IN midsummers when I was young, there would be an annual gathering of the women in the family. My grandmother and her three daughters and their children would meet at Great-aunt Nan's cottage at Gulf Shores, Ala. My great-aunt never used the cottage. She had, in past years, but then declared: "I want my linens starched and ironed, and I'm too old to put up with sand in my sheets." Nan was a woman who liked her creature comforts. However, she was generous in allowing the rest of the family to use the plac e, and every summer we made the long trek from "our beach" at Tybee Island near Savannah, to the "house on the lagoon." Bathing suits and toys, books for me and whatever was noisy for my brother, would be packed for an extended stay. We prepared for a gathering of women.
The house on the lagoon was a plain beach cottage with wooden floors, a screened porch with a ceiling fan, and windows that opened wide to the sea breezes. The furniture was old and slip-covered in muslin, and all of the windowsills in the cottage were lined with shells. We never discarded any except the ones we considered less than perfect, or if we had too many of the same kind. But mostly the sills were lined with the best of the year's collection while the less-than-perfect specimens were put in cans , buckets, and jars and kept on the screened porch until the following summer.
Tucked away among tall pines, the cottage faced a crescent-shaped lagoon. At high tide the waters were deep enough to swim in, while at low tide we could scoop up crabs from the sandy bottom in waters as clear as sea-washed glass. No other houses were nearby, and the only time we saw other people was when we left the lagoon for the main beach.
Upon our arrival, jars of Grandmama's homemade jellies would be unwrapped from their layers of newspapers, watermelons would be put down to cool in washtubs filled with cool water, and somebody would go to the local fish market for fresh fruits of the sea: Appalachicola oysters whose shells smelled of salt and iodine, and flounders, flat as platters and pale as sand. Rooms would be chosen, and boundaries marked. Hammocks, scratchy and smelling slightly of mildew, would be taken out of closets and hung on
hooks on the screened porch. Crab nets would be pulled out of the shed and the jars containing last year's seashells would be emptied. The men in the family might come for weekend visits, but in high summer, the time belonged to the sisters' gathering.
My Aunt Bardie was the favorite aunt, the one who had no children of her own, yet drew her sisters' children like martins to the gourd. If she'd wanted to be alone, to walk and think long thoughts, she didn't have a chance. We'd follow her tall, gawky figure wherever she went. We'd walk along the edge of the lagoon, in the dappled shade of tall pines whose needles carpeted the path, then out toward the dunes that separated the cottage from the wide Atlantic.
Trudging through white, shifting "sugar" sand, we'd emerge onto a windswept beach that on most days was nearly deserted except for us. Returning hours later, we'd be sandy and hot, carrying rubber bathing caps filled with shells and sand dollars. Back at the cottage, we'd shiver under an outside, cold-water shower before going into the kitchen for the icy sweetness of a small green bottle of soda. Then my brother and I would compare our treasures from the sea.
After a supper of fresh flounder, white and delicate, mounds of creamy coleslaw, and hush puppies that were crisp and golden on the outside and soft and tender inside, served with pitchers of iced tea, we would play board games and listen to the radio until bedtime. Then we children would lie in our beds listening to the night sounds: the cry of little owls in the pines, the distant sighing of the sea, and the women's voices, like the murmur of starlings, soft on the night air.
After a number of years spent away from my home, I've come back, back to Savannah and to "our beach" at Tybee. I believe that if you grow up within the sound of the sea, you carry it in your heart, just as a shell carries the sound of the sea within its chambers.
My son Mark was born here, and, as I do, chooses to live within the sea's calling. Perhaps I marked him, holding a shell up to his baby ear when he was barely old enough to walk and we played at the water's edge. I held the shell to his ear so that he could hear the sea's roar within the rosy cusp, and watched as his eyes widened with astonishment, his face holding wonder like a cup. And now his son, in his two years, has never lived away from the sea's edge.
On my desk is a scallop shell holding small Lettered Olive shells, their markings like strange calligraphy. There is a Pink Conch shell that Mark sent me next to a potted palm in the living room, and on my kitchen windowsill is a tiny cache of moonsnails, pale and silvery as a waning moon.
Tybee Island, which for most of my life has been "our beach," is not a good beach for shelling. There's a seawall, hidden, offshore, and most shells are pulverized into fine particles that glisten at the high-water mark. Occasionally, a good specimen washes in, but only rarely.
Yet, if you are a beach person and have the patience that most people do who live on the edge of the sea, you will find treasures; shells such as the delicately striped coquinas that were used to make tabby, a mixture of sand, shells, and lime, the material for the cottages and forts built by the Spanish and English when these islands belonged to the Creek Indians. In deep, sandy mud you can sometimes discover the fragile white Angel's Wing shell, and with a small child as companion walk on the beach and
fill a bucket with cockle shells.
I am not a shell collector, not a conchologist, interested in the study of shells or the soft, inarticulate animals that produce them. But memory is held here, in these shells. The cottage is gone now, blown away in a hurricane. The great-aunts are gone, as is my sweet Aunt Bardie. And all the children are grown, with children of their own. But I look at my shells, and memory holds, captured the way the sound of the sea is held and captured within the shell's chambered heart.