Sunshine State Stories
Bohemian Rhapsody, a demure Tallahassee housewife rediscovers her true grit and her hippie heart.
I first arrived at the Spanish Renaissance palace as an 18-year-old freshman wearing new tweed slacks with an invisible zipper that sat below the waistband. I’d made the pants from a Vogue Paris Original pattern and installed the difficult zipper myself, in perfect symmetry, with my new Singer sewing machine. I spent more money than usual for the required two-plus yards of fabric. But as I took in my new surroundings, I was happy I did.
The year was 1968, and I was a freshman entering the inaugural class of Flagler College. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my appreciation, understanding and love of art was seeded at that moment inside the stunning walls of Ponce de León Hall. It would be years before I cultivated this infatuation, and even longer before I realized artistic talent was in my blood.
Lake City, Florida, is where I was born and raised. Originally, it was a Seminole town named Alligator Village, but rumor has it that the name was changed in 1859 when the mayor’s wife didn’t want to hang her lace curtains in a town named Alligator. What a brat! Clearly, she ruled the mayor.
I grew up on the edge of one of the city’s many lakes. Black water moccasins and alligators frequented our cypress dock, which stretched over the lake’s murky water. The nasty reptiles resting on our sun-bleached dock were ordinary fixtures of life in Lake City. Consequently, it desensitized me to snakes, gators, spiders and just about all bugs (excluding roaches).
It was all part of life in the Sunshine State, the place where I was planted and nourished, and where I eventually sprouted and blossomed into who I would become. In elementary school, I was taught by nuns straight from Ireland. By the time I left Epiphany Catholic School, the moral fiber threading through my being was thick. It’s a darn good thing, since I was a wild child with a free spirit and a bohemian twist.
Football was the beating heart of Lake City; the towners anticipated the game all week. In high school, I was a cheerleader at this championed event every Friday night of the season. Our stadium seats were always packed. To be honest, I never understood the game. Sometimes I wasn’t sure who even had the ball. More than once I cheered for the wrong team, even did a split midair when the other team scored a touchdown. And it was my best split ever.
Every Saturday night was the VFW dance when the Jades, a local band, played. My boyfriend at the time was one of the singers. Deborah, my older sister, and I would head to town after lunch to buy designer patterns and fabric to sew our Saturday-night outfits: bell-bottoms and halter tops. It was a time when girls could sew. And we did, every Saturday. We wore the new outfits hours later. We’d do it again the next week, thinking ourselves so original, despite the fact that our designs came straight from the Butterick pattern book.
Everyone knew everyone’s business in Lake City. And, by the way, nothing’s changed—they still do. It was hard to get away with anything, though we certainly tried. My sister was blamed for everything that happened to us, and rightly so.
Our father, Lou Landrum, was the town doctor who specialized in everything: obstetrics, gynecology, cardiology, internal medicine, geriatrics, urology, psychology. His medical clinic housed a laboratory, an X-ray center, a physical therapy department and a host of employees, which included my sister and me. I was fourteen and she was sixteen when he hired us. We never applied for jobs; it was a nonnegotiable hiring.
With only minimal training (we quickly watched these procedures done once), I irrigated ears, dispensed B12 shots, assisted in surgery (dabbed blood with sponges while wearing too-big surgical gloves), filed insurance claims and failed miserably at sheeting female patients for Pap smears. Their feet would be so tangled up I could hear my father yelling from the examination room. “Goddammit, Prissy!”
I also secretly dispensed birth control pills to girlfriends who wanted them. I’m thinking I’m safe writing that now, right? What with the statute of limitations—not to mention the fact that my poor daddy has been buried for many years.
One particular day, my sister and I made the unanimous decision that we needed to tan our pasty white bodies. It trumped tending to sick people. We packed up our baby oil and iodine, snacks, water bottles and the latest Seventeen magazine and took off for the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, a few miles down the road from Jacksonville Beach.
