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Growing Up in Paradise

After thirty-eight years as a teacher and school librarian, I spend my retirement years traveling, researching family history, and writing about both.

Paradise. For many, the word suggests palm trees, sandy beaches, lush tropical foliage, mild temperatures, and warm ocean waters. And my paradise has some of those features, but with differences. Its many trees are pines and cypress, not palms. The beaches are plentiful, but the ocean water that washes over them is cold, averaging fifty-five degrees. The weather is certainly mild, with temperatures rarely dipping to freezing or going above eighty degrees. But unlike many tropical locales, where the days are warm and balmy, my paradise is usually quite cool and often shrouded in dense fog, blown in from the ocean. My special place is Pacific Grove, California, which I consider to be one of unsurpassed beauty.

The town, which has changed very little in the years since I lived there in the 1940s and 1950s, is located on the southwestern tip of the Monterey Peninsula. It was founded in 1875 by the Methodists, who established a retreat there; it soon became a haven for anyone wanting rest and solitude. Artists were attracted to it as well as writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck. It shouldn't be surprising that I loved Pacific Grove as a child, and my feelings for it haven't changed since I left in 1957.

It was a wonderful place to grow up. I could roam anywhere within its boundaries without parental restrictions. My favorite spot was the little beach less than a block from our house. It seemed to have a heavy, damp smell from the seaweed exposed on the rocks during low tide or from the kelp that was often spread across the grainy, tan sand. There I could examine tide pools, create imaginary rooms in the sand with Kathy, my sister, or just sit on the rocks and watch the waves come in. On a clear day, I could see Santa Cruz, twenty-three miles north across the bay, or the stacks of the power plant at Moss Landing to the northeast. That little beach was rarely visited by anyone else. There was a nice stretch of sand, but to access the water, it was necessary to walk between or over large rocks. Besides, the chilly water didn't make a swim very enticing. My beach provided just the solitude I often craved.

But I wasn't always sitting quietly on the beach. I could also be quite rowdy. My sister and I sometimes rode our bikes up and down our street, our raucous shouting undoubtedly annoying the many retirees who had moved there for the peace a little coastal town should provide. We also sometimes challenged our friends to a noisy game of tetherball in our yard, probably another irritation to our neighbors.

The founders of Pacific Grove wisely set aside many areas for parks, and there are now twenty-eight of them. In fact, almost the entire coastline facing Monterey Bay is a park, with walking paths winding through bright pink ice plant and benches placed strategically for looking out over the water. Ocean View Boulevard borders the park, and because the homes are all built on the road's land side, there is nothing to block the view. Each week, I walked on the path along the water from our house on Surf Avenue to Mrs. Dereimer's tiny cottage on Ocean View for my piano lesson. The front of her house facing the bay was all glass, but she had placed her grand piano, which took up most of the living room, away from the view to prevent her students from giving it more attention than they did their lessons. Her house was near Lover's Point and the town swimming pool. During a part of each summer, Kathy and I would walk to that pool for our swimming lessons. I never tired of enjoying the beauty of that stretch of coastline.


  Pt. Pinos Lighthouse  
  Pink ice plant lines the path  
  Pacific Grove coastline  

Of the other parks in town, some were just pieces of land set aside for the enjoyment of its citizens. They were left completely natural and had no lawns or special plantings. One of these was at the end of our street on Esplanade and consisted of a narrow strip of land running perpendicular to the bay, with granite boulders and cypress trees, their tops permanently blown back to resemble wind-styled hairdos. There my sister and I played alone or engaged in imaginary battles with other children in the neighborhood. Restrooms, benches, and picnic tables weren't needed and might have spoiled the park by attracting more people to it.

At the opposite end of our street was Asilomar Avenue and Pt. Pinos Lighthouse. The foghorn near it provided the background sound for my childhood. Its mournful resonance, combined with the crash of the waves on the rocks, helped me feel secure. Even now, years later, a foghorn makes me long for "home."

When bored with our beach or our neighborhood, we could wander through the Asilomar, with its dunes of fine, white sand, or the cemetery, where deer protected by a town ordinance roamed freely, finding tasty treats in the flowers left at the gravesites. Sometimes, we walked up Lighthouse Avenue to the main part of town. The street there was lined with Victorian storefronts, its median planted with English holly trees. Occasionally, when Kathy and I had saved enough money, we went to the creamery behind Holman's Department Store for an ice cream soda or sundae. Nearby was the public library, a beautiful little Spanish-style Carnegie building erected in 1886. It was the place that fed my growing appetite for tales of adventure and mystery.

My parents decided to move from the coast to California's Sacramento Valley when I was fourteen. They had several reasons for doing so, and our family did benefit from the move. However, none of the gains compensated for what I had lost. Gone were the ocean, my beach, the year-round fog, and my sense of security. I felt uprooted and would never again find a place I felt I truly belonged. A 1934 photograph of the Pt. Pinos Lighthouse over my desk and a painting of it on the wall opposite my bed are calming influences when I am stressed. And like the Monarch butterflies that migrate there each year, I am drawn back to Pacific Grove frequently. I can wander the streets and regain the feeling of being at home. In part because the town has changed so little since we left, I feel satisfied each time I return

~ Irene Mehaffy





Pacific Grove coastline

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