A Blast From My Past

As I was doing some random searching to earn Swagbucks this past weekend, I came across the listing for our former beach house in San Clemente, California. Apparently the house had been on the market for a while, and the pictures taken then allowed me to get a look at the current interior.

Oh boy, did the memories come flooding back!

My mom’s younger brother, my Uncle William, designed and built the house in 1955. My dad occasionally went on the weekends to help with the construction; I remember going with him once and staying in a little motel with a kitchenette that had a bottle opener attached to the side of one of the cabinets which fascinated me. The house was considered very modern, classic mid-century design at the time. It was well built, and remains stylish to this day. It’s even had a moment of fame, serving as a location in the 1986 Clint Eastwood movie, Heartbreak Ridge, as the house Marsha Mason lived in.

My aunt and uncle started their family (eventually five children) in the house soon after it was finished, but a couple of years later they moved to another location in San Clemente and my grandparents bought the house from them along with the vacant lot next door. The house became a vacation home for extended family, but because we lived nearest to San Clemente our family used the house the most over the years, sometimes moving there for entire summers and hosting neighbors, friends, and relatives from my dad’s side. We grew a large garden in part of the vacant lot for many years, and played croquet on the rest. The beach was a short walk from the house – we’d walk down in the morning, then back up the hill for lunch and a short rest, and repeat for second session in the afternoon. Almost every evening after dinner Mom would drive us back down to beachcomb and see what we could find as we walked from the overpass to the pier and back.

Overpass (or T-Street) Beach and the San Clemente pier.

The house largely looks the same inside and out, with even some of the colors the same, and the current valuation of over a million dollars is unsurprising based on housing prices in southern California. My grandmother sold the house in 1971 for $43,000. President Nixon had purchased his “western White House” in San Clemente in 1969 and sent property values in the area soaring, and Grandma felt it was time to sell. The house has been owned for the past 50 years by the same people who bought it from her.

The new owners carpeted the house, but it used to have soft red linoleum floors throughout, all the better for sweeping up the sand we dragged back from the beach every day. The kitchen has been remodeled, and while the space appears to work better the decor is a poor fit (in my opinion) with the the beautiful mid-century design of the house. However, the wicker stools at the kitchen counter look like the same ones that were there when we used the house! In the real estate photos the interior is filled with furniture and other stuff while it was uncluttered and minimally decorated when we used it.

My grandparents were parsimonious to a fault, and as I was going through the photos I laughed as I remembered all the things in the house that had needed repairs but that my grandparents (especially my grandmother) chose to ignore because they didn’t want to spend any more than absolutely necessary on the house. For example, the front door became difficult to lock at one point, but instead of having it fixed we were instead told to leave it alone and just stop using the door. It was the same with the bathroom in the outside cabana bedroom, the central fireplace, a wonky light fixture on a wall, and closet doors that fell off their railings. We just stopped using them.

The most powerful memory I have of the beach house didn’t come until after I closed the link the other day: my grandfather died in that house. My grandparents had wanted to go look at it one day in the summer of 1959, and brought me along with them – I was seven years old, in between first and second grade. Grandma and I knew the whole way down to San Clemente that something was wrong because Grandpa was driving erratically at times and kept complaining about not feeling well. When we finally got to the house (a miracle, in retrospect), he laid down on a bed and said he was going to take a nap, but at some point he got up and went into the bathroom, collapsed, and died there, apparently from heart failure. My grandmother broke down the door and found him. Her first action was to calmly ask me to sit in the corner of the sofa in the living room and stay there until she came back. I was an obedient child and did as I was told, and had absolutely no idea anything was seriously wrong. She moved my grandfather into the front bedroom, laid him on the bed, and shut the door, then came and asked me to remain on the sofa while she went next door for a few minutes (I’m guessing because I would have heard the phone conversation in the living room). Grandma came back shortly and sat with me until my parents arrived a couple of hours later to take me home. I remember how normal my grandmother was the whole time, never acting in any way that scared or worried me, and telling me that Grandpa was resting. All of her efforts went toward making me feel safe and calm in spite of what she had to do and what she must have been feeling. There was a big car outside when I left with my parents, and later in life I figured out it was the hearse that had arrived to pick up my grandfather’s body. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned my beloved grandfather had died; my dad told me when I woke up.

