Among the array of colorful stores and restaurants, looking like rows of lollipops along Periwinkle Avenue in Sanibel, Florida, sits a solitary, lime colored shop with a turquoise sign that reads, “She Sells Sea Shells By The Sea Shore.” A couple of miles further along the bike path that provides cyclists with a reprieve from traffic congestion, I saw the second such store. Odd, I thought, that people would choose to spend their money here on an island whose claim to fame is its shell-covered beaches. Sort of like dining in the island’s expensive sea-food restaurants, when I could cast my line out into the waters teeming with grouper, snapper, and mahi-mahi.
I have always been drawn to beaches. There is something about the expanse of water, waves, and tides that pulls me in, like a magnet. My relationship to the ocean has transitioned along with my own evolution from child to dare I say it, older adult. In the pre-bikini 1970s, when my stomach was trim enough to wear a two-piece, keeping my belly-button unexposed, my college boyfriend and I would occasionally take his aging VW bus to Mentor Headlands State Park, on the shores of Lake Erie. No beach chairs. No boom boxes. These were minimalist times where I spent hours baking first on my back; my only exercise was repositioning to my belly, attempting to transform my pale Eastern European flesh to a more Mediterranean look. The finished product, unfortunately, generally turned out to look more like a blushing lobster than Sophia Loren.
Wingersheek Beach stretches out on the edges of Cape Ann on the Massachusetts North Shore. Even though my move to New England in the late 70s, in an unsuccessful effort to follow that same college boyfriend, led me to settle more than two hours from the coast, I joined Nancy, a co-worker turned close friend, on her treks to a beach house on Cape Ann, a family summer home that had traveled through several generations of New Englanders and now belonged to her friend Tom and his now husband of 40 years, John. It was here that I became a runner, well, at least a jogger as I discovered the thrill of gliding barefoot along a beach for miles. When I wasn’t running, I was walking for hours, gossiping, chatting, and sharing my soul with Nancy, now a lifelong friend. Her tall, lean figure, and waspy blonde hair that stretched straight down to her mid-back, were made for her assortment of leopard, zebra, and black string bikinis that she wore so easily.
My two year old daughter, Rachel, like a sandpiper, runs towards the water with light, airy footsteps, screaming joyfully as she allows her toes to just sample the froth of the tiny breaking waves in Rockport’s town beach, before she would turn and run wildly back to my arms, only to repeat the dance in multiple successions. Our mother-daughter vacations would take us to beaches up and down the East coast and on to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera. With each changing location, like a hawk, I maintained watch over this child, who so easily became friends with a sea that I increasingly viewed as dangerous. I studied each wave with a pounding heart, wondering if the next cresting wing of water would claim her. I am not a swimmer, but I wouldn’t allow myself to imprison my daughter with my fears.
In 2009, a beachfront condo on the Jersey Shore’s Long-Beach Island served as home for an affordable pre-season week in June, in which I scheduled each activity always in sight of the coastline, beginning with morning yoga, followed by a fast walk along the beach, which was repeated in half-time and half-distance with my husband, whose arthritic back waged a constant war on his ability to exercise. Ultimately, having completed my edict to exercise, I would carry a lounge chair the short-distance to the water’s edge, where I consumed novels and scribbled pages of mediocre poetry about seagulls, sunsets, and the soul.
This morning the beach at Sanibel became reality television, as low tide revealed a host of activity more stimulating than a walk through Time Square. A coffee klatch of hundreds of seagulls and sandpipers feverishly stood in groups, bobbing their heads and squawking noisily, some, I noticed, sporting tufts of black feathers atop their heads, looking like 70s punk rockers. Grey-haired couples ambled along in sneakers, sipping from Styrofoam coffee cups, occasionally bending down to examine one of the millions of mostly white, half-mooned scallop shells. A dark-haired couple pointing their camera towards the water gave a clue that led my eyes to the triangular, shiny black dolphin fin, that would rise and submerge several times before it disappeared. What I assumed to be a pair of grandchildren, of two of the mostly older inhabitants of this island retreat, scooped up handfuls of shells mixed with sand, dumping their contents into a sun-yellow, green-handled bucket, while a young girl with a single auburn braid, like a fishtail, lying against the back of her t-shirt, wildly motioned for her parents to view a starfish she discovered, lying helplessly in the fine white sand, like a beige-snowsuited child of New England making a snow angel. The water changed its hues as the sun attempted to pierce a slate-grey cloud, while a mob of pelicans simultaneously dove head first into the water, the winner emerging with a silver fish held tightly in its long beak.
At 63 I have traded in my two-piece for a t-shirt and a pair of capris. I revere the ocean. I am hungry to take in all that lives, to embrace it, to make sure I don’t miss anything that the sea reveals.