An excerpt from Make Something Good Today, Erin and Ben's memoir about seeking out the good in life, celebrating the beauty of family and friends, and prospering within our communities—because everything we need to be happy in life is within our grasp.
There's something about the history and majesty of old towns. They tell us who we were, which helps us understand who we are. There's a tendency for us to forget or disregard the old in favor of the new, but ben and I have always embraced it. Just as people come from somewhere, places and objects do, too; it's up to people to make sure they don't get buried and forgotten. This has been something of a mission in our lives.
That summer found us hitting the road on a leisurely five-hour drive with our bikes on the back and a cooler full of drinks. We swerved down back roads and through tiny towns across Mississippi, Alabama, and finally Florida, and made it to Wakulla Springs.
My aunt Cheryl, who is not actually my aunt, had been visiting there every summer for years. She and my mom have been close friends forever, and she had convinced us that we had to stay for at least one night on our way down to St. Augustine. Ben was elated: no Internet, no TV, no phone service. I'm another story, but Ben is built to unplug.
In Wakulla Springs we stayed at a very old, idyllic Mediterranean-style lodge hidden deep within the swamps of a national forest. It rose like a n apparition from the earth at the end of a long, winding driveway covered by oaks dripping with Spanish moss that blotted out the sun. The lodge sat beside the deepest freshwater spring in the world, where manatees and alligators played next to a rope meant to keep swimmers in and creatures out. Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed there, and entire mammoth skeletons had been pulled from the springs — two facts that give me shivers. The movie played on a quiet loop in the nearly silent lobby, a grand and cavernous place, all marble with hand-painted motifs on the coffered ceilings. An enormous wood-burning fireplace sat empty, but its smell was everywhere, remaining me of Christmas out of context, a feeling I always liked.
The lodge wasn't tied just to America's past but to my own. My grandmother's family used to come to the very same place on vacation when she was a teenage girl. One night I ha been at Mammaw's house in search of old family photographs for a family wall. When I opened the hope chest at the foot of her bed, I found a photo she had taken of her sisters posing in front of the fanciest hotel they'd ever been to in their young lives. I took that photo along to Wakulla Springs and held it up to the hotel's current incarnation.
The next day we drove across to Florida to St. Augustine, my favorite place in the world. The place where my life had almost happened.
I've been visiting St. Augustine since I was ten years old, a tomboy in Umbros and a baseball cap with a ponytail through the back. Even then I knew that the oldest city in the United States was different from any place I would ever visit again. It was singular in a way that even a young mind can grasp. It wasn't an airbrushed tourist town or a manufactured strew of nostalgia; it was something altogether different. I could feel it in the air, and in my bones. I still can.
Mama used to tell me stories of visiting St. Augustine when she was a child on their way to Cape Canaveral. She was captivated by Ripley's Believe It or Not, a novelty museum of creepy wonders from around the world, which was a housed in an old castle. My grandfather, a hardened World War II vet, kept a trolley ticket stub from that trip in 1967, a yellowed, ragged piece of paper that was more valuable to me than gold.
As Ben and I crossed rural marshes and bridges, I felt as though we'd driven into a seaside European town. Then the modern buildings on the outskirts gave way to ancient, authentic Spanish architecture near the heart of the city.
Around every corner had a new discovery, a little adventure: a secondhand bookstore, a lanky, leaning bed-and-breakfast with lanterns glowing on the porch, a vintage jewelry shop, an English restaurant with fish and and chips, a city gate that's been standing rock solid since the early 1700s. I felt the breeze off Matanzas Bay, and I wanted out of the car so that I could submerge myself in all of it.
Later we passed the sights that called up my childhood in bright color: the Butterfield Garage Art Gallery in an old service station; Villa Zoraida Museum, where, where I had once seen a mummy hand inside a glass case; cobblestoned Aviles Street with all different national flags hanging from the balconies; DeNoël French Pastry Shop, where the same family had been making the same croissants for fifty years; the grand Casa Monica Hotel across from Flagler College, the school that hadn't let me in, that couldn't find a place for me. The decision— someone else's— that had set me on the course I was still on.
Coming back again to that city, I realized that I didn't have to go there for it to become part of me. As I tried to do in my work and my journal and my life, I could just extract the good. I took away all the parts of that city that most affected me — the architecture, the history, the tall tales and hidden secrets— to call on when I need inspiration. Ben has to remind me often, "Everything'll turn out fine. It always has. Always will." He was right, as he so often is. Circumstance and luck have led to the only life that makes sense for me. There's an inevitability to it that brings me warmth, and I try to hold tight to that fact. I am where I should be. We are all where we should be.