We timed the whole deceitful day to the minute. It would take two hours to drive there, three hours to tan our fronts, three hours to tan our backs, then drive the two hours home. We’d beat our daddy/employer back to the house, then tell him we were way too sick to be around his delicate patients.
Our sunburns should have been punishment enough. Not so. He threw our skinny, sunburned bodies into the car the next day and hauled us on a ten-hour car trip to North Carolina to deliver Gina, our baby sister, to summer camp.
When we finally arrived, he discovered there was no room at the inn for his two delinquent daughters. He boarded us at the nearby boys’ camp right next to where they stayed. I swear. I couldn’t make that up.
You would think that experience would have tamed us. Hardly.
Our next jaunt came a few months later when we snuck off to Daytona Beach for spring break—in the middle of the night on a Greyhound bus. I know. Crazy! Stupid!
Yes, we got caught. And yes, it was brutal. Was it worth it? Honestly, I think so. We had a blast, and it remains one of my more priceless adolescent memories. What makes it so is the identity of the inebriated guy who drove us home when we had no money for the return ticket on the Greyhound.
He turned out to be one of this country’s favorite college football coaches, taking his team to the championships more than once. I smiled every time I watched him on the sidelines of another big game, recalling that day at Daytona Beach. The combined smell of rum, Coppertone and sea air had infused my senses and turned an ordinary day—for this small-town girl—into an adventure.
After high school, I headed off to Flagler College. With no car, the most adventurous thing I did was buy motor oil and use it to help accelerate my suntan. Okay, maybe I smoked a joint or two. But I never inhaled.
Love for a boy drew me from Flagler College to Florida State University. I wouldn’t know it then, but one day I would learn how this boy would change my life. He would become my second husband, and part of the journey that brought me back to the stage at Flagler College.
I met my first husband in the fall of 1970, my junior year at FSU. He was a serious law student and had no time for a sorority girl’s partying ways. Piece by piece, I began the transformation that would define me for the next three decades—a left-hand version of my right-handed self.
I parked my gold snake bracelet, the one that wrapped around my upper arm, inside my jewelry box. I pulled the pearl necklace I’d received as a gift over my head and clasped it. My combat boots were stashed away. They were replaced with Pappagallo flats and the conservative fashion trending that year.
I was invited into the Junior League, though I’d never heard of it. I answered to Priscilla when I was introduced to an important client, a politician or a dignitary. I was another version of me, just dressed to match everyone else, but remained my happy-go-lucky self.
Then the unexpected came. Cancer reared its ugly head. It happens. A lot. Tragedy sabotaged our family and stole my husband in the prime of his life. I cycled through grief on the overused road called survival.
In the aftermath of my husband’s death, I retreated within my own being to search for answers—mainly, how to find joy again. I elected to pull out my combat boots and go to work rediscovering my original self, the girl who was forgotten. Piece by piece, day by day, came strength and resurrection. I enrolled in an art class, and soon my paintings of children, pets, landscapes and barns were hanging in the homes of my family and friends.
I gifted all my beautiful, ladylike jewelry to my daughters and began to replace it with funky, one-of-a-kind treasures made by local artisans. I donated all the clothes and shoes that had stifled me and replaced them with the boho-chic style I loved. I joined a Tae Bo class and kicked ass three times a week. And, after almost three decades, I entered the dating world and met my second husband.
Seated next to the president of Flagler College, inside the breathtaking dining hall filled with exquisite murals, I await my introduction as keynote speaker to an audience of more than 350 women. It’s my first time back in this room after 48 years.
What brings me here is my first go at being an author, my memoir of my first husband’s illness, Far Outside the Ordinary. It may be the personal story of a Florida girl and her imperfections, mistakes and regrets, but it is a universal story of survival and finding your way through the darkness.
As I climb the stairs to applause inside the Ponce de León Hall, my heart skips. So much has changed since the first time I was here, yet so much is the same.