Dad,Shells and me.
There is so little time for fun or family in the life of a man who makes his living on the sea. The alarm set for 4am penetrates the stillness and silence of a house where everyone is asleep but him. He prepares his thermos of hot coffee and quietly slips out of the house. The tide is calling him and visions of pots brimming with lobsters make it all worthwhile. A long day of hauling, pegging, re baiting pots and sorting lobsters lay ahead as his old green Ford pickup finds it way in the dark to his dock where his boat waits for him.
The morning is long but he is rewarded with a good catch and as he throws the last line of a freshly baited trap overboard, he sighs and turns his boat into the wind and heads for home. He is tired. Hauling pots is a strenuous job, one that requires strength, precision timing and his full attention. Mistakes could cost him a limb or his life when working on the sea. A promise made to his daughter the day before comes to mind and a smile forms on his lips as he imagines the stories he will tell her today, the questions she will ask and the laughter that will follow.
I wait for the sound of the truck tires on the gravel in our driveway. Running down the hill when I hear them, I fling open the passenger side of the truck and climb in. I am dressed in cut off denim shorts and a tank top complete with my old and worn red Ked sneakers. My long hair is brushed back into a pony tail that has a mind of its own and wisps of hair sneak out around my face, freckled now from the summer sun.
I hug my father and breathe in deeply the familiar smells of his boat, oil and bait along with the familiar scent of Old Spice aftershave. Unable to sit still due to my excitement, he cautions me that I need to buckle up or we will not be able to continue on our adventure.
Shifting the truck into reverse, he backs out of our driveway and heads to the beach. A lifetime of five minutes goes by and we park. I jump out of the truck pulling off my red Keds and throw them in the truck bed. I wiggle my toes in the warm white sand and I look up at my father and grab his hand. A hand that is strong, gnarled and wrinkled from a job where work is never done, grabs back and holds mine so tenderly.
We start our walk as the sun is low in the horizon and the cooler afternoon air prevails. Bell buoys offshore moan their hellos and the Race Rock Lighthouse bellows her approval as we walk hand in hand; the lobster man whose shoulder length hair is bleached by the sun and whose back and shoulders are bare and blackened by numerous hours spent under the relentless gaze of the sun while out on the water and his young daughter.
He stoops and picks up a shell. It is yellowish gold in color and rough. He holds it between his fingers, rubbing it and stroking his beard at the same time. I wait quietly for I know this game; he is going to tell me a story about this shell. My patience is rewarded and he hands me the shell and tells me that this is a dead man’s toenail (Jingle Shell). I am mesmerized as I roll the shell around in my hand. A shiver runs down my spine as I imagine the toe that this belonged to. My father is now telling me the history behind Davy Jones locker and the sailors who have gone to the bottom of the sea. The beach has become serenely quiet now. Even the gulls have stopped screeching for a moment and Long Island Sound has grown eerily dark green as if the souls of the sailors’ remains have stirred from their resting place deep in the bowels of the sea.
We continue down the beach and again he stops and reaches down to the sand. In his hand he cradles a “fairy slipper” shell. He spins his tale of water nymphs coming out of the sea at night searching for the perfect slipper shell so that they might be able to skate on the water. They need to find two perfect shells that fit their tiny feet. Imagine the beach at night, hundreds of Nymphs running around searching for shells. Once they all have found their “slippers” they skate out onto the water where they take part in races and dances under the moonlight. When the moon starts to set and the sun is peeking up from the horizon the nymphs discard their “slippers” on the beach for the next time and slowly slip back under the waves.
A long, narrow shell, smooth on the outside and purplish brown in color is the next shell to be discovered. My father proclaims it a razor Clam. He demonstrates how King Neptune himself places the edge of the shell on his face and shaves his salt water whiskers. I have watched my father use his straight edge razor to shave his beard and so it isn’t hard for me to visualize King Neptune sitting on his throne, razor shell in hand, shaving, while a mermaid holds a shell encrusted mirror for him to use.
It seems as if time has stopped as we continue our walk along the shore, holding hands and exploring the water’s edge. Sound beaches are unique, especially the East End beaches with rocks, shells, beach glass, drift wood, sea weed, old buoys and numerous pieces of flotsam and jetsam dotting the landscape.
Suddenly, my father bends down one last time for today and picks up a perfectly formed scallop shell. It’s radiating pattern of swirls in oranges, pinks and yellows is hypnotic. Its beauty lies in the simplicity of the shell. My father turns me back toward the pathway to the truck and tells me my last story for the day. Scallop shells are sought after by the sea goddess Calypso. She was a beauty and ruled the sea. Calypso loved to make jewelry from scallop shells. She would comb the seas looking for just the perfect shell. My father proclaimed that this very one would have been highly treasured by her. In my mind I could envision her wearing a necklace of scallop shells with mine in the center.
The sun has almost set now. My father tells me it is time to go. High tide is upon us and the beach has taken back the rest of her treasures and hidden them under a blanket of blue/green water for another day and another adventure. In my hands, I clutch my bounty of the afternoon; a dead man’s toenail, a fairy slipper, a scallop shell and a razor clam.
The tide is rising and I am trying to outrun the waves as I watch the Sandpipers, who never seem to get their feet wet, hunt for food in the surf. As I climb the worn path from the beach back to the truck, the lingering smell of salt air mingles with the fragrant aroma of the dark pink beach roses. I turn one last time toward the beach and as the sky turns red, purple and pink and the sun sinks into the sound, I swear I could see King Neptune and the goddess Calypso waving to me as I clutched my treasures tightly to my chest.