My Not-So-Perfect Beach Trip


It was the early 1990s and my husband and I were newly married. We were young and had a lot to learn. We’d secured college degrees and good jobs, but we also had a mortgage that financially stretched us as thin as tissue paper. Any unforeseen expense would’ve turned into unwelcome credit card debt, which we were trying hard to avoid. We had the funds to live, but not much more.

“Let’s go to the beach,” my husband said and I agreed. But a long weekend at the beach was expensive, and not in the budget.

I had an idea. My maternal grandmother had recently remarried after being widowed for many years. Greg was tall and chatty and an enormously successful businessman. He was kind and generous, and, he owned a beach house in Gulf Shores, AL. That was it, I thought! I’d ask if we could stay at their house on the gulf and our problem would be solved. We would have a few peaceful days away from the grind of life and work, and be free to relax on the beach without spending money we didn’t have. What a perfect plan.

As I knew she would, my grandmother agreed to my request and my husband and I headed toward our relaxing, romantic weekend away.

Gulf Shores lies to the east of Mobile Bay, and is an easy drive south from Interstate 10 near Fairhope. The parkway leads directly toward the gulf and dead ends at the beach. My step-grandfather’s house rested atop stilts, like most of the houses along the coast, and sat at the end of that parkway. It was old and had dark paneled walls and was perfectly wonderful. Condominiums rose on either side of the small house and left it sandwiched in between.  It likely had survived many hurricanes and seen the area go from remote to commercial, and isolated to crowded over time.

We arrived at the house, excited to see the beach and smell the salt water. Pulling into the sandy driveway, we noticed another car parked nearby. Unsure what to think, we walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. And who do you think answered that door? If you guessed my grandmother, you would be correct. She and Greg had made the drive from Mobile, and were waiting to welcome us in.

“Maybe they wanted to get the house ready and make sure we got inside okay,” I whispered to my husband. We brought our luggage up the stairs and settled into the room of my grandmother’s choosing.

“But when are they leaving?” my husband asked. I shrugged my shoulders, my eyes large, the romantic weekend we had envisioned slowly slipping from view.

And so the weekend went by: Greg talked and talked and talked while my husband listened and listened and listened; and my grandmother proceeded to teach me how to freeze garbage, properly make a bed using TWO top sheets (like they do at the Ritz), and keep uninvited people off the property. She had a bullhorn, which gave her the voice and the power to warn anyone spreading a towel in front of her house, “You are on private property!” As unbelievable as this sounds, we witnessed it firsthand. I assure you that, aside from my husband and me, there were exactly zero people sunbathing on the beach in front of their house that weekend.

My grandmother was an elegant southern lady. She had the dreamiest blue eyes I’d ever seen. She cared about beauty, managing her home, and social connections. She was an artist who paid attention to detail. Her nails were always painted pink, her dinner table was always set with fine china and polished silver, and in my memory, her hair and makeup were always perfect. She ran her household like a business and she was an excellent domestic CEO.

A self portrait of my maternal grandmother.

A self portrait of my maternal grandmother.

I wish I had a little more of her in me, but in truth, I prefer faded jeans to cocktail dresses, unpolished nails to manicures, and a makeup-free face. But I loved her and admired her and appreciated the way she held herself to high standards. Much like my paternal grandmother, she was strong and a fighter and never gave up on the ideals that were important to her, and I will always hold her in high esteem for that.

As far as the romantic, peaceful weekend my husband and I had planned—it didn’t happen. But although the weekend turned out differently than we’d envisioned, we did have a lovely time. We got to know my grandmother and Greg like we hadn’t before, and that was an unexpected gift. We’ve had many beach trips over the years, but never, ever have we had one like this: one with unexpected conversation, unexpected instruction, and unexpected but beloved guests.

As the wise and well-loved Barbara Bush once said, "At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent." I'd like to add one more person to her list. A grandparent.

Katy Shelton is the creator and Managing Editor of The Granny Diaries. See more about Katy on our team page.