From this distance, they look like an old Polaroid come to life. She is sitting on wet sand, arms and legs stretching toward the Pacific Ocean, daring the waves to kiss her milky-white limbs. Over her shoulder, he stands in silhouette against a brilliant blue horizon. In one hand, he holds a mocha latte from the coffee shop on the pier. In the other, a camera phone. He probably wants to capture this beautiful day, this tender instance. He doesn’t have as many of these moments as I do. Mine are pebbles on the beach. His are more like pearls.
My daughter scoops handfuls of watery mud, then lets the mud slip through her fingers. Behind her lies a smooth and endless sky, what I imagine the inside of a blue balloon might look like. The sun is low over the Pacific, but still radiant on this late December afternoon. When I squint my eyes, the picture blurs at the edges.
* * *
When I was her age, I combed the beaches of southern Maine, along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, searching for seashells. Spiral augers. Keyhole limpets. Jingle shells and jackknife clams, plucked from mud flats and tidal pools. I studied their patterns, as unique as fingerprints, then ran my thumb over their edges worn smooth by the relentless waves. Over time, the coaxing of the sea makes all things softer. Shards of glass. Fragments of brick. A marriage that didn’t go as planned.
* * *
My daughter would rather scoop mud than look for shells. She has my eyes and my smile but she is not the child I was when I was five years old. She is tougher, grittier—a tomboy at heart. Sometimes I wonder if it was biology or circumstance that made her that way. I wonder, but I know the answer doesn’t really matter. I love our differences as much as I love our similarities.
I cup my hands around my mouth and shout to them through the sea breeze that I’m going to look for sand dollars. She is too busy to notice me. He hears, though. He nods and waves in my direction.
I roll up my pant legs and wander through the surf – looking for sand dollars, yes, but also allowing the two of them some time alone. It is his first trip to California to see her, the first time in months that he has stood close enough to hold her hand and feel her warm breath. I want him to get what he came for.
* * *
I walk along the shoreline, eyes cast downward to the baubles in my path. A broken scallop here, a fragmented oyster there. But I am looking for a sand dollar, round and whole and bleached by the sun.
Shells are actually the external skeletons of ocean animals, once used as protection from predators or storms, then left behind after the animal dies. They are remnants of something that used to be. Strong tides carry them to the shore, where they are picked over by seabirds or gathered by shell-seekers like me. A wave-weathered periwinkle. A spiral-tipped wentletrap. Maybe even a grainy little sand dollar. Every step down the beach is an opportunity to find something special, something to be admired and cherished. I would walk a mile down this stretch of beach to find the perfect one.
* * *
This is my method for searching for sand dollars: when the tide is at its lowest point, I walk along the edge of the surf, where the beach is flat and the water is shallow and clear, looking for the telltale signs: a coin-like shape, a star pattern, a flat white disc against the golden sand.
Next to me on the beach, a brown-speckled sandpiper waddles along like a football on stilts, stopping now and then to plunge his long, needle-like beak into the mud. He is searching for food, something to sustain him. Snails. Shrimp. A fiddler crab, perhaps. When he finds it, he gulps it down, never bothering to savor it.
* * *
When I was in elementary school, I carried my seashell collection to class every week for show-and-tell. At home, I sorted the shells by color, shape and pattern. At night I kept them beneath my bed in a blue cardboard box that I pulled out whenever I wanted to feel closer to the ocean.
I loved the sand dollar best, loved how light and delicate it was, how it managed to be hard and soft at the same time. I spent my childhood looking for a whole sand dollar, one without chips or cracks. But unbroken shells were hard to come by in coastal Maine, where jagged rocks punctuate the shoreline.
Legend says that in order to find the sand dollar’s truest gift, you must break it in two. Inside there are five tiny shells, each shaped like a dove that brings peace to its owner. I could never bring myself to break my sand dollars, no matter how badly I wanted to see those doves.
