Seashells and Sea Hags

Kathie Gibboney

A vacation, even an abbreviated three-night stay would be wonderful. We just want a simple, funky San Diego beach house; no need for travertine counter tops, gourmet kitchens, marble floors, or an antique gold leaf bar. I can happily sip champagne sitting on the ground so in case of overindulgence, unlike a bar stool, one can’t fall off the ground. 

My brother’s family and ours used to vacation every summer at various along the California coast. Over the years our children hung out together on various beachy adventures. Thankfully, only one involved the police. They were halcyon days, spent swimming, playing rowdy games of Old Maid, Apples to Oranges, and an odd card game called Moose in the House with directions so complex they were beyond our comprehension and we were forced to create our own rules. I still claim I won because as anyone knows, a moose in the bathroom card beats a moose in the kitchen card any day.

We strung beads and shell necklaces, filled in black velvet Paint-by-Number paintings, ate hot-dogs-on-a-stick, ice cream, and saltwater taffy. Some of our group would walk at night, slipping through shadows as if on a secret mission, or along the beach under the moon, I, carrying a broom, assumed my alternative identity as The Sea Hag.

There were raucous late-night discussions covering world affairs and the life of Carnies, Dodger baseball, and the lasting merits of The Grateful Dead. Some of us slept late next morning. Colored beach towels were draped over porch railings. Sea glass was collected. There was sand on the floor and in the potato chips and it tasted wonderful.

To secure these vacation homes I would continuously scour the “Vacation Rental by Owner” sites. Our criteria were exacting. We wanted a house with some character, near to the beach, , a good surfing spot, ocean views, two bathrooms, a yard, parking and proximity to shops, restaurants, bars, and activities for the children, all within our limited budget.

I spent every free moment scrolling the offerings, becoming excited by a property only to realize it wasn’t the entire house at all but only half of it. I learned something described as “quiet” or “peaceful” means miles from the beach, and some ocean views can only be seen by leaning backwards over a railing. Most were boring. Now, ugly or tacky in a good way I can handle, and haunted is always good but such places are few and far between. My heart would leap when I would find our beach house. I felt a great sense of accomplishment and could now move on to the almost equally challenging task of shopping for a new swimming suit.

Recently, I have been spared the vacation rental search. Due to the bravery or folly of the Beleaguered Husband having opened Shaka Shack Burgers, we were unable to afford a rental.

Instead, for the past years we have journeyed to San Diego and just planted ourselves at my brother’s house for three days. I referred to our family as “The Freeloaders.”  Yes, we did go to the beach and eat hot-dogs-on-a-stick but it’s just not the same as being together in a beach house where there’s a freedom and time seems to slow or stop or even move backwards.

Instead of watching the sad, grinding depressive news of the day, it somehow seems right and fitting for an episode of The Andy Griffith Show to be on with Barney and Aunt Bee talking in the background, while my niece is searching for the sunscreen, and my son is trying to talk us into going to a BBQ place for dinner, and his father is already surfing, and we’re packing up the beach bags, and my brother still isn’t up and my sister-in-law’s hair is getting frizzy from the sea air, and my daughter has a tummy ache, and my nephew is lolling about playing with a baseball when he’s supposed to be getting his shoes out of the living room, and I’m smiling.

This year, we decided to rent a beach house once more. It’s now mostly Airbnb and it’s not like the early Airbnb where the renter dealt directly with the property owner. Now, there seems to be a middleman/woman/management company. There are so many fees attached—owner’s fee, service fee, cleaning fee, damage fee, and taxes—that although a property might be listed as only $220, a night, the total price for three nights comes to an astonishing $1,623.

There are also ridiculous rules to rent some of the properties, one requiring everyone in the rental party to be at least thirty years old, and another requesting valid ID be summited for every guest staying at the house, and one property asking the renter to agree to being watched and monitored throughout the stay by a surveillance camera. I’d be tempted to get some keggers and a karaoke machine and invite everyone from the beach and in all the bars along the boardwalk, over to the place claiming free beer for all and then imagine the horror and shock and awe on the face of whoever was watching the video feed, as we all sang, “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World” while jumping on the couch. That’d show ‘em!

I searched and searched. Day after day I got dizzy and lost in the land of vacation rentals.  I developed an unnatural aversion to any property displaying large wall clocks and would mutter rude words when noting hideous plastic blinds drawn over windows. 

“You can always open the blinds,” my husband advised.

 “No,” I’d answer. “They’re hiding something outside those windows, and you can bet it’s ugly.”

Soon it was hard to keep track of the places.

“What’s wrong with the one with the red chairs,” Mike would ask attempting to help out. “This looks great.”

Searching my muddled memory, I’d answer, “Red chairs, let’s see. It’s too expensive? No, it’s a condo, and it’s the rear unit, no view. The blue door is the only thing good about it. Too far from the beach, you might as well be in the valley.”

Now and then, driven to desperation, I’d open the beautiful Craigslist scam beachfront properties that were easy to spot. In frustration, I even responded to one ad, berating the person who posted it, trying to shame them: “You are doing a bad thing. Now stop it!”

Then my brother informed me that my nephew had broken his ankle and they had to make a tax payment, and my niece just got a new puppy, so maybe it wasn’t the best time for a vacation. 

I was in too deep now to be deterred. “Don’t worry,” I informed him. “I’ll find something and you’ll be our guests; just bring potato chips.”   

I now had to operate on half a budget, but I was so obsessed, I couldn’t quit. Miraculously, I found a place but we had to sacrifice a bathroom. The owner even booked directly with me which saved some fees but made me a bit nervous. Suppose he’s a scammer, too?

When he called and facetimed with us, we were so won over by his down-to-earth, friendly personality, even going so far as to give us his mother’s phone number, we chose to trust. As my husband observed, “The guy is so good, if he’s scamming us he deserves the partial payment we’ve sent him.”

I look at the photos of the place every day. I imagine being there, all of us on the large back deck, grilling up some dinner, my nephew’s foot propped up on a chair. Our traditional birthday banner, handmade by my father, will be hung up inside. There will be cake and champagne and card games and I’ll play my Martin Denny tropical music. Maybe there’ll be a line for the bathroom but baseball or the Beverly Hillbillies on the TV will entertain those waiting.

We’ll be on the beach together, somehow, once again, in this impossible year of 2019. Two families under beach umbrellas on the edge of the continent.

And the Sea Hag will walk beneath the steadfast stars of summer. 


Kathie Gibboney

It has been said that Kathie Gibboney invented the Unicorn, which she neither admits nor denies, as it might reveal her true age. Kathie is an essayist, reporter, and poet for MMN with her column, "My Corner of The Canyon." She lives happily in a now-empty nest in Topanga, CA with The Beleaguered Husband and a marmalade cat.

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