junior, a couple of real tough guys and the men of the family—had to eat raw oysters.
In the afternoons, he'd disappear for golf, and my mother, sister and I would decamp to the beach. But in the evenings, we'd drive up the Trail together to have dinner at the Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar, where we all knew that he and I would soon be eating raw oysters.
I remember Phillippi Creek back then as always being crowded with sunburned, slightly exhausted families on vacation and pelicans begging for scraps out back by the huge piles of oyster shells. Everything there felt so different from home. I liked the roughness of the benches, the rolls of paper towels for napkins, the Southern drawls of the waitresses, and especially the red-faced drunk guys at the bar who I was certain were all sea captains. My mother would order a grouper sandwich and my sister would get macaroni and cheese. Then the waitress would turn to my father, and the moment would come. "A dozen oysters," he'd tell her as he'd lean across the table and wag his eyebrows at me, "…on the half shell."
Boy, do I remember the first time I ate a raw oyster at Phillippi Creek. The idea of eating raw oysters had seemed like a good one back home in Chicago when he'd told me we were going to do that together. That was because I had never seen a raw oyster.
At Phillippi Creek that first time, the gray ovoid masses that were actual raw oysters were shimmering in their shells like things I'd blow out of my nose when I'd have a mid-winter bout of the flu. My father slurped down a pair with a huge grin as my mom and sister made the collective and requisite, "Eeeeewww!" Then he lifted one from the bed of ice and set it on a paper towel in front of me. Me! It was the smallest one of the bunch; I know this because I looked to see if any of them were smaller. I picked up that gelid shell with its slimy slick of hairy algae and the tiny clams growing like warts by the lip, closed my eyes, and tipped the cold horror down my throat.
"Did you like it?" my father smacked the table with his hand and said.
"Did you chew it?"
I wound up eating piles of Florida oysters with my father, most of them at Phillippi Creek. At some point, I'm not sure when, I even began to like them, and then to adore them: that elegant presentation of rough stones on ice, the sharp scent of the sea, the sudden chill in the mouth, their simplicity, their cleanness, and the lingering taste of salt.
Maybe because of the good times we had on those vacations, Mother retired to Sarasota after my father died of a sudden heart attack in 1997 at the age of 54. I was 22 at the time. I've lived almost as long now without him as with I did with him, and having children of my own, I often find myself searching for meaning in the relationship we did have.
As a writer, I've had the good fortune to work from home, to spend more time with my kids in a few weeks than my father could spend with my sister and me in a year. Occasionally, I've reflected on him in a critical light, seen him as a workaholic who missed out on so much of our lives.
Other times, I've come to a different understanding of how hard one must work to adequately provide, the impossible demands of career and family, the terrible sacrifices in time and lost moments.
I've always had intense wanderlust; I think it has something to do with those long and awful winters in Chicago, the sky hanging low like a long gray slate for months on end, and knowing that just a car ride away—even if a long one—other worlds awaited.
In the years after high school, I traveled and worked in places like Alaska, Israel, India, Sweden. I spent almost a year working construction jobs in Scotland, and my only connection to my family was the regular Sunday evening call I made home from a red phone box at the end of a long pier on the far-flung Isle of Skye.
It was while working there, in a small fishing village called Oban, that I had a dream my long-dead paternal grandfather came to me, lay down beside me, held me to him, and told me it was all going to be OK. I woke with a start in my laborer's bunk and the whole right side of my body was warm where I'd dreamed he'd been hugging me. I knew right then something terrible was about to happen.
Soon after, and for the first real time in years, I went home. I had a few good conversations with my father that month, including a long one deep into the night about my desire to be a writer and his worries about whether I'd be able to support myself. We'd had that discussion before: education, career, planning for the future.
All of a sudden he stopped his lecture. "These places you've gone, Ant," he shook his head and smiled at me. "Do you have any idea how envious I am of you?"
A few evenings later, the phone rang. I was home alone; the emergency room doctor on the other end told me my father had dropped dead that afternoon while playing tennis.
There are so many things I wish my father had been around to see—that I went on to graduate school like he wanted me to, that I've worked as hard as he did and have had my own successes. Most of all now, I wish he could have met his grandchildren. I wonder how I'll talk to my kids about him so they can know him, too. Still young yet, by the time they're old enough to understand any of it, my dad will have been gone for 30 years. He gave me my drive and discipline, my sense of pride in work and family. But he also taught me simpler things, among them my love of oysters. I've sought them out and eaten them all over the world.
Every time I do, I think of him.
I've found myself sipping flinty pinot grigio over expensive plates of them in San Francisco while on quiet breaks on book tour. I've hashed out story ideas with magazine editors in cold bars in Manhattan while knocking dozens down. I've had oysters whose names I couldn't pronounce in Japan; seen them butchered beyond recognition while dating a Southern belle from Charleston. Despite how pretty and refined she was in every other aspect of her life, she liked her oysters deep fried, pickled, or worst of all, out of a can. Oysters out of a can? How can you respect a person like that?
I've gorged on oysters as aphrodisiacs on the coast of Normandy; eaten them in London, Portland, Vancouver, and yes, even in Phoenix, Ariz. Heck, I've even eaten oysters in Iowa.
My most memorable experience eating oysters was when I swallowed 50 in one go with another Peace Corps volunteer on the beach in southern Madagascar, toward the end of my three years of service in Africa. The whole bucket cost us less than two dollars; the Malagasy oyster diver—a wiry and wizened old man whose only work implements were a mesh bag and his own breath—had plucked them dripping from the beds moments before. They were pearly and firm and tasted like milk. I would have eaten 50 more if my stomach could have held them.
Having had fine oysters, snobby oysters, Kumamotos, Fanny Bays, Blue Points, Yaquinas, oysters as small as the tip of my finger in ruffled shells that looked like lacquered jewelry, and sloppy oysters as big as salad plates that required far too much chewing—I've never wanted any of them more than the earthy Gulf oysters I first choked down as a kid with my dad. It's also why, when I can eat anywhere I like in Sarasota, I often find myself turning down the hill, past the kitschy fiberglass shark, and into the white crushed-shell lot of Phillippi Creek. I like to sit at the bar with the red-faced sea captains and order a lemonade and a dozen raw oysters. I look out at the water, and know that right here I learned something important that my dad was glad he taught me.
And one day not too many years from now, a couple of oyster sprat off the coast of Florida will settle down onto a bed, quietly filtrate warm Gulf water, and grow into the fully mature discs of cold deliciousness that I'll set before my own kids. "Try it," I'll wag my eyebrows and challenge them. I already know my daughter will turn up her nose and say, "Eeeeewww!" But I also already know my son will do anything I ask.
Because that's how it was for me; taking a wild leap of faith in my father, letting him know I wanted to be just like him. All he asked was that I eat a raw oyster. Anyone who's seen a raw oyster knows that's a lot to ask. But I ate it. I'm so glad I did.
Tony D'Souza is the author of three novels. His latest, Mule, is set in Sarasota and has been optioned by Warner Bros. He wrote "Eyes Wide Shut" in our September issue and "Queen of the Beasts" in our December issue.