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My Shell Fragment
Shell fragment, watercolor and gouache, JD 2023
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We all have these pieces of shell, tumbled in the surf until the sharp edges of their broken forms are smoothed into an illusion of wholeness, as if the irregular form were actually original. For some reason one small remnant catches the eye amid the seaweed and other rolled fragments scattered in the dried tidelines. Why this piece and not the one next to it of darker shell or a bit of twisted whelk further on? Because something in the arc of the upper edge mimics the sinew of a wing? The subtle colors just manage enough of a glow to suggest a living warmth associated with the vanished animal that operated the hinge connecting the two sides of this bivalve when it was living. Now, nothing but the bleached bit of hard shell made of calcium carbonate remains, delicately perfect even in its partial state.
Beach treasures. We bring them home in our pockets, put them into glass jars in the bathroom or hoard them in a jewelry box, utterly useless except as touchstone reminders of the summer past. Nostalgia would be the obvious sentiment aroused by such fragments. I can easily slip into recollections of summers past—the childhood scenes in Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, where my mother and I put together a salt water aquarium each year. I spent the days drawing the fish, making studies of the common sticklebacks and pipefish that we caught in our fine-mesh dragnet. Shells were abundant, and I collected them assiduously, then arranged them by size order to be glued onto a board and framed. These are generic memories, common among children of my generation for whom the ritual of going “to the shore” was a still-modest and affordable pleasure in the 1950s.
Common Filefish, Watercolor and graphite, JD 1961
I was perhaps slightly more obsessive than some other children, amassing an enormous collection of bivalves of the tiniest possible size. Some were just a few millimeters in span, barely bigger than some grains of sand. I had a passion for these minute particles of once-living matter and could distinguish the asymmetrical cockles from the perfect bilateral shape of the scallops. Even in near microscopic scale, the scallops came in a spectrum of sea colors—deep coral red, a deep-water buff-blue-grey, near black, or light with barely visible stripes across the ribs. The touch of these small scallop shells was soft, their ribs made a texture like corduroy at this size. Brittle hard as they were they produced a sensual pleasure through my curious fingers. The chestnut astartes had a black-brown outer layer inclined to peel and chip, but the sunrise tellins, oblong and elegant as a starlet’s manicured nail, were finished with a shiny surface, smooth and resilient. I knew them all, intimately, and lining them up I would have them move in elaborate orchestrated arrangements, like some miniscule ocean-based Busby Berkeley chorus performing throughout the afternoon.
Summer was summer, the time of ease and expanse, beach mornings and bayside afternoons. My mother had a small sailboat tethered in the bay in which she and my older brother had adventures, exploring the small grass-tufted islands on which gulls made their nests. The two would disappear towards the horizon, calm, confident, and focused on the wind, which my mother had read about in the winter months when she studied books on sailing. She had an intuition for the motion of the water, the tilt and set of the sail, depth of the centerboard and pull of the rudder. The sailboat was small enough to feel like an extension of her body, and my brother’s. Young though he was still in those days, not yet twelve, he was intrepid and intense. His anxieties and restless energies were well met by the challenges of making the boat move through the waves. The forces at work were bigger than those that battled inside his psyche, and he must have felt real relief at having external winds to wrestle with instead of those that never left him at peace.
But I was a shore-based child, happy to wade for hours in the shallows picking up baby eels with my bare hands, catching baby blow-fish in a drag net. The first few times we snagged these in the meshes, my mother and I both imagined they were pearls. But they collapsed as we tried to pull them from the wet mass, the bright white globes sunk as the sharp hard teeth of the baby fishes mouths became apparent, working away as they gasped for air. For awhile we put some of these into the aquarium we kept, but we found they were too savage to put among the other fish, who soon suffered sharp bites to their sides and fins. Managing the aquarium ecology was a constant project, and the social life of fish was one dimension of that. We were always working either with an ocean population or a bay water group since the salinity of each was different. That was among the first lessons. Social life and survival were context-dependent, and the conditions for thriving meant the two cultures had to be kept apart.
Occasionally we caught a seahorse, a true rarity, and then the whole aquarium had to be emptied and refilled to accommodate the spiny crustacean in its appropriate conditions. Did we even, once, manage to capture a male carrying an egg-case on his chest? I may have imagined this, or confused it with the praying mantis that we took home from the shore to Philadelphia where it spun its own egg pouch on a curtain rod in the dining room and hatched out a mass of tiny versions of itself. But summer does not survive in a remote location and neither the babies nor their parent outlived their relocation. The mantis was found stiff, inert, clinging to the rod, its offspring disappeared.
