My three-year-old daughter and I scoured the beach for shells. It was the time of Covid-19, so in addition to her one-piece bathing suit with the face of a kitty cat on the bottom, she was also wearing a face-mask, as was I. It was a gorgeous beach in Massachusetts on the North Atlantic. As we gathered broken clam shells, we uncovered a giant shell as large as my hand. It led to a thought of my mom.
For years my mom used a clamshell as an ashtray while smoking Salems on her deck. The ash gathered in the bottom and she’d prop a cigarette on the edge. The clamshell was there because she wasn’t really smoking.
Do you want an ashtray, Mom? I asked.
Oh no. This will do, she said.
Mom made use of what she had. She didn’t need an ashtray, because she had a clamshell. She didn’t need an ashtray, because even though she smoked every day there were some habits Mom skirted around as if they were temporary. Once, I got on her about smoking and how it was shortening her life.
Will you just leave it alone, Tim, Mom said. It’s one of my only pleasures.
She suffered from chronic pain due to rheumatoid arthritis which went undiagnosed for years. She suffered from a husband who betrayed her and killed himself, leaving Mom with three children to raise alone and a lifetime of debt. She suffered and cigarettes provided an escape, a bit of pleasure as she read books and drank coffee.
Another pleasure was going to the beach. Mom loved wading and looking for rocks. Sometimes, she’d ease herself down in the water with the waves washing against her body, pushing and pulling her and the stones she sought in a rhythmic motion. Mom also loved to swim. She swam when she was pregnant with me and my brothers and she swam as long as the Great Lakes allowed it. At the beach with my family, I imagined Mom there and what she loved about the water.
The beach was free. It was open to anyone regardless of skin color or how much money they made. The water was a place of buoyancy. It eased the ache in her joints. Took the weight off her hips. Her fingers didn’t have to strain as they did playing the piano, but could set into the curled cups which her hands would bend toward later in life. I don’t think she worried about money as she floated in Lake Michigan with the sun shining down on her. At the beach, Mom let the water embrace her. She heard the cry of gulls overhead and dipped back, her toes breaking the surface for sky. For the moment she was lifted up. Sound receded with her ears underwater. Mom closed her eyes and drifted, her hair radiating outward as loose as her limbs.
Back at the house, my daughter and I sifted through our shells. We dump a bag on the floor of our sunporch, the grains of sand settling in the carpet. For my daughter, the shell is a shell, until it becomes a shovel, a swimming pool for fairy dolls, a marker of her grandmother who died when my daughter was a baby.