My shell collection is somewhere in my parents’ storage shed, probably jammed between the beach chairs and the camping equipment. I lost interest in it by the time I got to junior high, when boys and basketball became more amusing. I can still remember the way the shells clanked against one another inside the cardboard box, like hollow, dried-up bones in a casket, their chalky white residue sticking to my fingers like ashes. The things we gather stay with us long after we say goodbye.
* * *
When we met, I knew he was special. There was something alluring about his olive skin and thick, black hair; something magical about the way his eyes gleamed whenever he smiled. I thought, if he loves me, then I must be special too.
Ten years later, our daughter was born, and she became the centerpiece of our marriage. She was tiny, beautiful, delicate, vulnerable. She needed me, and I gave myself to her, completely. Eventually, there was nothing left for him. And so he went searching.
First, I saw the woman’s name on our computer screen. Then I found the love notes and photographs. When I asked him about these things, he said he loved her. My daughter and I packed our suitcases.
We rented an apartment in the mountains of western Maine, far from the ocean and its beautiful treasures. On our own for the first time, we hung lace curtains in the living room and ate ice cream cones on the porch. Vanilla for me, chocolate for her. At night, I watched her sleeping, arms and legs spread across our blue quilt. My little starfish, always reaching.
My marriage is a collection of memories now, each moment a delicate shell preserved in time. Our honeymoon to the Bahamas. Our first home overlooking the Atlantic. Sunsets up and down the New England coastline. Sea fans. Snails. Scallops. Even a sand dollar, cracked open to let the doves fly.
* * *
After a few years, life in the mountains lost its luster. What was supposed to be higher ground felt more like quicksand. There was nothing to reach for there, in that small town far from the ocean. My daughter and I donated our winter coats to charity and said goodbye to neighbors and friends. We repacked those suitcases. Then we went too, in search of something that would sustain us.
* * *
The brown-speckled football is actually a whimbrel sandpiper, named for its sad, whimpering call. It migrates, sometimes from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific. It stretches its wings toward the blue balloon and sets off for a warmer climate, some place where the sun will shine on its tiny body.
* * *
The beach is constantly changing. Wind shifts the sands. Water erodes the shoreline. Waves creep up the beach, further than seems possible, and sunbathers move their blankets to higher ground. High tide, low tide, over and over, for eternity. The waves rippling over pebbles sound like a tiny audience applauding. Brava.
I wonder: is it nature or choice that initiates these cycles of our lives? Is it biology or circumstance that sends the sandpiper into the sky? Do we decide to leave or do we grow apart? I wonder, but the answers are mocha-latte mud, slipping through my fingers.
* * *
The tide has changed now. It has drawn in on itself and carried my daughter and me to another shore, another place and time. She and I have made a new home along the Pacific Ocean, where the sun warms our bodies, even in December.
To search for sand dollars here is to have faith that there is still unblemished beauty in this world. There is love to be savored.
* * *
Up ahead, the picture of my daughter on the beach with her father flickers back to life. She is awash in golden sunlight, a mud-covered angel perched upon the sand. He is reaching toward her, offering a small green shovel. An olive branch, perhaps. Behind them lies the full strength of the ocean—a giant, undulating wonder with the power to give gifts and to take them away. Memories are what remain after the tide changes. They remind us that what we had was real.
* * *
I make my way back to them, still scanning the sand in front of my feet for treasures. A limpet. A whelk. A bubble shell, perhaps. But there are none today. The beach is smooth and flat.
Up ahead, I see her, sitting on the edge of the shore, arms and legs still stretching toward the ocean. Waves lick her toes. Wind blows her long hair away from her face. She looks like a sandpiper about to lift off into the sky.
Beside her on the beach, her father squats low to the sand. His Styrofoam cup appears empty now. Water swirls gently around his ankles as he looks out toward the horizon. I don’t know what he is searching for, but I hope he finds it. I hope each of us finds it.
I stop to take it all in, to take another mental Polaroid. The blue balloon. The mocha sand. The golden, setting sun. A father visiting his daughter. A daughter reaching for the sea. I close my eyes to capture it, cherish it, another memory for my collection.