Aside from the fish and the shells, the twin activities of the living world and the museum of collections, we had our microscopes. Side by side, my mother and I sat at the kitchen table staring through the eye pieces. She taught me how to make microscope slides, taking a small sample, using an adhesive fluid to attach the cover glass, that exceedingly thin square that kept the sample intact. These delicate operations had a seriousness to them, the first steps on a path to research and scientific training. This was the course set for me at an early age, though in the end, I disappointed my parents by picking another route.
All of the childhood collections are gone, vanished in the passage of time. Once in awhile in clearing some residual pocket of memory boxes, I come across the crumbled remains of a sea urchin twisted into an ancient Kleenex, or a dried starfish too desiccated to be recognizable. These object do not move me at all, they are the dead evidence of another era, distant emotionally as well as temporally. The memory of halcyon days is still encapsulated in a handful of visuals, the deep color of late summer light slanting across the wooden boards of the floors in the shore house, or the early morning sunshine, washing the landscape out with it diffuse illumination.
But among those memories another, that of the clump of bushes on the spare lot beside our summer house, remains vivid. Between us and the neighbors, in that era where not every inch of beach property had been developed and occupied, we had a lot on either side of us. One was mere dunes with dusty miller and beach grass that separated use from the house of “the ladies” as we called them, unmarried schoolteachers who made their lives together in an undefined and unnamed arrangement as was the habit in that era. But on the other side was a large mass of beach plum and laurel, bay bushes, and other dense growth. Though in actuality the area this cannot have been much more than half the lot, we thought of it as a jungle and made paths and clearings that were deep enough to hide in out of sight. In that space, alone and concealed, I found another kind of solace. The pleasures of solitude and self-awareness. Opportunities to be with myself without others were not plentiful in the scope of family life, so the time in the bushes was precious. I would subject myself to various rituals of endurance, testing the limits of my ability to sit without moving, press a rose thorn into my flesh, or let ants crawl on my limbs and face without response. Other aspects of those ceremonies remain too private to reveal, even now, since the pact was made in understanding that they would never be shared. Self to self, an exploration, making a self through a conversation no one else knew or saw. I would come out from the bushes a little disoriented but also deeply centered, knowing I had secured some interior real estate of my psyche associated with the deep hidden zones of the overgrowth. The activity was a guarantee to myself, proof that I had an autonomous identity through my relationship with myself.
Now, at this summer’s end decades later, this small fragment collected just a few months ago remains, the moment of its collection barely recoverable. The fragment called out, signaled to eye and hand that made me bend to pick it up from the tangle of debris at the tideline. The shape was distinctive, with its arc of wingspan. And that called forth another association with what I think of as the reach of time and memory. In every moment, I imagine, how far I am from the time of my birth. What did it mean to become five, or ten, to have an increasing sense of the historical circumstances of one’s existence? My parents’ references to “the War” or “the Depression” floated for me without anchors until I reached a certain age. Then my sense of “the Eisenhower years” began to be situated in relation to Kennedy, and then his assassination and the others that followed. At a certain moment, when I was about twelve, that sense of history began to expand into the backward reach. If I were twelve, as I was, in 1964, then what might I imagine my connection to the twelve years before my birth? 1940? Did I, in some sense, as I aged, situate myself in that between these dates? Was each year added to my age another unit in the backward reach? That notion, that the birthdate is a mid-point took the metaphoric form of outstretched arms, the range of historical awareness. The farthest point is not the start, just the extent of my reach from where I am now. Can I touch 1881 at the outstretched limits?
The shell’s form embodied that wing spread, with its curious asymmetries and gentle curves towards two vanishing points, one past, one future. So it is that now, in this moment, I can recall my father’s observation about the overlapping eras of one’s own life—that we live not in successive moments, but in the stratified seepage of one epoch into another. He put it more clearly, having been born in 1920, but, as he said, he was raised by people who were raised by Edwardians. So the values of earlier eras are passed down—or up—like nutrients in groundwater. This small fragment of beach detritus, inconspicuous and insignificant, evokes all of this. A small symphonic chord, not orchestrated, but resonant, touchstone of history and memory.
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