When we came here in fifteen or so years ago, Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden was a magical oasis tucked in the middle of a block in Key West, a small forest said to be the last undeveloped acre in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. Full of winding paths and trees it was the rarest of spaces: loved, carefully tended, and shared with the public as a gift of beauty. But even then it felt besieged. In 2012 taxes and expenses became too much and Nancy sold off parcels to developers. From an article in Key News:
The tucked-away entrance to Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden off Free School Lane in the 500 block of Simonton Street will be closed to the public after today, as finances and property taxes have forced Forrester to sell the land parcels that have housed an artist’s cottage and gallery, parrots, orchids, rare palms, meandering pathways and a meditative garden for more than four decades.
These days the garden has been reduced to a small backyard on Elizabeth Street which Nancy uses as a rescue parrot refuge. In the mornings she gives educational lectures on the birds, full of facts about their brilliant behavior, the destruction of their native habitats, and gentle lectures about how we can all protect native parrot habitats by living more lightly on the land (hint: no red palm oil or beef). From behind the fence came the sounds of a swimming pool being installed in the cutdown middle of the former garden. Nancy has life tenancy on the ill-repaired house where she lives with the parrots.
I don’t know the details of the real estate transactions or Forrester’s finances but I find it incredible that Key West couldn’t rally around one of its living treasures. I’m glad that Nancy remains along with her parrots and I’m grateful my kids got a chance to meet her.
I was ambushed while leaving the Elmer Swim Club today by a guy I’ve never met who told me never to return, then told me he’s a vice president of the governing association, and then told me he had papers inside to back him up. Although it was meant to look like an accidental run-in as we were walking out, it was clear it was staged with the manager on duty.
The problem is the behavior of our soon-to-be 10 yo Francis. He is difficult. He gets overwhelmed easily and doesn’t respond well to threats by authority figures. We know. He’s autistic. We deal with it every day. There’s no excusing his behavior sometimes. But there’s also no missing that he’s a deeply sweet human who has troubles relating and is making heroic strides toward learning his emotions. We driven the extra distance to this swim club for years because it’s been a place that has accepted us.
People at Elmer — well most of them — haven’t dismissed Francis as our problem, but have come together as an extended family to work through hard times to help mold him. He’s made friends and we’ve made friends. The swim club’s motto is that it’s the place “Where Everyone is Family” and we found this was the rare case where a cheesy tag line captured something real. Family. You don’t just throw up your hands when someone in the family is difficult and gets disrespectful when they get socially overwhelmed.
The VP was a control-your-kids kind of guy, clearly unaware of the challenges of raising an autistic kid — and clearly unwilling to use this parking lot moment as a learning opportunity. I tried to stay human with him and explain why this particular community was so special. The swim coaches always cheered our kids on despite always coming in dead last — not only that, but even put Francis in relay races! There have always been lots of extra eyes watching him and willing to redirect him when he started melting down. Most of the time he needs a drink, a snack, or some quiet sensory time. To be in a community that understood this is beyond miraculous for autism families. The worst thing is to start to scream or threaten, which unfortunately is some people’s default. Some authority figures know how to earn Francis’s trust; others just make things worse over and over again. At Elmer the latter finally won out.
We first started coming to this pool for swim lessons in 2009. After six years becoming more involved in this deeply welcoming community, I had started to allow myself to think we had found a home. I’d daydream of the day when Francis would be 18, graduating from the swim team and people would give him an extra rousing cheer when his name was called at the end-of-season banquet. We’d all tell stories with tears in our eyes of just how far he had come from that 9yo who couldn’t control his emotions. And we were at the point where I imagined this as a central identity for the family – the place where his older brother would sneak his first kiss on the overnight campout, or where his younger siblings would take their first courageous jumps off the high dive.
Julie’s making calls but I’m not holding my breath. What happened is an breathtakingly overt violation of the club association’s bylaws. But would we even feel safe returning? Francis is easily manipulated. It only takes a few hardened hearts at the top who believe autism is a parenting issue — or who just don’t care to do the extra work to accommodate a difficult child.
Fortunately for us, for a while we had a place that was special. The Elmer Swim Club and Elmer Swim Team will always have a special place in our hearts. Our thanks to all the wonderful people there. Here’s some memories:
Movie night at Elmer Swim Club the other week — Francis relaxes and self-soothes in the water.
Gregory gets his first end-of-season Elmer Swim Club participation award for swim team
Francis would sometimes leave early for relays so Elmer Swim Team Coach T. stood with him to help him understand when to go.
Gregory learning the kickboard on the Elmer Swim Team.
Francis at the Elmer pool in 2014.
Gregory’s first meet on the Elmer Swim Team, 2014. This meet was at home at the Elmer Swim Club pool.
Theo taking Elmer Swim Club-sponsored lessons in 2009.
For Laura and Gregory, summer means the Elmer pool.
Update: Our post shedding light on the Elmer Swim Club’s trustee misbehavior and the board’s violation of its own bylaws has now had over 1800 Facebook interactions (shares, likes, comments) and the blog post itself has been read 9,970 times. Terms like “autism elmer pool” are trending on our incoming Google searches and the post looks like it will be a permanent top-five search result for the pool. Although our family will never set foot in its waters again, our absence will be a remain a presence. Discussions over what happened will continue for years.
I share these stats to encourage people to talk about misbehavior in the public sphere. It doesn’t help civil society to bury conflict in the tones of hushed gossip. Just as we as parents work every day to help our autistic son make better decisions, all of us can insist that our community organizations follow best practices in self-governance and abide by their own rules. Bylaws matter. Parking lot civility matter. Kids should be held responsible for their actions. So should trustees.
One of the most famous scenes in the AMC show Mad Men comes near the end of season one. Kodak has asked the advertising firm to create a campaign around a new slide projector that has a circular tray. Don Draper presents the Carousel and gives a nostalgia-steeped presentation that use his personal photographs to move both the Kodak execs and the viewers at home, who know that these semi-focused pictures will soon be all that left of his disintegrating family.
No falling apart family for me, but I find myself already feeling nostalgic for a family vacation to Disney World that doesn’t start for another six days. I’ve recently been looking through our Flickr archive of past trips (four for me) and realize that they are our Carousel. The start with my fiancée taking a cynical me on my first trip. Later visits bring kids to the photographic lineup: newly-found legs to run, the joys of messy ice cream, the scare of not-very-scary rides and the big eyes of parades all run through the sets.
In less than a week we’ll start a new set. There will be two new children in this one. “The babies” are both walking and toddling and are at their peak of baby photogenic cuteness. The older two are real kids now and the eldest is starting to show early glimpses of teenage-hood: eye-rolling, exhalation of air (“uh!”) to show disapproval of inconvenient parental instructions.
Iconic family pictures will happen. Since our last visit five years ago, my wife’s lost her father to cancer and my mother’s been slipping into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s. As the wheel of life turns it somehow becomes more possible to see ourselves as part of the turning Carousel. Some decades from now I can imagine myself going through these pictures surrounded by indulging children and antsy grandchildren, exclaiming “look how young everyone looks!”