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Snowbirds, Snow Leopards, and Other Exotic Beasts

It's February! How are your New Year's resolutions holding up? I am slaying my goal to BE BESTIAL, and it is making me feel like a natural woman.

When the record-shattering Midwest polar vortex struck during the record-smashing government shutdown, instead of going into hibernation mode as we would normally do, this time my family took a harrowing chance on migration--and we made it! And sweet baby Zeus, it was satisfying. We took the snowbird route from Michigan to Florida, traveling with my parents and brother to visit my mother-in-law (Nonna) in Pasco County. Nonna is no longer a snowbird, having settled permanently in the Sunshine State; she has now evolved into a snow leopard (explanation to follow below).

The timing of our trip could not have been better. We slipped out and back into Michigan right between two catastrophic winter storms and two government shutdowns, and we managed to take a long vacation during the school year with no more than two absences on record for our daughter--because only TWO of the past NINE school days have not been canceled for snow, ice, and/or severely subzero temperatures. We were very fortunate to escape and return precisely when we did. Travel was so difficult in general during this time that we enjoyed less-than-full flights and heavenly weather at the height of tourist season in Florida--with nobody in line at Busch Gardens. There were times when they let us just stay on the roller coasters without getting off, over and over again. Miraculously, no one barfed--except my husband, after one night of doing shots with his mother--she had homemade limoncello and a handsomely appointed liquor cabinet. Oops.

Anyway, when we arrived at Nonna's happy home in the subtropics, we wasted no time in gloating like savages from the hot pink front porch.

My daughter posed by a snowman planter while I stretched my snow white legs clad in mom-length cutoff shorts over a pair of paving stones in the shape of our frigid home state.

And speaking of front yard savagery, Nonna keeps a Halloween inflatable dragon with flapping wings and glowing "fire" in its belly operating at all hours of the day and night (except when we pulled the plug for a better night's sleep). Her name is Baby, and she is sporting a pink neck bow to masquerade as a seasonally appropriate Valentine's Day decoration.

Nonna has absolutely no more flying feathers to give about anything other than loving life at this point. She has lived through many hardships: abandonment by her alcoholic father, a traumatic attack by a rabid dog in childhood, single motherhood in her teens, domestic violence, near-fatal miscarriages, the loss of her only daughter the same year she found out her first husband was gay (followed by a quick divorce), caring for the great love of her life (my father-in-law) with all of her heart and soul and bodily strength after a severely disabling traumatic brain injury, losing him to an early death, also caring for and losing her mother to a lengthy struggle with dementia, and surviving her own major injuries and health issues. She is now fit and strong, having lost approximately 100 pounds, gone through joint replacement and other major surgeries to fix herself up, healed from alcoholism and disordered eating, and acquired a personal trainer who has helped her get into better shape than most of her friends who are decades younger.

In recent years, Nonna has dyed her hair the blonde shade of her own infant locks, purchased a sexy new wardrobe, and developed a habit of going out dancing all night long at reggae clubs. (But no later than 2:00 a.m. on Saturday nights because she has to be up for her Byzantine rite Mass every Sunday morning!) Almost every day, she volunteers at her church, the local historical society, the gardening club, or with a program that teaches English to refugees. She keeps a lively social calendar--dates with various men, outings with girlfriends, trips and parties and benefit dinners. Next week, she'll be hosting her bestie since forever, a mid-Michigan judge many years younger than herself who immigrated from the US Virgin Islands and is now fostering a beautiful, lively toddler. The two bosom buddies often dream of moving in together after both are retired--on an island in the Caribbean. I can absolutely see that happening. 

I know that Nonna would hate for me to reveal this, so please don't rat me out, friends, but her current age no longer begins with a "5" or even a "6." She credits her youthful vibe to liberal use of sunscreen, which I'm sure helps, but I have to believe it's 99% attitude. She isn't looking for another marriage ever again and isn't even that interested in exclusive dating, but her #1 squeeze at this time is a Colombian professional dancer who is younger than her eldest son.

Which brings us to the term "snow leopard." Before our trip to Florida, I had a chat with my writing partner and snarky, sexy romance author Meika Usher, about the definition of the term "cougar." (I know, I know, we should be past this as a society and stuff, but we raunchy authors love a conversation about dirty word definitions.) We determined that man-candy-lovin' Meika is too young to be called a cougar for dating a guy just a few years younger (I believe "puma" is acceptable now that she has passed the 30 mark), and also that "cougar" isn't a descriptive enough word for my fabulous mother-in-law and her truly epic love life. I said, "What do you even call an elderly woman who--" and Meika looked me dead in the eye and suggested, "Snow leopard."

