My Grandmother’s Shell

My Grandmother’s Shell

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

My Grandmother’s Shell

My grandmother was a great teacher, and her influence on me only grows over time.

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Above my mantel is a painting of a little girl with a conch shell. As she holds it up to the light, the sun streams through, turning the smooth, inner surface into glowing pink satin. No matter what the season, the painting’s sunlight fills my study with summer brightness.

Looking at the painting, I remember the story of its creation. The little girl is posing for her father, a painter. Her arms grow heavy, her neck aches, she longs to rest a bit. “El, El, look into the shell,” her father murmurs, and she remembers what a privilege it is to pose for him, how sought-after his paintings are. “Just a bit longer,” he promises, “and then we’ll stop for tea.”

Eleanor was my grandmother, and the painting—one that her father could not bear to part with—has been handed down through the generations. For as long as I can remember, the shell in the painting sat on my grandmother’s desk. In the winter, when cold fog rolled in off the sea, she would hold it up to the lamp and its rosy sheen would fill her with summer’s warmth once again.

Grandmother found it washed up on the rocky shore of the little island in Maine that was her family’s summer home. She used to tell me how, when the morning’s silvery mists had lifted, she and her sisters and brother would run across the open meadows with their kites or pick bouquets of wildflowers or gather the wool left behind on the bushes by the wild island sheep. The children would hunt for blackberries and watch birds with their father, who taught them the birds’ names and all their many songs. After tea, they often explored the wide beaches looking for pirate treasures. It was on one of these adventures that Grandmother found the shell, scoured smooth by the waves, bleached clean by the summer sun. As generations before her had done, she placed the shell to her ear and heard the sound of the sea.

By the time my mother was born, Grandmother had left that island home and created a new summer place for her own children. They spent hours sailing in little dinghies, galloping their ponies across the marshes, and gathering shells on the broad white beach that bordered Cape Cod Bay. In this new home, Grandmother recreated many of her childhood loves: She seeded meadows with wildflowers, designed perennial borders and planted blackberries. And from the porch she could look out across the tidal river and see ospreys nesting in a tall pine tree.

When we grandchildren began arriving, she set aside a part of her garden so we could know the joy of planting vegetables and flowers. How proud we were to place a plate of our radish harvest—ruby globes scrubbed shiny and clean—on a dinner table made brighter still by vases filled with our flowers. She taught us the birds’ calls, and told us how they returned each summer to her woods and meadows, just as we did. And she let us listen to the ocean in her shell.

Each autumn, as my family and I returned to our Midwestern home, I ached for the sounds of the shore; the cry of the gulls wheeling overhead, the low mournful song of the foghorn, so deep I seemed to feel more than hear it. The tangy smell of the salt air was replaced by the smoke of burning leaves. But I missed the tides and the wildness. Grandmother knew my yearning.

One year, shortly after Thanksgiving, the postman brought a large box mailed from Massachusetts. Mother hid it in that secret place she kept all boxes that arrived in December. On Christmas morning I opened my grandmother’s present and saw, nestled in tissue paper, the delicate pink and white of her shell. I picked it up and held it to my ear, and there was the ocean, murmuring. Outside, snow was falling softly past the window, but in the shell, cupped in my hand, waves lapped on a summer shore.

This year I have a granddaughter of my own. Her birth heralds the beginning of a new generation. When she comes to visit, I shall hold the shell up to her ear and she will hear the sound that has always drawn the women of our family to the ocean. It is the sound of her own heart.

Faith Andrews Bedford

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