Panama City, Florida.
Most people associate this city with sandy beaches and bars with an ocean view. But twenty minutes away from the beach is a small, quiet town. Most of the population is retirees and adults who have never seen another city, but there are kids and teenagers here and there—two of those being my cousins.
When I was younger, I spent most of my summers at my grandparents’ house in Panama City. My cousins are pretty much identical in age to my sister and me (my cousin, Liam, and I being four years younger than my sister Charlotte and Liam’s brother Daniel). My grandparents’ small, one-story house sits on a dead-end street. The backyard is the size of a football field, filled with growing trees and a junk shed that my grandfather hasn’t opened in fifteen years. I used to spend hours dreaming up what could possibly be hiding inside of that shed.
As a kid, I never noticed the tension between my grandparents, my family, and my cousins’ family. However, now that I’m almost eighteen, a lot has become clear to me.
Sit down, grab some coffee. We’re going to be diving into stories of drug abuse, suicide, internalized racism, externalized homophobia, a fight between my mother and the Baptist Church, and the lessons that I’ve learned from my summers in Panama City. And maybe, after all of these articles are over, I’ll let you know what turned out to be lurking inside of my grandfather’s junk shed.
My mom vs. the Baptist church.
Two weeks ago, I visited Panama City.
My grandparents requested that we meet them at Applebee’s at 10:00 PM. According to a rushed call from my grandfather, the reason why they would be meeting us so late was because they had been sitting in a funeral for the last two-and-a-half hours—this being their third funeral that week. It was only Wednesday.
My dad and I arrived at the restaurant a little after 9:45. My mom, sister, dad and I had all been together in Florida that morning at the beach to visit the ocean-view condo that my parents are planning to move into later this year. My sister left in the early afternoon to get back to her classes at Florida State University. My mom left shortly after.
I gave my grandparents an awkward hug as soon as they arrived. Next to them were two people around their same age, dressed in modest funeral clothes. They both shook my hand, clearly recognizing me, but I had absolutely no idea where we had ever met before.
I learned once I sat down and the unknown man opened his mouth to speak. “So, why haven’t you been back to church recently?”
As a child, whenever I visited my grandparents over a long weekend, they would take me to their local Baptist church with them. According to my grandmother, I used to sing and perform with the choir. She said had never seen me happier than I was during those few church hours. I smiled at the unknown elderly man, trying desperately to answer his question without sounding rude. My dad cut me off before I could reply, “Probably because I’m Jewish.”
On Sundays when I was home in Georgia, I spent six hours at my local synagogue learning Hebrew and preparing for my bat mitzvah ceremony. When it was finally time for me to choose the dress that I would wear for my Jewish transition into adulthood, I almost cried with relief and excitement. All of my friends and family would be coming to support me. Except, of course, my grandfather from Panama City who thought he would be forced to wear a yamaka if he attended.
My grandparents and their church are inseparable. The perfect partnership. In their opinion, the Bible is never metaphorical. If Corinthians 6:10 says that getting drunk is a sin against God’s wishes, all alcohol in the world should be destroyed. How my dad, who was raised in this Christian home, fell in love with a Jewish, party-loving democrat, I’ll never understand.
My grandparents hated my mom from the first day that my dad brought her home. The simple explanation is that they hate her because she’s different. She encourages her children and husband to travel to dangerous places like London and Canada. My mom thinks there’s plenty more to the world than Panama City—my grandparents undoubtedly disagree.
When I was younger, I was too immature to recognize her ostracisation, but as I’ve grown older, it is now painfully obvious to me as they stare at me in the same way that they’ve always stared at my mom. They can send me hundreds of Christmas cards filled with money, love, and blessings, but that stare has always told me the truth: I’ll never be the person that they so desperately want me to be.
A waiter approached our table and took our orders. Sweet teas all around. Let me tell you, there’s something incredibly unsettling about sitting in a Panama City Applebee's at 10:30 PM when your only company is four old people silently sipping sweet tea, judging your every move. Silence filled the air as we lacked a topic of conversation. Usually, after not seeing each other for such a long time, we would discuss the rest of our family members and what they had been up to recently. Tonight, nobody wanted to bring up my cousin awaiting a court hearing for possession of methamphetamine.
The topic would eventually be brought up as my trip continued, which is a longer story for a further article. But for now, we all sat in awkward silence, only broken by a prayer over our food.
It was going to be a long trip.