Sigh …

Jacksonville was already big. It still holds the title of the largest-area city. It’s growing, though. Subdivisions popping up; developments being torn down, and others replacing them. Crime is pretty high yet, but it’s cleaning up, gradually.

On the west side of the St. Johns River, the town immediately south of Jacksonville is Orange Park. True suburb. You can tell by the commuter traffic. As I drove down its main route, Blanding Boulevard, I noticed new buildings, new houses, fewer trees, but more bike paths.

There is a “shortcut” from the west side of Jacksonville into Middleburg, nearly bypassing Orange Park altogether. Highway 23. It’s Chaffee Road in Duval County and becomes Branan Field Road entering Clay County. A brand-new, run-of-the-mill national supercenter is on this road between Old Jennings Road and Blanding Boulevard. Can I just say I didn’t even walk into one during my visit? They litter the South, but shopping there didn’t even cross my mind.

I attended a baby shower in Middleburg last Saturday. I took Chaffee Road/Branan Field to Blanding Boulevard. I headed south on Blanding into that old, unincorporated little town. A few little new shopping plazas, but when I turned west onto State Road 218, not too much had changed at all. The drive-thru dairy store at Cinnamon Street is now a liquor store. Names of convenience stores have changed, probably as management switches hands. Still, it was all familiar

Mimosa Avenue has a traffic light at SR 218. I was tempted to turn north to Johns Cemetery Road, then left to good ol’ Plankton Avenue, where I’d follow three turns on that dirt road to plot 122, where I lived from ages 10-17. I only made those turns in my mind, where everything looks the same. My German Shepard, Sam; our little potbelly pig, Pinky; our white cat, Cleo; and our puggy pug, Sparky.

I passed my old junior high school. I noticed quite a few of the side roads hadn’t been paved. Old businesses still running, with newer signs and fresh coats of paint. Memories flooded me. The bus ride from elementary school was about 45 minutes long, and so I’d try to finish my math homework on the bus before my stop. The smell of the chicken farm near the school. Those ridiculous orange sash-belts the safety patrol wore.

Nearly missed my turn, for the mondo gas station that used to be itty-bitty. I turned into the gas station and drove to the other side of the parking lot onto Mallard Road. Then onto my friend’s road, where the baby shower was. As if the nostalgia fairy cast a spell on me, I saw four friends I’ve had since elementary school. Three of them are pregnant, but it wasn’t a triple shower. We exchanged a few memories, we laughed a lot. Dadgum, nobody’s really changed. I had a marvelous time. As I left, I told them that we’d meet at the Clay Hill [Elementary School] playground. As if we were 11 again.

What was cool was I’d only heard about the shower two days before, and my day happened to open up for me to attend. What was also cool is I didn’t really want to leave the shower. I wanted to sit and carry on and catch up and do everything that old friends do. I sure do love those girls.

Alas, I left. Back onto Mallard, then SR 218, then Blanding Boulevard, then Branan Field/Chaffee Road. The further I got from the heart of Middleburg, the more I felt extracted from my childhood, those memories, when life was simpler and had its own lingering sweetness. Yanked right back into reality.

So, yes, Orange Park is turning into a giant concrete slab. And while my hometown has a few newnesses, I’m grateful someone thought to leave Middleburg well enough alone.

I’m grateful to leave those thoughts of my Middleburg alone …

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