She was sitting on a bench looking at the water. In fact, she was in my favorite spot at the Center Street Beach in Beach Haven, New Jersey where we had a beach house when our children were young.
It was early morning, around 7:15, and my ritual during the week while my husband was back home in Middletown was to ride my bike to the beach and sip an orange juice while gazing at the water, taking in the light and color changes on the waves. Between the wonderful light and the calm horizon I found the name of the beach to be completely suited to my mood. I centered myself at Center Street Beach.
This day, however, my solo excursion was interrupted by another person. I nodded in her direction and placed myself at the remaining edge of the only bench. In my brief glance at her face, I was surprised to see a woman older than I supposed from her posture. My first guess would have placed her in her forties; now I found it hard to assess her age.
I was distracted by her presence, though she sat motionless and took up only her own space. My eyes wandered away from the horizon and focused on her hands. Yes, she was definitely older. They were lined and leathery and strong; older hands. As I watched, her fingers seemed to move, keeping time to some inner tune; a slow, drumming tempo that started to have an affect on me. Without realizing it my breathing and heartbeat fell into the rhythm of her beating fingers.
While I watched her fingers, she slowly moved her top hand away and turned her bottom hand palm upwards. Inside her hand I saw a shell. It seemed extraordinary and different from New Jersey shells, which I had memorized from living by the beach for many years.
When had she extended the shell to me? And when had I taken it into my own palm? I couldn’t say, but there it was inside my hand.
In a mellifluous voice of a born story-teller, she recounted the life of that shell. She told of the formation of the sea creatures, then the first deposit of the hard white calcium that would organically develop, over ages, into that family of shell. She described the light and dark periods; ice and floods, animals and plants, and finally man and woman. She said the shell was living history to the creation of her and myself; both sitting on this bench.
I tried to hand the shell back to her, but she gently pushed my hand away. “It’s yours,” she said.
I walked my bike back home; feeling too weak to ride it. I held that shell tightly in my hand. At home I considered adding it to the pile of sea treasures I had gathered from beaches all over the world from years of travel. But this shell was different. It spoke in a different tongue. And it was a gift.
I placed the shell on the kitchen windowsill where the last rays of the setting sun would touch and caress it with the final glow of the day. Each time I glanced at it with grateful eyes, knowing that it was ageless in the continuum of time.
Geraldine Velasquez , OLLI Member, Writers Group, OLLI Instructor