Treasure by the Sea
© Copyright 2015 by Lane Dooling
For as much as the time whirled by in my twenties as I made my way into the adult world, the last few decades, which included jobs and motherhood, seem like a period of introspection, a time when memories lay scattered through my mind, propelling me from the present back to a time when life was lived behind a mystical curtain of childhood – an innocence we logically lose as we grow up.
For many of us, there is a childhood destination that will forever remain a safe haven – an almost magical place; or at least I thought it was a matter of geography for many years. For my family and relatives, it was our annual vacation to La Jolla, California. This wonderful city (pronounced La Hoya) is considered the “Jewel of the Coast” and it only takes on long, breathtaking glance from the cove to understand why as the salty sea air tickles your nose, and the white foamy waves crash over the rocks stretching for miles along the exquisite San Diego coast.
The first 15 years of my life entailed packing up the car on July 31 and waking up at 4:00am the next day to begin the long drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to vacation for two weeks in San Diego. We were joined by my grandparents, Grace and Benjamin, who flew in from Havertown, Pennsylvania, and my aunt, uncle and cousin. And, it was in the majestic surrounds of La Jolla, that I had the pleasure of getting to know my relatives especially my grandmother.
Since my grandparents lived on the East Coast, we usually only saw them once a year, in addition to phone calls and postcards. Recently, when looking in a card store, I came across the same nostalgic postcards my grandmother would send us. They had cats or bunnies involved with in an activity like in a classroom or at the beach. She would send them when school ended or right before our trip in August to get us excited. After the two weeks were up, my grandparents would spend two weeks with us in Marin County, a suburb of San Francisco. No matter how old I got, the time would go by so quickly and before we knew it was time to drive them to the heliport (they loved to take the helicopter to the San Francisco Airport). My sisters and I would be so sad that it became a ritual to go pick out new school shoes directly after dropping them off to cheer us up (we now know that this would later be referred to as “retail therapy”).
Our 14 days in paradise were spent shell collecting, swimming, rafting and sunbathing. In the morning, we would take a beach walk looking for treasures from the sea. The beach masqueraded behind a different identity in a quiet solitude before the crowds came and the sun revealed itself. Clouds hung heavily in the dawn before the sun woke and heated the sands and bounced off the rolling, salty waves. The surfers and scuba divers donned their wet suits and headed anxiously towards the pier. Often, we’d come across big chunks of purple wax but the biggest prize was to find an unbroken sand dollar. By noon, the sun danced on the water as the fragrance of coconut sun tan oil filled the air, while radios blared and beach goers sipped their slurpies.
We also went shopping, including looking for bargains in the “junkies” as my grandmother would call second-hand stores. I always considered my grandmother a good luck charm since my cousin, Jennifer, and I always found neat childhood treasures in her presence, and of course she would buy them for us which left more of our own money for ice cream treats at the local Speedy Mart. Towards the end of our vacation, we had an art contest using the shells we collected and anything else from the sea and a little Elmer’s Glue. My uncle was the judge and always hammed it up like a TV game show host. Thank goodness my grandmother helped me since I unfortunately had not inherited her art talent.
My grandmother had her hands full with us four grandchildren since we liked to crowd in her bedroom while grandpa stretched out on his bed absorbed in one of his many books. Grandma would take out bun and brush her long brown hair. We called her “troll” which she laughed at and really didn’t mind. As she brushed her hair, we begged her to tell us if she actually dyed her hair since it was brown…and we thought she was sort of old! She just cackled and told us her mother, Hedie, also had brown hair at an “old age”.
Some of the other annual rituals included Sea World, Disneyland and the Script’s Oceanography
Aquarium. Grandmother and mom would always walk through with us and buy a treat at the gift store (to this day, my sister, Paige, still loves sand dollars). Grandmother would buy shells and books for her classroom where she would return after Labor Day. This small gesture would always alert me that our time in La Jolla was slipping away ever too quickly.
Even as we grew older and spent more time with teenagers who vacationed at the same time every year (which included sitting away from the “grown-ups” on the beach), my grandmother was a welcome constant on our vacation. I knew from a young age that she was a smart and courageous woman – perhaps even ahead of her time. When I hear the phrase “kindred spirit”, her face comes to mind.
Throughout their lives, a guardian angel followed my grandparents bringing happiness, security and fulfillment. A year before they were set to retire, they looked into a lovely retirement community called Rossmoor in Walnut Creek, California, which was less than an hour from where we lived. After waiting in line most of the evening with blankets and a deck of cards, they got their first choice and closed the deal! We were thrilled that they would be able to spend their retirement so close to us. My sisters and I cherished the more frequent involvement they had in our lives including graduations, holidays and summer barbeques. My grandparents spent nearly 20 years at Rossmoor and truly embraced retirement with square dancing, outings, bridge club and dinner parties.
My grandfather was the first to pass away but grandmother carried on in her independent spirit – I know she was relieved he did not suffer as many of her neighbors had. By the time grandmother was living alone, my sisters and were in our twenties and begun to visit her on our own. We would take her to the movies (her favorite actor was Kevin Costner) and then she’d treat us to Chinese food at her favorite restaurant (always with an early bird coupon!). This time spent with her was a new chapter in terms of getting to know her even better. She rattled off funny stories about her childhood, teaching, antiquing in the Pennsylvania countryside and raising my mother and aunt (talk about two very different sisters).
Though it has now been more than 10 years since my grandmother died, her spirit is still alive within me. During the past few decades raising my own children, I have thought a lot about family traditions, how magical La Jolla was and how special my grandmother was. Yet, it was the journey into adulthood and parenthood that made me realize that it wasn’t just the destination, but having grandmother there made it the enchanting place it was and created the heartfelt tradition it became. And, it was this annual pilgrimage to the beach that gave me the opportunity to get to know her which was the best gift of all.
And to pass on the value of family traditions, for the past 10 years, my blended family has headed to the mountains to a family camp the same week in June for seven days. We talk about it during the year, soak it up when we are there and keep count on the weeks until we can head back. My wish, like my grandmother’s, is that our children continue and cherish an annual trip of their own when they have families. And, not an August rolls by without me remembering Grace – a treasure by the sea.