I literally died, and then the perfection of this coinage gave me life all over again, so here I am writing about it. Thank you, Meika!

Nonna is an inspiration. Her home is filled with things like vases of peacock feathers, boas, antique furs and silks, jewels, fans, parasols, faux Moroccan gilt screens, and stripper shoes. It's a little girl's dress-up dream. In between rounds of skinny dipping in Nonna's privacy-fenced-and-screened pool, my daughter created a series of beautifully bestial fashion designs in an activity book she'd brought with her.

Being at Nonna's house makes me feel a bit like Cleopatra. The men who knew Cleopatra described her as not having the most beautiful face they'd ever seen but having an attitude that made her irresistible nevertheless. At Nonna's house, I feel languorous and beautiful by osmosis. Who wants to spend their vacation wrestling with makeup brushes and hot tools? A chaise lounge in the sunshine makes you feel like an instant goddess.

My husband and I celebrated our 13-year elopement anniversary by walking downtown for lunch at a Cuban bistro. It was misting rain outside, but so warm and glowy and laid-back. I scrubbed my face, put on a little concealer and mascara, dressed in a pair of faux snake sandals, a pair of athletic shorts, a slip, redneck braids, and $5 earrings from a souvenir shop.

...earrings which, for most of the trip, I wore with other rainbow-colored accessories also purchased from souvenir shops. Like a basic beast.

My Hawaiian-shirted husband and I blended in with the foliage like well-camouflaged predators feeding upon our beef empanada and cubano sandwich.

Part of being bestial means getting in touch with your body, so we didn't feast upon rich meats every day. It also felt good to follow Nonna's lead and enjoy local fruits, vegetables, and simple home-cooked meals. After all, devouring plants is just as bestial as eating meat. The giraffes and elephants at Busch gardens exhibited a mighty appetite for wholesome greens.

We almost made it through our whole vacation without sampling our family's nutritional kryptonite, ice cream, but Hellas, the big Greek restaurant at Tarpon Springs, served unicorn ice cream, so...!

The big Greek restaurant also featured a dumbfounding waitstaff of Hella hot big Greek manz. I don't think I have ever been in a room with so many devastatingly attractive men in my entire life. While the surrounding areas of Florida are mainly populated by variations on #FloridaMan and #FloridaWoman (as seen on Twitter and TV), the Greek settlement of Tarpon Springs boasts a population of tall, stacked, gorgeous hunks in sharp attire, who all have the same sultry Mediterranean accent no matter how many generations of their family have been born in the United States. I love my husband, who is obviously a handsome man, but.

It took Nonna for-flipping-ever to walk to the restroom and back to the door, not because of her replacement hip but because she cannot pass by a godlike dreamboat without chatting him up, and there were about a dozen of them between the facilities and the exit. Greeks, by the way, are known for eating a lot of vegetables, much like the majestic giraffes at the theme park. These were helpful observations for me to make. Monkey see, monkey do.

I ate all my vegetables on this vacation, soaked up all the sun I could without burning to a crisp, immersed myself in nature at every opportunity, and slept like a lion.

I did not follow the news (besides checking the weather in my hometown frequently to laugh at the misfortunes of others). When my parents turned on the State of the Union address on their condo TV, I told them to shut that garbage off, and they did, and we all laughed and watched no more TV.

It was refreshing.

As if we were all raised by wolves, we frolicked in the sea and sand and forests and fields and spent lots of quality time with family without bothering to check Twitter or read too much of the daily paper.

My daughter experienced her first amusement park and had the pleasure of doing so with her uncle, my brother, who is the best person in the world to take to an amusement park. He'll go on anything and everything, never tires out, and never gets queasy or scared.

I am most grateful to my parents for funding and arranging this family trip, to Nonna for hosting us at her home, to my husband for linking my family to his, and to my daughter for her sheer love of living, which I suppose she gets partly from her Nonna.

We thoroughly enjoyed our escape into the sunshine, and we are also happy to return to the familiar comforts of home and our little kitty beast, who missed us dearly.

In conclusion, as my daughter says whenever someone asks her a question, "Meow!"


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