“The blue and white house on the left is The Life of Riley. I bet the folks in there right now are loving the life of Riley. The home was built in the 1920s and is one of the few homes on the street still in its original condition…” the tour guide’s voice sounded muffled and tinny through the speakers on the bus.
I was sitting at the dining table eating a bowl of Fruit Loops at my family’s beach house on Catalina Island. I looked out the front to see tourists on the bus peering back at me. I wondered if they could see me as clearly as I could see them. I was used to tour buses stopping there; the bungalow sat just a block and a half away from the tour bus depot. I couldn’t make out what the guide said next, but the bus filled with laughter before it proceeded down the street.
As little bits of hard cereal tore apart the roof of my mouth with each bite I contemplated the name of the bungalow—Life of Riley. I had always assumed it was named after my great-grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. Riley) had purchased the house in the 1940s as a place to retire. Before they had a chance to use it, my great-grandfather died of a heart attack while mowing his front lawn. Devastated, my great-grandmother chose to never visit the house again and gifted it to my grandfather and his brother. I was part of the fourth generation of Riley’s to spend as much of my summers as I could in the house and at fourteen years old I never thought about the fact that the house had a name.
I asked my grandmother what the Life of Riley meant. She said, “It is living the good life and appreciating the things that you have.” That summer was the last time we were on the island together, had I known that then I might have had a better understanding of her words. “We are lucky to have this place and owe a lot to those who came before us making it possible for us to be here today. One day, you will bring your children here and your mother will be the grandma.”
As she went about her daily chores humming the song “California, Here I Come” I thought about our times in the beach house. Not once was I lead to believe that I was living the high life.
The house was always packed with friends and family—sleeping in a bed was a luxury. The kids slept on the floor and my baby brother spent his first summer on the island swaddled in blankets while sleeping in a drawer placed in a quiet corner of the back bedroom. I was given a strict ration of quarters that I could choose to use to purchase a souvenir or spend at the arcade. If I was lucky I got to eat one meal in a restaurant during the summer, and I got one much anticipated waffle cone loaded with mint chocolate chip ice cream, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a single candied cherry on top. One year my grandmother found a pair of underwear in the street, brought them home, boiled them, and, lucky me, they were my size.
Every day was an adventure on the island. From a young age I was shooed out the door in the morning to go play at the beach, search for wildlife on the coast line, fish from the pier, snorkel in kelp forests, or hike in the hills surrounding Avalon. My grandma taught me to sew shorts one year and I sewed clothes for my cabbage patch kid. I tagged along with my grandpa to the hardware store and watched him pick out the right sandpaper or type of paint and pretended to be busy while I listened to the men talk about the weather and politics.
During the evening my family and our guests would meet for a homemade dinner. The adults got seats at the kitchen table and kids sat around the coffee table. Dish duty was assigned to those that did not cook and the youngsters would clean up for a night on the town. A night in often consisted of playing card games around the kitchen table until bedtime.
My favorite time of day was the morning—right around the first hint of light peeking through the curtains. My grandmother would take the first grandchild that woke up to pick out donuts from the little bakery down the block, and ride out to Pebbley Beach to skip rocks and look for shells and pieces of sea glass.
I still try to get to Catalina as much as possible. My favorite waffle joint and the kitschy souvenir store selling gold plated buffalo terds (along with many other long standing local run shops) have been replaced with wine bars and sushi restaurants. My grandparents have passed away. My two boys and all their cousins entered this world. There have been droughts and boats have sunken in storms. Time and change can bring tears and smiles—but in the end the living the Life of Riley is not about a beach house or an island, but rather a way of living life that can be found in all of us at any time or place.