We are sorting the shells into categories: bumpy ones, thin ones, pointy ones and tiny ones. Each is examined closely. We notice the jagged, broken edge on one and a brushstroke of pink inside another. We question why a barnacle has hitched a ride to shore on a blue mussel. We wonder who used to call this spiraled shell home. Each shell is then dropped into her purple bucket. Kerplunk.
My two year old daughter is crouched down next to me, her hand resting on my shoulder. We are kneeling in the soft, white, sugary sand Florida is known for. Together, hunched over the pile of shells, we are doing our best learning: exploring, taking note of detail, questioning. We have the long stretch of white beach all to ourselves this morning. Only the occasional jogger or tourist passes by. A sand bar runs parallel to the beach, like a wide ribbon threaded through the ocean. The sand bar buffers the waves coming into shore so by the time they reach our toes they are soft, small sighs rising up and down the beach in rhythmic motion. As we sort the shells into piles, we are focused on the task, fully present as we remain in a quiet moment together, the sun warming our backs.
Peering into her bucket, my daughter repeats to herself the new words she’s just learned, “bumpy, pointy.” She has discovered, on her own, that the pointy ones can be used to draw in the sand. She has found that wet sand is best to make lines and squiggles and that an incoming wave can erase her drawing without warning but will leave her with smooth, wet sand and the chance to begin again.
“Play shells?” she asks.
I sift through the pile, bringing a handful of shells from the bottom to the top. We find a rare intact whelk shell, glossy and smooth to the touch, polished from the ocean. I put the shell to my ear. “Seashell, seashell, play your song for me,” I sing. She reaches for the shell and places it against her tiny ear. Her mouth forms a small “o” as she concentrates. Listening. Perhaps she hears the hum of the motorboat bouncing over the waves offshore, or the stiff rustling of the palm trees in the breeze or the low moan the wind makes as it travels through the spiraled shell. I can’t know what she hears. This is her own private beach moment.
The thin ones are translucent and fragile, they are wisps of shells, often known as “mermaid’s toenails.” They are easily broken, so we have learned to treat these shells more gently. My daughter cups her hands together and moves them to another spot in the sand so she can reach a sparkling piece of green sea glass, a small colored gem mixed in with the peaches and purples of our shell collection. The sharp edges of the glass have become smooth from tumbling through the waves and sand. She holds the glass up to the sunlight and turns it over and over with her chubby fingers and then drops it into the bucket. Kerplink. She leans over and gives me a hug. I imagine the shadow behind us, mother and daughter merged into one outline.
I know the morning is moving into afternoon, the sun feels warmer and the morning wind has died down. Soon it will be time to go. Time to head back for lunch and a nap for her and email and phone calls and lists for me. The beach has helped me let go of my running to-do list and focus just on her. I’ve relaxed and she’s relaxed. I’ve slowed down and she’s slowed down. The other requests of me will still be there when I return, but for now we play the game she has invented. I find a stick and walk backwards down the beach drawing a line that goes up and down and around in a big circle. She diligently follows the line in the sand, not worried about where we are going, sometimes running as fast as she can and other times walking slowly as if she is on a tightrope. She is learning to follow instructions, keep her balance, and use her imagination to take her to new places. Finally I draw the line so it disappears into the waves. She follows it just up to the edge of the water, until a small wave sends her running away. Curious, she chases the wave as it recedes back into the ocean, only to run away again as it laps back toward the shore. I think of playing this very same game as a child on our beach in Connecticut. A small bird down the shore also plays this game, hopping up the beach as the water comes in and running back toward the ocean as it goes out again.
Across the street, the bells at the seaside church ring out twelve times. She stops, puts her hand to her ear and says, “hear.” We stand in one place and listen as the ringing of the bells tumble across the beach and are absorbed into the ocean. When it is finished I say, “Time to head home.” There is reluctancy in my voice and she picks up on it, seeking wiggle room for more play.
“More?” she says.
“Tomorrow,” I say. Tomorrow we will be back and like today she will run all the way across the white sand toward the piles of beautiful shells the sea has left just for her. She will say to me, “Play?” and we will look for the bumpy ones, the thin ones, the pointy ones. For today, she picks up her purple bucket, swinging it as we walk barefoot across the warm sand. She stops to look in the bucket just to make sure everything is as it should be. And it is. A small girl with a bucket of shells.
Susan Lundgren is a freelance writer living in San Francisco with her husband and two year old daughter. Susan has traveled to beaches all over the world but her favorite beach experience is collecting shells with her daughter on Pass-a-Grille beach in St. Petersburg, Florida where this essay takes place. Susan just completed her MFA from the University of San Francisco.
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.