Friday, April 24, 2020

Shells: an essay about collecting

I open the lid and find a handwritten label inside the nearest 2" x 4" compartment, one of about 15 inside this clear plastic case the size of a placemat. It reads “257 Immature Fighting Conchs, Sanibel I.” There aren’t 257 conch shells in the compartment now, most having been given away; perhaps two dozen remain. They are beautiful, and like anything that has come to rest in our terrestrial world but doesn’t truly belong here, they have an alien feel about them. All were collected by my father, in the nineties, mostly from beaches on Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast.

What else is in the box? All of these little compartments once had proper and neatly written labels, in black ballpoint on matchbook-size rectangles of plain white paper. Some are missing, but some remain: “40 Nutmegs,” “44 Olives,” “12 Limpets – mostly from Sanibel; one (possibly) from beach at Choroni, Venezuela.” That one gives you an idea of my parents’ travels after retirement. But I don’t know who he was making these labels for, if not himself.

There are many more shells here, including “124 Juvenal Conchs.” (I’m pretty sure he meant “Juvenile,” and it’s an uncharacteristic goof for my dad, who was typically more careful about the things he wrote that might be read by others.) Here are several larger conchs, butterscotch-colored with streaks of white, some banded tulips, pure white coquinas, and jingle shells, what some people call “giants’ toenails.”

It’s a nice assortment, but it’s only a small part of his original collection, which consisted of many such tidy containers with dividers, plus bins and boxes and bags and finally bushels of shells, all categorized according to type.

My parents went to Sanibel for many years, usually in early March, always for about four weeks. They went because someone back home had recommended it, and they grew to love it, driving the whole way down from Boston, eager to escape the final month of winter and bask in the famous Florida sunshine. They always drove the same route, and stayed at the same motels along the way, arriving at last at the West Wind Inn. The first year, my father didn’t know about the Sanibel pastime (and business) of shelling, but he soon found out. He came up with a satisfying routine: most mornings he would get dressed right after sunrise, and join the other shellers patrolling the long beach behind the inn, peering and poking at what the waves had washed in the night before (the early-bird rule applying to shells as it does to worms). The shellers were careful not to get in each other’s way, almost always working by themselves, sometimes for hours, bent at the waist, eyes on the tidelines, in the distinctive posture known as the Sanibel Stoop. He would carry a bag to bring back the keepers he’d found, and over the days and weeks and years, he brought back thousands.

Conchs, sand dollars, and jingles were common and plentiful. What everyone was looking for, but few found, was the butterfly-shaped coquina that still had both “valves” attached and intact, and the exquisite, even rarer, junonia. Both would elude my father.

When my parents moved to an assisted-living facility a few years ago, many of their possessions, including most of the shells, had to be left behind. They kept a few of the best, which my niece mounted in a frame for them, visible proof that they had once “wintered” at an island paradise. So the memories of Sanibel were kept alive a little longer.

The rest of them went to relatives, one or two boxes each. I’m probably not the only one who’s been storing his share of the shells in a dark corner of the basement. Someday I will take them out and scatter them by our side door, where visitors enter, and where we already place shells and beach stones from our own journeys. The more delicate ones will end up in our compost pile, where they’ll slowly break down and, in time, become soil for the gardens that we, or others, will make.

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