Tuesday, July 28, 2015


This is a piece I wrote up a few years ago when I went on a training session to the Corps of Engineers research facility in Duck, located in the Outer Banks of NC.

I am sitting in my hotel room on Corolla, the next town over from Duck, and I just came from the beach. It was an emotional visit that hit me in ways I did not expect.

My fondest memories from my childhood were from the beaches of South Carolina. There were nights when we would wade into the tidal creek on the back side of Fripp Island, swimming through iridescent waves, as the natural phosphorescence from the creek would light up our bodies with sparks, bright enough to play tag while submerged. Amazing setting, delightful fun.

I am a habitually early riser, and never was that more the case than when we were at the beach. I would go and help the turtle lady re-introduced recently hatched loggerhead turtles into the surf zone, shooing away the seagulls, giving them the maximum chance at making it.

But mostly I went shelling. I collected shells from before dawn until I couldn't see any more. Some were rarer than others; at times we would find sand dollars, cockle shells, periwinkles, lady slippers, moon snails, pen shells, fan shells, oysters, the periodic scallop and clam, and the occasional whelk. On a very rare occasion, I found sharks teeth or vertebrae, fragments of scotch bonnets, and once in a blue moon, a starfish. I have since learned the scientific names of most of the shells we found, but they fail to light the imaginative fire that the local nomenclature provided. We talked about habitat, we talked about specific density of shells, we explored nature and science through a fury of collecting.

And the competitive urge is strong in this one, Obi Wan. It was a race, and I was bound and determined to win - the best shell, the most complete, the biggest, the smallest, the most fragile; whatever superlative there was, I was going to find it. And, for the most part, I did. I trained my eyes to see sharks' teeth, and was often the only one to find one. I would read every poster and book, seeing what was rare and what could be found, and set my sights on whatever was most infrequently found in the area. I always found cool loot, most of which was left behind when we went back to Greenville, leaving me with one or two shells I was allowed to take with me, and a flotilla of memories of collected wonder.

My Nana - my mother's mom - was there for every dogged step of the way. I would race ahead, afraid that the 'virgin territory' would be picked over if I didn't get there first. And she would walk more leisurely, picking up and holding the 'treasures' of all of the kids that went with her. She must have logged decades of time on the beach, walking with all of the grandkids, each arguing over who had found the coolest stuff. And she lugged tons of 'treasure' back to the house, making each of us feel as though our treasure, and by extension we, were special beyond measure. And it did not matter at all whether it was a ladyslipper identical to the four hundred thousand that we had picked up previously, she made the finding of 'this one' special.

Love. I think I learned to love at the beach. I just didn't know it.

One of the last times that I went out seashelling with Nana, I was on a quest for sharks' teeth. And I was going to find them, come sheol or high tide. My teenage body sprinted from one patch of shells to the next, using pattern recognition skills developed over years to identify any anomalous items quickly, before moving to the next.

And from somewhere behind me, Nana yelled "Ha, ha! Looky here at what I found!!!"

I did come by my competitive urges naturally, and she had won.

No contest.

I turned back to ground I had passed by, and with a sinking feeling looked back at what she had picked up. It was a devils' pocketbook. The Holy Grail of shelling. Technically simply an egg sac from a skate (a critter related to the sting ray), the black, leathery pouch the shape of a naugahyde devil was more rare than anything else we hunted. Every array of collected shells on coffee tables or behind glass in houses in SC had one insinuated in there, carelessly included as though the family could have kept more, if they had made the effort. But those of us who looked for them knew better. You simply didn't see them; finding one was the shelling equivalent of acing the hole in golf. You will play the rest of the holes, but none of the rest will be the one you talk about at the end of the day.

My Nana died of pancreatic cancer before I went to graduate school. And I don't think it was a conscious thing at all, but I have not been back to the beach on the Atlantic since then. I have been down to the Gulf (a poor excuse for a beach, if you ask me) and I went to Hawaii and Yucatan. But when I walked out onto that beach this afternoon, I felt the love that I had been missing since 1993. I felt a part of my soul get fed in a way that I did not expect. Just walking over the dune and smelling the salty air perked up my senses, and I walked straight into the chilly surf.

And I started shelling, thinking fondly of my Nana, and the wonderful way that she had with kids, letting them learn to love and love to learn. Bringing unbridled enthusiasm with every discovery.

And as I looked down the beach, I realized that there were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of devils' pocketbooks. Littering the sand. Interspersed with the shells I loved - the cockles, the lady slippers, the pen shells, the fingernails. Devils' pocketbooks everywhere.

I am still overwhelmed with emotion. I competed to find the finest shells throughout my childhood, and never realized that I had already won the lottery. I was loved by the greatest woman who ever walked the planet.

I won. Hands down.

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