Here's a bad scan of a scan of my favorite picture of my mother and I. I can't find the original for the life of me! I've looked at it a million times in the 24 years since it was taken. I wrote the following piece a couple summers ago after studying it again.
This is my favorite picture of Mom and me on a San Luis Obispo beach in winter, when you don’t expect people to be wandering beaches, at least if you believe what tvtells you, or if you grow up in the Midwest. I have carried it with me daily for so many years: in wallets and purses, folders and notebooks. Only right now is the first time I’ve noticed the shell she cradles in her hands. It’s a sand dollar like so many she had decorating the house in baskets and on shelves. The woman was shell-crazy! All her sisters collect shells as well, but none like my mother.
As kids they grew up in a house across the street from Storm Lake in the tiny community of Lakeside, Iowa. So shells were plentiful and represent that seemingly idyllic place for at least the older kids.
The shell is a quintessential Victorian decoration, so very appropriate for my mother, whose home with my stepfather on Lake Ave. in Storm Lake was built in 1895 and was as historically accurate as any museum.
Wherever my brothers traveled in the world, they brought shells home for her: a conch from Australia, a giant mussel from San Diego. Me, being the Midwestern daughter who never traveled far, I brought her shells from lakes and streams. In our family vacations, we never missed an opportunity for beach-combing, mostly along the Great Lakes and Mackinac Island, offering our findings for Mom’s approval. I can’t remember when this started or why. But she loved every shell we found and spent a great deal of time admiring our finds, which of course, transformed into her admiration of us. So, it’s obvious why the practice continued anyway.
It must’ve started with my Grandma. Her house, too, was full of shells. One beautiful conch I remember well. It always sat in the bookshelf on the window seat in the farmhouse, the house after the one on the lake. I would listen to its whispers for hours, fingering the shells we were allowed to touch. Next to the conch, a book was prominentlydisplayed for as long as I could remember: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. I never actually read this book, though I fondled its pages and cover many times. This book also is prominently displayed in every one of her daughter’s houses. I need to read it now that I might appreciate it. Perhaps then I can understand the talismans it has inspired in all these women’s lives.
I know the shells had meditative qualities. And that for Grandma, as well as Mom, collecting them was a spiritual practice. The scallop symbolizes baptism and are often used in Catholic baptismal ceremonies. The sand dollar symbolizes both the wounds of Christ as well as the star of Bethlehem—thus the birth and death of Christ are represented in this shell. These shells in particular were displayed in all shapes and sizes.
The other day my son brought home a sand dollar shell about five inches around. He gently displayed it prominently on a table in the living room. A major collector of rocks and other natural wonders, he stood back admiring it and said in eight-year-old reverance, “Isn’t it pretty, Mommy? I just want it where I can always see it.” My heart overflowed. He never got to meet my Grandma as she died when I was nineteen, and my mom died when he was ten months old. Their spirits live on in my son, though. And I know just what book to display next to it: The 50th Anniversary edition of Gift from the Sea that my aunt gave me for my birthday.