By Elise Seyfried
A lot (let’s be honest, most) of nature, I could take or leave alone. In my heart, I remain a girl from New York City, a decidedly un-natural place. Majestic rock formations? Towering sequoia trees? Ho hum! But time was, if you showed me a seashell, for some reason I was all over it. Big, small, occupied, unoccupied, broken, intact — didn’t matter! I loved them all!
Growing up, summertime meant weeks at the Jersey shore. Every year, my first stop was the Bait and Tackle Shop in Normandy Beach, which, in addition to their signature fishing supplies, also sold exotic seashells. Those bivalves and mollusks were my primary seasonal purchases. For hours on end, I pored over my “Guide to the Seashells of the World.” By age seven, I could tell you (much) more than you wanted to know about the giant tridacna clam, the rarest types of cowries, and the poisonous creature housed in the cone shell. I daydreamed about discovering colorful marvels of the sea in Indonesia and Madagascar, in Sanibel, Florida, and on Padre Island, Texas.
Alas, the shells I actually found on the beach in my New Jersey collection consisted mostly of broken clams (the infrequent whole shells I would give to my Aunt Rose, who used them as “ash receivers” for her cigarettes) and smelly dead mussels tangled up in seaweed. But I was not deterred. Someday I would travel far and wide seeking treasures from the deep!
After my husband Steve and I founded the Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre in 1982, I spent every July and August walking the Delaware beaches and had a bit more luck. The ocean surf wasn’t quite as rough as in New Jersey, and the Delaware Bay was quite calm, so more shells survived the trip to land in one piece. My enjoyment of this hobby increased a thousand fold after my children came along. All five kids loved shell hunting at the beach and, like their mother before them, loved spending their allowances at the Sea Shell Shop on cameo shells and chambered nautiluses (nautili?).
Once in a while, there would be a special find. I recall my elation the day a strange tide suddenly dumped huge quantities of starfish on the sand. Of course, I had no idea what to DO with these live creatures after I filled a bucket with them. While I was figuring it out, I left the bucket outside behind our cottage. Within an hour, the many stray cats in town had made my decision for me: they found the starfish and tore them all apart.
My vacations in Jamaica and Hawaii and mission trips to Costa Rica yielded some beautiful specimens, but I’ve noticed that my collecting has slowed down markedly in recent years. My other interests have eclipsed this one, and as I hit age 60, collections in general have lost their luster. They seem to be just more “things” in a life already chock-full of them. Now I can stroll for hours along the shoreline and not pick up a single shell. I pass by the perfect snails and oysters, and tell myself I am giving a gift to little shell-seekers who will soon follow my path. Sometimes my change of attitude makes me sad. It’s as if my shell-mania was a last connection to the wonder of my childhood, and now it’s finally over.
But I’m not quite ready to pitch the shells I still possess. There is a bowl of scallop shells on my desk at work and a huge basket of conch shells in the family room at home. I may never again pick up another seashell myself, but maybe as long as I keep what I have, that long-ago little girl, and the thrill of her discoveries, will remain with me somewhere down deep. And maybe that is something worth holding on to after all.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She is the author of a self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” a collection of essays. It can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com.