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Anhinga, King of the Boat House

I’ve been to Florida several times in the past decades, but always near the ocean: Miami Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Hollywood, Boca Raton, West Palm. Near the hype, the palm trees, the fresh squeezed orange juice, mile high chiffon pies, bone chilling air conditioning, the groomed, the tanned, the lovelies.

I visited this lakefront house in the north central part of Florida once, years ago; a visit best not noted. There were family flare ups, a sudden septic problem resulting in father and son digging a hole in the side yard, with the consequential restriction on bathroom usage, and an outside invasion of flies or gnats, or whatever they were, so thick one could not walk outdoors.

That night, with the backbreaking work completed, we were told to dress up “We’re going to a real nice restaurant for dinner.” We dressed up. We traveled in two cars, six of us. Midway there, the lead car, with Pater Familias driving, pulled over into a dusty parking lot in front of a shacky looking restaurant, the kind that might be featured on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’, but would not glean more than one star, sadly. It was announced “That other place is too far, we’ll eat here.” Barbecue was the feature, and the barbecuing took place out in the back yard, then brought in and served. Inside, it was hot, stuffy, and no stranger to flies; wooden picnic tables, family style. We were overdressed. I remember corn on the cob and beers. Jack, Pater Familias, laughed loud and hearty. That’s why he’s remembered and loved. Dishing out the unexpected and bringing everyone along for the ride.

This time around, Jack has gone to meet his maker and we are here to ready the house to be listed for sale. We shop at Walmart and the Family Dollar often over two weeks. We purchase vacuum cleaner, coffee pot, toaster, fry pan, sauce pan, (the man in Family Dollar quips as I walk by with the pan “Hope everything pans out for you Ma’am”) food staples, cleaning products, sponges, towels. Trips to Lowes for: sandpaper, spackle, paint, rags, mulch, white stones. Top soil is delivered, realtors arrive, neighbors stop by to find out what’s going on. The neighbor’s dog barks at me and runs to poop at the side of the house.

JR spends every waking moment in perpetual motion, dismantling the screen room that sustained damage in the last hurricane, spreading dirt, grading the yard, shoring up crevices near the dock, sanding, sanding, sanding, the oak front door in prep for staining, mulching, spreading stones, spackling inside, clamping cabinet doors, and collapsing each night in front of the TV. I wipe out cabinets and drawers, attack cobwebs, clean glass, prepare meals, do laundry, take it to the laundromat (dryer is broken), and escape to the library when I can where they have free wi-fi.

One watches the goings on in the lake, which sits a mere twelve feet from the back of the house. I take photos of sunsets. Living on the lake reminds me of my log cabin long ago when the glory of lakefront living was revealed to me, even as the elements up north attacked from every side. Here, we look first thing in the morning to gauge the weather. “The lake is calm, no wind!” JR announces after five days of wind and choppy water. “Blue sky!” we say to the new day. It is not lost on us that our upstate New York neighbors are experiencing arctic cold, yet still I hear myself whining “it’s only 42 degrees!” Its Florida, we Northerners come to expect warm and balminess, and a little sweating, not sweaters.

I saw the Anhinga (photo from the Smithsonian, Google images) on the first day. It sat on the railing, or sometimes on the roof, of the boat house. It’s the biggest bird on the lake; also called “Water Turkey.” I learn that the Anhinga does not have oil glands for waterproofing his feathers like most water birds. When he goes swimming, his feathers get wet. This helps him dive and chase fish under water. But, above water, he must spread his wings to dry in the sun; he can fly with wet feathers, but not as well.

The Anhinga doesn’t fly away as I inch closer and closer to snap his picture, but I can’t get close enough to capture his true majesty, his size and shape. Water birds on the lake are plentiful and varied, with coots and ducks, cormorants, egrets, osprey, herons, and frigate birds. One day a family of American white ibis' walks single file down the road. I wonder where they are bound. But the Anhinga reigns as King of the Lake.

One can understand how Jack chose to live at two lake houses in his later years, north in the Adirondacks and here in Florida. The water becomes an entertainer, a companion, a source of wonder, a nod of appreciation. I smile when I organize tools and what-all in his workshop. One sees evidence of his organizational strategy, his parsimony. Things were saved, even though they would never be used again, because “You never know.” The old microwave will go to the dump, the ragged throw rugs, the worn bedspread thrown over his ride on mower, nowadays a cozy habitat for mice. The two gallon sized Gallo jugs with pale yellow liquid that JR thought might be old chardonnay, turned out to be kerosene and gasoline; more Jack’s style. A hand saw with a beautifully hand carved handle hangs in a place of honor on the wall when many other tools are lying about. We think it belonged to JR’s grandfather.

I can believe that the Anhinga hanging out at the boat house drying his wings is Jack, sticking around to see that things get done. Diving for food when necessary, but overlooking the lake, his favorite vista.

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