A Florida Wonderland

When we moved to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, everything was as white as a blank canvas. The walls of our square, flat-roofed home were brand-new, white plaster. White cement sidewalks were freshly laid, lining the new, smoothly-paved roads, and even the ground itself was white as sand.

“They just bulldozed through there, scraped it clean, and built on top,” my mom explains to me. We are looking through a box of old family photographs, and waxing nostalgic over a picture of me under our “little arbor” from our Florida garden. What started as a clean slate, the first of many, soon became a living masterpiece. “As it turns out,” my mom remembers, “that garden was the best one we ever made.”

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The picture of me underneath the “little arbor” my mom made out of twigs and jasmine flower vines.

My parents moved 13 times during my dad’s 23-year career in the Air Force. I was alive for 11 of them. I was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, and after a two-year stint at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, we arrived in Eglin, Florida. By then, I was about four, and I was eight when we left. It was the first house and garden catalogued in my childhood memory, and the longest time we spent consecutively, anywhere, ever.

When we first arrived, my mom met Megan, a “master gardener” who lived next door. When she first saw her, Megan was wearing a flower-print dress, standing on a garden path overflowing on all sides with colorful summer flowers, and smiling out at my mom from where she stood. Megan helped my mom set to work on our garden immediately—she gave my mom her first wheelbarrow (one with a hole in it which we still use today), and gave her tips on which flowers grew fastest and where to plant them. Eight hours a day, my mom was out in the yard digging up trenches, filling them with soil and stone, crafting the yard into the wonderland in which she would raise my sister and me.

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My sister, Jessica, standing under the same arbor in Florida when it was first constructed.

I remember the yard coming together almost overnight. Plants grew so quickly in the southern summer heat and humidity. The small arbor my mom built out of sticks for my sister and I was covered in thick jasmine flower vines within a matter of months. A dry river bed made of flat gray stones laid into a trench and lined with monkey grass formed the pathway that led up to the arbor from our front porch. Right outside the front door, a swing bench that my mom found on the curb, ready to be taken to a garbage dump, hung from the front porch ceiling. She repainted it and placed a cushion over its wooden seat, which soon thereafter housed a family of small green tree frogs who snuggled in between the wooden slabs. Oleander trees and a bigger, metal arbor were placed farther out in the front lawn. The large arbor was covered in a thick flowering vine as well, and lined on either side with large, heavy boulders. Many a family album included pictures of my sister and me underneath the smaller, hand-made arbor, or posed on top of one of the boulders. That yard took four years of work and all of my mother’s spending money to complete, and it was masterful.

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Me posed on top of one of the large boulders in the front yard, before the arrival of the larger, metal arbor which would be placed next to it.

The garden was recognized by the base authorities as “Most Improved Yard,” but to my sister and me, and to my mom, it was more than “improved.” It was magic. I was most enchanted by the “little arbor,” which my mom crafted by hand. She staked large sticks into the ground and wove smaller twigs together into an arch. Then she wrapped the creation with metal wire to secure it, and introduced the jasmine vine to complete the effect. The vine overtook the twigs quickly, and created a child-sized version of the larger arbor a few feet away. It smelled heavenly, and bloomed all summer long—often lingering into the fall. The plants growing on and near it attracted caterpillars, which revealed themselves to be Monarch butterflies after forming cocoons on the vines of our arbors. I used to wander out every day to watch those cocoons, wondering what they looked like, sleeping inside. Most of all, I wanted to witness their rebirth as butterflies.

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Me holding a monarch butterfly in our front yard.

Given that I could not be watching always, I missed the grand reveal, but the butterflies were my most memorable playmates. My sister and I would pretend we were princesses, reigning in our magical kingdom filled with flowers and golden-winged creatures. Mom taught us how to pick up the butterflies while they were drinking nectar from a flower, by slowly coaxing them onto our pinky fingers from behind. Their small, sticky legs clung to my finger trustingly, and sometimes they would even land on my nose. I dreamed of them, dreamed of flying with them, drifting lazily over my Florida Wonderland.

The efforts my mom put into building that garden for us were immense, but she never seemed to get jaded. When the outside of our home was complete, she tended to its ongoing needs while simultaneously shifting her focus to the inside of our home. She painted murals all over the walls: “I couldn’t afford paintings then, so I just painted the walls myself!” she said, circling her arms in front of her to demonstrate the action. Even the ceilings were not safe—they were painted blue and sponged with white to give the effect of a cumulus-filled sky. The white memory of the base environment upon arrival was nearly forgotten then, filled in with the brightest of colors, and the imagination of my sister and I as young playmates.

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My sister under the “little arbor” with her doll, when the jasmine was in full bloom.

When we moved away from Florida, on our way to Edwards for the second time of four, we left the garden where it was, rooted into the ground. “You couldn’t just dig it up and take it with you. It was too beautiful,” my mom explained. The memory of my love for the garden made this hard to believe—I wanted her to tell me that we took it all with us, and carried with it all of its magic, all of its beauty and years of growth. She did not understand my sense of loss. “It’s not lost,” she said, “You just have to start again.”

And start again we did. The Florida garden was the first, the fastest growing, and possibly the most beautiful garden we had, given the rainy climate and the four years it had to grow. Still, it was not the last. In each of the nine homes thereafter, I can remember a beautiful garden, and never a word of complaint, never a tear shed or a lament of loss from my mother. Every new home was a new adventure, a blank slate to splash with color. My mom, now a professional oil painter, compared the moves and renewals with her daily work: “It’s just like a painting!” she grinned broadly, “Someone buys it, and it’s gone,” she continued, flicking her wrist to the side, “So you just paint another one!”

Although I cannot say that it was always easy for me to move and start over, with new friends and a new environment every year or two, I can say that my mom’s attitude made things easier. Her excitement and energy, seemingly tireless, inspired me to see every move as a new adventure. She taught me that a blank slate—white walls and sandy soil—is an opportunity to create beauty in the world around you; to add a little color that wasn’t there before. Every new home lent us a new garden, and after a season of work, we grew a little magic all our own, straight from the ground.


Kayla Tarlton thinks she is a songbird, and now her family does, too. She has, however, come to terms with the idea that she cannot fly. (Yet.) Send her an email at kayla.tarlton@yale.edu.

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