Sally Sells Seashells

For the first time in 4 years, I took a vacation. For the first time since I’d been married, I took a vacation that didn’t involve an argument the night before we left, a vacation that didn’t include a smart-ass comment about women’s intelligence when I needed to pee 3 hours into the drive, and a vacation without having to take care of a grown man who decided to drink until he threw up all over the place and passed out.

It. Was. So. Nice.

My son loves rhymes and tongue twisters (and loves making other people say them) and we had the best time with Fuzzy Wuzzy the Bear and Sally Sells Seashells (beach appropriate of course!). The good belly laughs that make us smile from head to toe. The good road trip laughs that make those nice happy memories for children.

I didn’t miss him at all and actually let myself feel a little free and confident. Until I was sitting in the sand on the beach that first day and saw them. Families. Mommies and daddies and beautiful children laughing and loving life in between those mommies and daddies. It hit me like one of those big waves you accidentally turn your back on. It completely knocked the breath out of me. The realization that we never were a good family, and would never be a good family, was heartbreaking. I suddenly felt so responsible for what had happened. My son would never know what it was like to grow up in a balanced, loving family. And I put that blame on myself.

The sand I stood on felt like it was completely washed out from underneath me. I got dizzy. Sad. Angry. I took a deep breath and looked out at the water. And then I looked over at my son. He was so excited to be at the beach, such raw, authentic happiness.

He started collecting seashells and as his little hand beckoned to me to come with him, I decided to stop thinking about what was and what could’ve been with a man that would never care. As we both walked along the beach under the cloudless blue sky, I found myself looking for the seashells that weren’t broken. The perfect, symmetrical ones that had no nicks or cracks. They were of course very hard to find. As I looked for the unbroken shells, I noticed my son was the opposite of me. He was very resolute in his decision to actually find and collect all of the broken seashells. He threw the perfect ones back into the frothy water.

Aren’t we funny in how we each define so differently what is perfect, balanced or beautiful? Hand-selecting what we can in life, typically basing our definitions and standards on a wet and sandy foundation that moves with the tides and is different for each of us. I looked into his little green bucket and it was absolutely beautiful. Colorful pieces, hundreds of them, all gathered together in this little bucket. There was not a single perfect sea shell in there. Some pieces were so small that they were almost hidden in the masses, until the sunlight would hit them and they would sparkle.

I did a little self-reflection as he busied himself with collecting (and selecting) more broken shells. I had just tried to tell my son the only seashells worth collecting were the unbroken ones, when I myself was one of the broken pieces. My job as a mother was to show him the big wide world and open his mind to everything. But today it was he that had opened my mind, and in a very matter-of-fact tone had told me I was wrong.

I looked into his bucket again, which by now was almost full and getting heavy. The cracked, broken pieces were worn and shaped by the ocean and the currents that brought them here. I suddenly felt so emotionally close to those broken shells! Each one of them had a different journey, a different story. I looked from the bucket to my beautiful son, his baby fine hair blowing in the beach breeze, his little hands and feet sandy and wet. Those little fingers picking through the sand and shells for the perfectly imperfect shell.

“Mama! Other shell!” he said gleefully as he found the one he wanted and dropped it into his bucket. I immediately set about helping him, now fully invested in the hunt for the broken shells – it became quite personal for me. We went back to our hotel that afternoon, hand-in-hand, sandy and happy. Our bucket and every pocket we had filled with those broken seashells.

We are back home now, beach toys put away, suitcases unpacked and clothes washed. But we took all of those broken shells (and maybe even a few of the “perfect” ones) and filled up a hollow glass lamp to display our memories. It is now in our family room and my son points to it every now and then and proudly tells me that those are his shells. It is a good reminder for me, too, that I need to stop comparing myself to what I consider perfect and right in this world. There is no clean, universal definition of what a good loving family is. We are not defined, although we sometimes spend a lot of time and energy defining ourselves.

Sally didn’t sell me seashells this time around. She sold me a little bit of freedom from myself, and for that, I was very grateful.