My mother collected shells for 42 years, and every one was in the basement when she died. Except for the ones under the kitchen counter next to the stove. And those in boxes in her bathroom. And the large ones on shelves on the patio. When we set to clearing out her house, the shells were there, in their great numbers, just waiting for us.
I'm sure she picked up her first - who can resist them? - on the beaches of south Florida, when the family rented a motel room for a couple of weeks in 1950. But real collecting, I mean serious accumulation, could only begin in 1952, when my father bought a house in the Sunshine State and moved us to the ocean part-time.
My mother was a casual collector, a finder not a hunter. She did not wade among the reefs in tennis shoes, prying the lovely animals from their havens. She was happy to gather just what the tide brought up. Ours was a fine beach on the Atlantic: a sandy and productive stretch of a hundred yards between two reefs. Not so nice perhaps as the calm Gulf Coast beaches where shells emerge unscathed from the velvet waters, but we liked it.
Here she'd find and bring home the usual assortment of Florida mollusk homes: Lion's Paws with their red wrinkled knuckles; Scotch Bonnets, like small round scoops of praline ice cream; Lettered Olives, etched in brown as if by tiny seismographs; and an assortment of Whelks, Murexes, and Scallops. Most of her specimens were 90 percent perfect, and once or twice a season she'd find a prize: a pristine Paper Nautilus, an unscarred Left-handed Whelk. And the collection grew.
In 1965, my father built a house one hour to the north. My mother moved in and marveled at the large basement (rare in Florida) and the capacious kitchen. A place for all her shells. But the beach itself was a disappointment. The length of it, about half a mile, was submerged reef, exposed at low tide. The shells that survived the journey to shore were damaged. The waves that had transported them had left them scarred, sand-blasted, chipped, and broken into scarcely recognizable pieces.
But my mother's focus simply shifted. Her admiration stood fast, and her collecting continued. She already had boxes of "nice" shells. Now she brought home small rocks intricately carved by worms that looked like Chinese ivory, pieces of strangely shaped driftwood and colorful sponges, bleached white shards of the spiraling core of whelks, like tiny Modigliani sculptures. Sometimes she'd take a whelk shard, file down the ragged edges, and drill a hole at the top for it to hang as a pendant. She'd glue pins to the backs of carved rocks to make brooches.
And still she gathered the beach's bounty. Each day's catch - three or four pieces - would be rinsed and set to dry on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. There they'd rest and be admired for several days. And then? Well, eventually they'd be added to this box or that, under the counter or in the basement, in early retirement.
By the time my parents moved to Florida full-time, my mother was going to the beach less often. And her foraging became even less frequent when my father passed on. But we did go, together, when I came to visit. We'd head out before breakfast and maybe find a Great Heart Cockle, that palm-sized shell so nice for storing pins, and her delight was undiminished. We'd take it home.
After my mother died, we sorted her clothes, her furniture, her books. Then, warily, we approached the shells. They'd been lying in wait: in coffee cans, toolboxes, glass jars, rusted-shut cookie tins, cardboard shoe boxes, clear plastic boxes, and opaque plastic boxes. All over the house. I would have been happy to keep just one shell that my mother had rescued and cherish it in her memory. But she had left us one ton of them.
I began to pick through them, taking samples of each I liked. My mother's life here on the south Florida beaches passed fondly before my eyes, through my fingers, tracing the history of her shell collecting. But quickly the novelty wore off. After the 50th Juno's Volute, they lose their significance, both as objects of nature and as objects of nostalgia. This was growing to be less a warm remembrance, a collection of gifts from my mother to us, and more, simply, a truckload of shells.
But my mother did not gather a truckload of shells. She gathered these wonders one by one by one. The joy was in the discovery, and it lasted a few hours, a day maybe. Longer, of course, the rarer the find.
She couldn't then give them away as gifts, because all her neighbors had the same. She couldn't ship them up North; few were really worth the trouble. And she couldn't throw them away. That would be callous abandonment. Far easier to simply tuck the object into a box, your box, your little wonder forever.
I was the last to leave when we'd finished. With some time to spare on the morning of my departure, I went down to the beach. The ocean was calm, after a four-day storm. The sun was climbing over the clouds. Ten minutes into my walk, a large object caught my eye at the high-tide line. I picked it up: a gleaming, sculpted, brown-and-white shard of a King Helmet. A beautiful thing.... Keep it?
I stopped and chuckled at that instinct. Here was the real gift from my mother: that urge to gather, to collect, to keep. If she could have seen me, she would have chuckled too. But Mama, look where this has gotten us.
And then suddenly the solution came to me. Cherish what was important for her: the joy of discovery, the love of nature. And then leave it for others to do the same.
I could pick up that shell, marvel at it, feel its smooth hardness, remember walks with my mother just then with the sun rising, and, calmly, put it back. Sport fishermen have been practicing this for years; they call it "catch and release." My mother taught me the catch part. Now I should learn the release.
I put down that shard of King's Helmet. I know someone else will find it and enjoy it. And I know my own children, one day, will thank me. For they will still have those many shells we couldn't throw away, a tangible, beautiful remembrance linking them to the grandmother who gathered for 42 years.