I lived in Florida when I was a teenager, so I know a little about living with a seashell-obsessed crazy person: My mother. We moved to Florida from Connecticut, and there was nothing that my mother thought could not be improved with seashells. I am not making up what I am about to tell you: One year, she glued seashells on to a toilet seat she bought at a hardware store, spray-painted the whole thing silver, and hung it on our front door as a Christmas wreath. She used seashells to transform a perfectly comfortable pool chair into a medieval torture device. There was no piece of furniture that was safe from her when she had a glue stick for her glue gun. She stuck seashells to headboards, mirrors, and the dog dish.
I recalled my mother’s confidence that she was the Martha Stewart of seashells Tuesday afternoon when I was walking along the beach on Sanibel Island. Sanibel is one of those beautiful islands on Florida’s Gulf Coast where the cars stop for bicyclists at intersections or in crosswalks, the skies are cerulean, and the locals are outnumbered by the tourists by roughly seven million to one. That is, of course, an exaggeration: The skies aren’t always cerulean. And people love to go shelling on Sanibel Island.
I was on the island to give a speech about books, and because I was done by about 2:20 in the afternoon and wasn’t flying back to Vermont until the next morning, I decided to spend a little time on the beach. After all, it had been 15 degrees below zero on my porch in Lincoln on Monday, the day before when I had flown to Florida. A little beach time didn’t sound shabby at all.
And there I found a lot of folks “doing the stoop.” That is, according to one of my hosts from the Sanibel Public Library Foundation, what the locals call shelling. There were, in fact, way more people shelling than there were people sunbathing, but that may have been because it was low tide. Also, the average age of the people on the beach was Golden Girls.
I met one delightful married couple in their 70s who were there from Michigan, and they each had a yellow pail. They were finding shells to use as a craft with a Sunday school class. I said I should probably bring a few shells back for my wife and daughter, but mostly I was being polite. I had no idea what my wife or our daughter – who is 20 and lives in New York — would do with seashells. Neither does a whole lot with glue guns, and neither (as far as I know) has ever purchased a toilet seat. But then the husband offered me his pail, which was at least half full with shells.
“Oh, that’s really generous of you,” I said, “but I’m okay. I was just planning on bringing a few back.”
But then I remembered how excited my daughter had been when I brought her back a few handsome pebbles that had been polished by water and time from Lake Van: A lake in Historic Armenia. The area today is in Turkey, but once upon a time it was a part of the cradle of Armenian civilization. The pebbles sit today on her dresser.
And so, like almost everyone else on the beach, suddenly I was “doing the stoop.” I picked out perhaps a dozen shells, five or six each for my wife and daughter. They didn’t have the totemic significance of those small stones from Lake Van, but I thought they might be a reminder for them of a woman who was a mother-in-law to one and a grandmother to the other. They might be a mnemonic for all of the times we’d visited my father in Fort Lauderdale and watched seagulls peck at the sand along the shore.
Most days the shells will probably just be clutter on a shelf or a dresser. But maybe, once in a while, they’ll conjure a happy memory. And a gift that can do that isn’t crazy at all.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 23, 2014. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on April 22.)