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The Beach I Grew Up On

Guest post by Sunshine Beach author Wendy Wax.

Sunshine-BeachI was one of those lucky people who grew up on a beach. In my case it was St. Petersburg Beach, that comma of land that curves into the Gulf of Mexico on the west central coast of Florida. It was beautiful all year round, but the summers were especially wonderful. We spent most days on Pass-a-Grille at the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach, at the Rellim Hotel, which was owned by family friends, where the moms played cards and the children, well, romped.

Some of my earliest memories include holding my breath. Family lore has it that I learned to swim before I could walk. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but I do remember standing on the edge of the deep end where I would wait until people were watching (I guess I’ve always loved an audience) and then throw myself into the swimming pool and swim underwater to the other end where I’d come up for air to adult gasps of relief. I could and did spend hours in the pool doing handstands and trying to talk underwater clearly enough to be understood. Then there were the summersaults — how many you could complete without having to come up for air was a matter of pride. I’m happy to report that it looks like not breathing while ingesting large quantities of chlorine has had no longterm effect.

Those long, hot summer days were spent eating ice cream sandwiches and racing across the sand between the hotel’s freshwater pool and the salty gulf with occasional stops to build sand castles or dig for coquinas. Other days we’d cartwheel down the hard packed sand near the waters’ edge for what seemed like miles.

During the school year, I went to the aptly named Sunshine Elementary, where we had a fish broil every fall, and art class and P.E. sometimes took place on the beach. You can see documentation of all of this at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum.

My mother used to say that people who lived there had ‘sand in their shoes.’ I thought she meant this literally; after all there was sand everywhere — and not just in our shoes.

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It took me a long time to realize that she was referring to the pace at which everyone and everything moved — or didn’t. I grew up assuming that everyone lived across the street from the beach under the shade of palm trees and spent hours perfecting their underwater summersaults. And by the time I’d finished high school, I couldn’t wait to leave for somewhere more exciting. It took going away to fully appreciate how lucky I’d been to grow up in such an incredible place. I’ve searched out sandy spots around the globe, and never found a beach I liked more. Which may explain why when I began writing Ten Beach Road, the story of three women who lose their life savings to a Ponzi scheme and are left with only coownership of a derelict beachfront mansion, I spent a long time envisioning the house and about two seconds deciding on which beach it would sit.

The locations in Ten Beach Road and Sunshine Beach are a mixture of real Pass-a-Grille spots that I’ve loved all my life and fictional streets that may confound some of the locals. Bella Flora, the once-fabulous Mediterranean Revival style mansion at the heart of the story, sits on the nonexistent “Beach Road” (actually 1st Avenue) at the southwestern tip of Pass-a-Grille. (This wasn’t easy as I had to mentally move a condominium building so that Bella Flora could command its spectacular view of the pass and Shell Island.)

Most nights my characters Madeline Singer, Avery Lawford and Nicole Grant drag their weary bodies out back to toast the sunset and search for at least one good thing to say about their day. In the process, they bond and become friends, working to reclaim their own lives even as they rebuild Bella Flora.

Wendy Wax, a former broadcaster, is the author of 12 novels, including A Week at the Lake, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, The House on Mermaid Point, Ocean Beach, Ten Beach Road and her latest Sunshine Beach.

Historic photos courtesy of Wendy Wax. 

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