We are back on Sanibel Island, one of my favorite places on Earth. I was just a few years older than Nina the first time my parents took my brother and me to Sanibel Island, the first time I saw the ocean. Even then, I felt as if the roots of my real self had found the right soil. My senses, lulled into complacency by middle school and the midwestern flat cornfields, swelled in the salty air.
I was mesmerized by the waves and how they pulled and pushed to alter the geography of this place twice a day, over and over. Because I was a horse-crazy girl at the time, I imagined the moon hauled invisible reins to harness the waves like a mighty stallion. At 47, I still feel this sense of wonder.
Seven years ago, I walked this shore on Sanibel Island cradling my daughter in my womb. The images from the ultrasound were only a day-old then, with her organs as tiny as pebbles and her hands moving slowly like starfish.
So I tell Nina again, as I do every year when we come to Sanibel Island, about when I walked this beach with her growing inside me, and how I felt so overwhelmed about how she would love this beautiful world.
“Yeah, yeah, Mama. You’ve told me that a million hundred times already,” she says, splashing me with a flick of seawater.
I think about last year, when two teenage girls stooped near us to snatch up a shell. The girls were the image of the American ideal, with long silken hair, daring bikinis, and tanned skin.
“Hi!” Nina called out to them, but they didn’t hear.
“Is it perfect?” one girl asked the other. “God, I really hope it’s perfect!”
The other turned it over in her palm and then declared, “Nope. Cracked right here. See?”
“Shit,” said the one hoping for perfection. “Drop it.”
As the teens walked on I moved over to see what they’d rejected. A buttery-brown shell had a spiral pattern that began in a tight dark dot which furled outward three times around. Yes, it had a deep crack, but it was exquisite. There were three others, with similar spirals in the same shell heap and I gathered them all.
“What are they?” Nina asked.
“They’re shark eyes, which is a type of moon shell,” I told her. “See how this dark dot in the center looks like an eye? And see this spiral that starts from that center?” I traced the spiral of the largest shell with my finger and then bent down to trace the swirl of her belly button sticking out from her two-piece swimsuit.
“You match,” I said.
Each shell was broken open, but the swirled tips — the very marks that identified them — were not marred. One had only that very bit of swirled spire remaining, the rest of its curved chamber amputated. I closed my fingers around the shells as I told Nina we had to head back to join the rest of the family for dinner. We made our way from the compact wet sand, carefully stepping over the ridge of shattered shell pieces deposited by the highest tides, and sank our feet in when we reached the softer dunes near the sea grasses.
“I’ve been salted again,” Nina said, licking dried seawater on her fingers.
“Just don’t get mayonnaised,” I teased, pointing up to the gang of pelicans perched in a palm tree. Nina screamed and bolted across the wooden boardwalk in front of us, trailing a gust of laughter behind her.
We met up to blast the sand off our feet from a cold water spigot, and raced one another up the two flights of stairs to the condo. I laid the sandy shells on the balcony outside the door and we looked them over.
“Maybe you’ll find a whole one before we leave, Mama,” Nina offered.
“Maybe,” I answered. “But I like these the way they are.”
“But they’re broken,” she said, “You don’t have broken shells in the jars at home.”
I was quiet as I realized this is true, then said, “Well, I will now. These are interesting to me. It’s like they have a story to tell because they’ve had lots of boo-boo’s and it makes me wonder what kind of storms they’ve been through. But what I like the best is that the interesting part about them — this swirl which tells what kind of shell they are — is still complete, and beautiful. It seems like they never lost their voice to announce who they are.”
Nina muttered “cool” and ran inside to find her cousins. I arranged the shells so no one would step on them, feeling strangely protective. To have once hosted living creatures, be churned and tossed in rough seas, and then emerge merely cracked but with identity intact struck me as damn near heroic.
Later that night, I felt nostalgic for one more walk on the beach after dinner, since we would all head back to our homes the next morning. Nina chose to come with me, and our feet once again made the transition from concrete, to grass, to sand.
A crowd had gathered a few yards down the beach and we zig-zagged our way towards them. When a water-soaked dog with a driftwood stick in his mouth enticed Nina to play fetch, I asked his owner what had drawn the crowd. She said, “I guess the usual. Those looking up have come to watch the sunset, those looking down are shelling for treasures in the tidal pools.”
Maybe it was the glow of the crimson peach sunset, or the warmth of the dinner wine, but I felt as joyful and grateful as George Bailey after he returned, bloodied but alive, from his nightmare in It’s A Wonderful Life. The wind had softened since earlier in the day, and was now a warm caress. I watched Nina laugh and run with the dog, and I watched people milling about, pointing at the sunset or showing off a newly found shell. I studied couples walking hand-in-hand and felt no longing, no absence. That wasn’t not for me, not now anyway. I was enough.
I caught up with Nina and we joined a huddle of people rimming a large tidal pool. “What’s in there?” Nina asked, and a silver-haired woman next to her said, “Here, take these.” She dropped two dime-sized sand dollars into Nina’s hand.
Sand dollars of any size are prized on the island, and I began to protest, but the woman said, “These are no longer alive, so she can keep them, and I have others.” She held up her weathered brown hands and said, “These are my badges of honor for living here year ‘round. I have plenty of shells.” Then she bent down and said to Nina, “They are so tiny but you can already tell what they are by their markings. Even so small, shells know what to become, just like kids, right?”
Nina nodded and curled her fingers around the delicate shells as if she was protecting a baby bird. The woman leaned towards me with a chuckle and said, “And they don’t become stupid like humans and try to twist themselves into some other type of shell they think might be better.” I nodded and laughed with her, but my cheeks flushed at the thought of how many different shells I’ve tried to fit into, and how often I’ve rejected my own. Then I caught myself heading down the worn path of berating myself and thought, “Slow down. You’re here now.”
Nudging my hip with her elbow, Nina said, “Mama, watch this.” She picked a carmel brown fighting conch shell from the tidal pool with her free hand and gently turned it over to expose the underside. I watched as the gray gelatinous mollusk extended a small sickle-shaped foot and waved it about. I told Nina the fighting conch was named for that very action of self-defense, but that most animals retreat deep into their shells when they feel afraid. “Here you go, brave little guy,” she said, putting the shell back in the tidal pool.
Then a collective “Ahhh!” erupted. “Look up,” someone yelled, “Here comes another one!”
A man standing farther back in the dunes held a two-foot hot air balloon over his head, ignited a flame within it, and let it go. The wind lifted the glowing balloon high over our heads and gently carried it out towards the deeper sea. We watched as the light gradually disappeared into the inky dusk sky.
“I’ve never seen this!” I said out loud, and the sand dollar woman told me they were called sky lanterns. The man in the dunes lit and released one after another until a dozen arced over our heads out to sea. I hoisted Nina, wide-eyed and grinning, onto my shoulders and she clapped with the launch of each lantern.
After the last one was swallowed into the night, I lowered her to the sand and she grabbed my hands, jumping up and down. “Can you believe we just saw little fires in the sky? Can you, Mama?”
All I could say was, “Yes, love. I can.”
Small fires — barely smoldering in our darkest hours or blazing with beauty during the glorious ones — will always light our way.