We continued to use the house until 1971, and other than my grandfather’s death, the beach house holds only good memories for me: happy summers walking to and from the beach each day and early evening beachcombing walks; fires in the living room fireplace every evening to take away the chill coming off the Pacific; looking out from the kitchen sink to Catalina Island in the distance (that view now blocked by the house that was built on the vacant lot); reading Nancy Drew mysteries and doing big jigsaw puzzles checked out from the San Clemente library; fresh vegetables from our garden; listening to Dodger baseball games in the evening on a little transistor radio (there was no TV there); croquet tournaments and all the other games my siblings and I invented to entertain ourselves.

It was a magical place.

18 thoughts on “A Blast From My Past

  1. How stoic your grandmother was at the time when her world must have been shattering around her yet she kept a stiff upper lip to not alarm you. That’s strength, however think her generation probably experienced so much via depression and war that they only knew how to pull themselves together and keep on going. Being a bit nosy but how old was your grandmother when your grandfather passed? Did she live a long life after he was gone?

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    1. That’s what I realized later, as I grew up, how shattered she must have been and yet she never let on and kept me from having what could have been a very traumatic experience.

      My grandfather was 71 years old when he died; my grandmother was 69. They had married late in life (for the times) – both were people who had probably though they would never marry, and yet they raised three children and had a good marriage for 37 years. They had been through tragedy in their lives (the death of an infant child, a still born birth, and cancer) that they overcame. My grandfather contracted polio when he was 11, and walked on crutches the rest of life, but he put himself through USC, and created a thriving insurance business in their community. He was very well-respected, with nearly 100 floral tributes arriving after his death. My grandmother lived for another 18 years before she died. She was the light of my life and my biggest champion.

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    1. I feel very fortunate to have come across that listing for the house and the photos, for the memories that came back, both good and not so good. That house played a big part in lives when we were children.

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  2. What a beautiful house filled with wonderful memories. I love the mid-century design and enjoyed seeing the pictures. Thank you for sharing your stories about the house. My parent’s house recently went on the market. It was completely renovated and it was shocking to see all of the changes. I even sent the photos to my family without telling them it was my childhood home and most of them didn’t recognize the place until the 5th or 6th photo.

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    1. The mid-century design remains classic – just wish they had done a better job in the kitchen, but it was probably done before mid-century design began being noticed again. I was mildly surprised by all the things in the house now, mainly because it was so uncluttered when we used it. The design was the focal point rather than the possessions that were kept there.

      One interesting memory was that the bathroom always smelled like the ocean back in the day for some reason. I have no idea whether that was because of the water or for some other reason, but I wonder if that’s still the case. I can still close my eyes and remember the aroma of salt water and ocean breezes.

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    1. Mike – did you ever get to the beach house? I can’t imagine not bringing your family down on at least one of our trips, or at least you and Ben. I know we hosted the Weimans once or twice, and I think the Poindexters came once as well.

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  3. My grandmothers house is on main street and is now a State Farm Office. I like your story, it reminds me of coming to Florida when I was a child. For some reason the memories are so much more vivid when you are young and last your whole life.

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    1. That’s interesting about your grandmother’s house! I think it’s great that it’s still standing and being used rather than torn down for something else (that probably wasn’t built as well).

      Some childhood memories are very vivid, but there’s lots I’ve chosen to forget as well.

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  4. Your grandmother’s concern , during a very traumatic moment for her, was for you. What a wonderful, loving grandma! I love the house! It sounds like it was such fun to. e there in the summer!

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    1. It took me a long time to understand that’s what she was doing for me then, that her instincts were to protect me.

      It was (and is) a very cool house and we were lucky to be able to use it. We had a load of fun there for the years my grandparents owned it. No TV was allowed – my mom gave us each a roll of butcher paper and a box of crayons and that was it for the summer. Besides reading voraciously, we invented all the games we played, with some being played for years afterwards.

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  5. What a serendipitous discovery. To bring back so many memories. What a stoic and loving grandmother!

    The house reminds me of the Brady Bunch house.

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    1. When the house was built could definitely fit into the Brady Bunch timeframe.

      I appreciate my grandmother more and more as I grow older. Strong doesn’t even begin to describe her. She was my childhood rock and lifeline, I can honestly say I don’t know how things would have turned out without her presence in my life.

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      1. I learned about the ability of one family member to make a difference when I took a psychology course in my 40s, and realized that’s what my grandmother had done for me. I give her so much credit for getting me to where I am today.

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