A Florida Thing: On Reading with My Grandmother in Quarantine & Starting Our Florida Podcast
by Tyler Gillespie
My earliest memories of my grandmother revolve around books. I stayed with my grandparents some weekday nights because my mom woke before the sun for her morning shifts as a waitress. On those nights, I’d climb into my grandparents’ bed as my grandmother, who I call Gramel, opened a book about faraway places or fun characters, my favorites the Berenstain Bears and Chip Hilton. My punishment for acting up—usually because of my “smart mouth”—was to be sent to bed without a story. It wasn’t until years later I learned my no-reading punishment was unusual; other kids saw reading as the punishment.
As I got older, we’d alternate chapters. She’d read the first, then I’d read the next. I always liked it better when she read to me because she’d do funny voices for each character. Early literacy experiences like I had with Gramel proved fundamental to who I’d become as a person and as a professional. Now, at 33 years old, I’m a published author and writing teacher at the University of Mississippi.
I usually don’t teach during the summer, so I often spend them at Gramel’s house in my home state of Florida. I feel fortunate to be able to do this, especially during the pandemic. My grandmother lives alone and suffers from the lung disease chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). After the semester ended, I wanted to get home to her as soon as possible since she’d essentially decided to stay inside until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. We’ve always been close, even though we inhabit different worlds—I’m an out gay man and she’s a Southern Baptist who’s become more open as the years passed. I worried I might be exposed to COVID on my drive, so I only made two stops for gas—without going inside—on my 13-hour trip from Mississippi to Florida.
We had spent previous summers outside taking trips to the beach, going to restaurants, watching the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs. We’d often go on these trips with my mom and younger brother John, who spent some summer nights with us. On those nights, Gramel would read to him as she once did to me. Because of my grandmother’s condition, we decided we’d stay home and limit our time with my brother and Mom who had to go back to her waitressing job during the first wave of reopens.
The decision to social distance from my family members I love dearly has been gut-wrenching; they live less than two miles from us. Many families know this feeling all too well as they have made similar decisions; other families have experienced an even greater loss and my heart goes out to them. As the number of new COVID cases continue to spike in Florida, we have been doing our best to keep each other safe.
In my first few weeks in Florida, I finished edits for my forthcoming nonfiction collection The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State (out April 2021). Then, after I submitted my manuscript, I had nothing to do. I slept later than I have since a teenager. I watched reality TV all day. I realized I was slightly depressed.
During this time, Gramel read. As she tells it, she reads every day from “about seven or eight books—a Bible study book, then the Bible, a devotional, a portion of a book on thankfulness, a section from Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s Gutsy Women, some of Danielle Steele, a book for book club with Judy, and, at night, a Hallmark book.” I thought it might help me get out of my funk to read with her.
I also thought reviewing books with my grandmother would make a fun podcast. I had wanted to start a podcast for a few years but always hesitated because of the time commitment. In quarantine, I had time, and my grandmother is funny, wise and outspoken, so she made the perfect cohost to, as we say, put some sunshine in people’s ears. She had never heard of a podcast and kept asking me if people would be able to watch us during the episodes. I told her, no, people would just listen—like they did the radio programs back in the day. She said, “Oh, good, then I don’t need to wear lipstick.”
Our podcast, A Florida Thing, expanded from a discussion of books into stories of our lives and the Florida history, news and culture we’d known. We talked about retirement and the Villages. We discussed Florida food like swamp cabbage and Granny Lula’s fried chicken. We reminisced about going to casinos together and tied this into a chat about the need for greyhound adoption after the state’s recent dog racing ban. We also interviewed special guests like former Tampa Bay Times food section editor Janet Keeler and even Florida State Representative Jennifer Webb. Through these discussions, I learned a lot about Florida and also about Gramel—how she ate the tails of mullet caught by uncle Tommy, the times she watched Aunt Annie feed her backyard pond alligators, the way she bought a new mattress after my grandfather died because the old one still smelled faintly of his cologne.
Since we’re both Florida crackers who love a good theme, we chose to read books by Floridians and interview the authors. We read Susanna Daniel’s Stiltsville that follows a woman who navigates children and family and centers on a real water top community in Miami. We read Craig Pittman’s Cat Tale about the near extinction—but ultimate survival—of the Florida panther as well as Sarah Gerard’s gripping novel about complicated relationships in True Love.
We read about poker and family dynamics in Gale Massey’s thriller The Girl from Blind River and about Gene Patterson, a progressive southern journalist during the Civil Rights era in The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968 edited by Roy Peter Clark and Raymond Arsenault. We read two anthologies—one Tampa Bay Noir, and the other a collection of Florida writers—like Kristen Arnett and Jaquira Díaz—called We Can’t Help It If We’re from Florida: New Stories from a Sinking Peninsula.
Quarantine may have shrunk our physical lives to our home, but reading these books and talking about them with my grandmother helped me remember there’s still hope, love and adventure beyond our walls.
Tyler Gillespie is an award-winning journalist and a poet. His work has been featured in several notable publications, including GQ, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. He published a collection of poems titled Florida Man, and he teaches writing at the University of Mississipi.