Sylvia Murphy chuckles as she remembers the day her daughter called to tell her she was moving to Alaska.
Billie Jean had just graduated from high school and was looking to venture outside the Florida Keys. Her cousin, who’d been stationed with the Navy in Key West, was in Alaska with his girlfriend, and invited Billie Jean to come out for a vacation. She was there two weeks when Sylvia received the call.
“She called me and said ‘Hey mom, guess what?’ and I said, ‘You’re moving to Alaska!”
Murphy heard her excited daughter’s voice deflate over the phone.
“How’d you know?” Billie Jean asked with some disappointment in her voice.
Murphy knew because she was a mother.
The Monroe County Mayor Pro Tem calls her arrival in the Florida Keys a serendipitous one because many years before she got that phone call from Billie Jean, she left her hometown of Boston in much the same fashion.
She’d made grandiose plans with her high school girlfriends to move south to Miami and find jobs for the summer. As her girlfriends got boyfriends and found excuses not to leave, Sylvia found herself with no travel companions. Her mother assumed she wouldn’t go, but Sylvia insisted she was still headed south.
“My mother was sad, but she went out and bought me a plane ticket anyway.”
Sylvia landed in Miami in February of 1954. She was staying with family friends for a couple of weeks in Miami while she lined up a job and settled into her new warmer home. Though she was happy to be out of Boston, she was still unsettled in a big city. On a weekend road trip down to the Keys, she thought to herself that the smaller community in the warmer climate was more along the lines of what she’d envisioned for her new life.
“I’d never even heard of the Florida Keys at that point, but when we drove down, I thought to myself now this is what Florida is supposed to be about.”
Fate would have it that an old Navy friend from Boston was in Plantation Key working for a dive museum. The owner of the museum desperately needed someone to help him transcribe the logs from the Spanish shipwrecks that surrounded the Keys.
“Treasure diving was really big back then. Mel Fisher was a young guy and he used to come up from Key West to get advice. Everyone was looking for the Atocha.”
After about a year and a half, Sylvia had transcribed all the available logs and essentially worked herself out of a job. She took a job in Tavernier as a waitress, and began her new life in paradise.
Before throwing her hat in the political ring in 2005, Sylvia decided it was of utmost importance to first consult with her granddaughter, Natasha.
Sylvia’s son, Tom, had headed north from his hometown of Tavernier to Jensen Beach to start a business with a friend. The single father had his daughter in tow, but as Sylvia explained, Natasha had grown up in the Keys and was not ready to leave her friends, teachers and the only town she’d ever known. Having grown up three houses down the block from her grandmother, Natasha had always been especially close to grandmother, so it seemed a natural fit for her to return to Tavernier.
Tom now splits his time between Jensen Beach and Tavernier so he can spend as much time as possible with his daughter. Natasha’s clearly a Conch – when she’s not traveling to food shows in Fort Lauderdale with the Coral Shores Culinary Program, she loves kayaking around the backcountry with her father.
Billie Jean and Tom have blessed Sylvia with five grandchildren, five great grandchildren and even one great, great grandchild. She reflects on her large brood, and says she can’t imagine a better place than the Florida Keys to raise a family.
“My kids never could figure out how I always knew where they were. That’s the benefit of living in a small town.”
Sylvia remembered sitting in her mother’s living room during one of her annual treks back to Boston to visit her family. She was telling her mother’s friends about Billie Jean’s decision to up and move to Alaska.
“I was telling them how sad I was about her leaving and my mother just laughed. I finally understood how she felt all those years ago.”
She never understood why, even though her mother was saddened by Sylvia’s decision to leave Massachusetts in 1954, she’d supported her and cashed in her daughter’s war bonds to purchase a plane ticket.
Sylvia suddenly had an epiphany that only comes with life experience and truly sums up the bonds between mothers and their daughters.
With a trace of her New England accent still in her voice after all these years, Sylvia said she looked at her mother and laughed, “Ma, you bought me a one way ticket!”