The water has been a constant in my life. For most of it I lived within walking distance, smelling distance, if not right on the shore. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City beneath the Throg’s Neck Bridge, sailing and waterskiing. In Greenwich Village, in the far west, I lived a few short blocks away from the Hudson River. In Malibu, California, I lived right on the sand for eighteen years and for seventeen more I lived in the mountains above the Pacific with views that take one’s breath away. I saw dolphin regularly not ten feet from shore, and whales spouting and breaching as they migrated north to Alaska and then south to Baja, Mexico. And on vacations there were the oceans of the islands of Hawaii, and the Caribbean. And then in Kenya, I was treated to the most beautiful beach of all in Lamu, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean – eight miles of uninhabited beach right outside my door.
Now I live in Celebration, Florida, near Disney World. I have to make do for most of the year with a pool, except for yearly vacations in a small cottage on the Gulf of Mexico on my beloved Anna Maria Island on the Gulf of Mexico. If I am very fortunate, it will be my last home and I will end my days there, happy to swim beside dolphins and schools of small silver fish circling my legs, and walk the beach sunrise and sunset looking for turtle nests and shells.
On my bucket list is the South Pacific…Tahiti and Bora Bora, of course, and the smaller islands beyond. I long to return to the islands of the Indian Ocean; the Seychelles, Madagascar, Reunion, Zanzibar, the coast of Kenya…always Kenya. I hope there will still be time to see it all again.
I was a smart girl…I always loved school, loved the library, loved to write. I was an artistic child, too, painting and sketching right from the view from my bedroom window…forsythia, lilacs, the swing set in the backyard.
I went away to college at fifteen, to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA, having skipped both the fifth and the eighth grades. Still a little girl, I roomed in a dorm with girls who were twenty years old with a great deal to teach me about the world and men. I learned how to sneak out of the dorm, but never did it.
And I was a hippie flowerchild, with lace-up sandals, embroidered peasant blouses from Mexico and Indonesia, flowing skirts to my ankles, a braided leather headband and straight hair to my waist (curtesy of my iron and ironing board). I was a hippie in name only…I didn’t attend Woodstock, or run away to Haight Ashbury in San Fransisco, or walk through Manhattan barefoot.
I was all these things, but mostly I was a good girl, a girl who caused my parents no problems, no sleepless nights. I didn’t run away from home, like my brother did to become a boat builder, or steal my father’s car to drive into the East Village. I didn’t smoke, do drugs, drink or have sex, even in college. I had nice friends whom my parents liked. A good girl…a girl who liked to please.
What I did have was the ability to see myself accomplishing anything I wanted, and what I wanted was to go to Africa and be brave and committed like Jane Goodall, and to be a New York fashion designer like Betsy Johnson; two heroes as different as could be.
I had adored fashion magazines from early adolescence. I poured through them cover to cover, word for word, including the small advertisements in the back. I sketched detailed garments, taught myself proportion, how to illustrate different fabrics so one would read satin and another would read lace, or fur, or velvet. I studied how clothes were constructed by shopping in department stores and boutiques, and treated the shopping mall as a kind of museum. I could BE a designer because I loved it and I could make this dream happen. If I thought of myself as a designer, the world would allow me to be one.
And I continued to love Jane Goodall, making the world aware of chimpanzees as more than just big monkeys, living in the rainforest of Tanzania. I had started an Africa scrapbook when I was six, drawn for some unknown reason to the animals, landscapes and people of Africa. Jane Goodall featured largely in my scrapbook once her discoveries were published in Life and National Geographic magazines and televised on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. I loved her courage and faith in herself, her ability to persevere alone in the rainforest. She, too, had known what she wanted from a young age and had made it happen. I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I wanted Africa as well. I wanted it with a commitment of my own that made it happen for me as well.
For thirty-five years I designed clothes and traveled the world, but Africa continued as a force in my life from the time I spent in East Africa in my twenties and thirties, to my commitment to the young girls I mentored throughout my adult life. I straddled two worlds, the creative world of the clothing business and my freelance magazine writing in the West, and the natural, purposeful life in East Africa. I loved and wanted them both.
I moved to California in my mid- twenties, choosing to live a more casual lifestyle on the sands of Malibu and remained there for over thirty years that passed like a windstorm – a wonderful beach life of early morning swims, walks on the beach, dolphins and whales migrating in the distance, movie star neighbors, and Saturday night bonfires that helped to balance out my stressful business life. The pressure was great to come up with season after season of the latest but saleable fashion trends to all kind of stores from Target to Bloomingdale’s. I fully understood that scores of employees were counting on me to keep turning out the garments that would keep the factory doors open – sample makers, pattern makers, sellers, and warehouse shippers, mostly Mexican women new to Los Angeles, working hard and trying to make better lives for their families. The beach helped with the pressure, as did returning as often as I could to East Africa. I brought up a daughter on the beach which kept me busy with drives up and down Pacific Coast Highway, juggling school and work and travel, and an ever-changing cast of L.A. nannies and housekeepers: joyous days I wish I could replay at half-speed, not knowing then how quickly those days would pass.
Life surprises and changes. I had thought I would never leave Malibu; I would bring up my someday granddaughter on the beach as I had my daughter. But across the country in central Florida my dad died suddenly, my mom had a stroke and we had to sell her home and figure out the next stage of her life. My daughter was grown and on her own. I put my house on the market and sold it in eleven hours and I just moved to Orlando without a plan. I only wanted to be a good daughter and be there for my mom as I hadn’t for my father. My dad had died without me even knowing he’d been battling leukemia: it was how he had wanted it. I had one more parent, one more chance to get it right.