I unhook my buck knife from my side pocket, release it, and slice open all four of the cardboard boxes of seashells stored on our garage shelf. I pick through the treasures. There are silvery oyster shells, a large conch, some clam shells, and little spirals like the ones I found in Mexico as a kid. I remember exploring the tide pools at Puerto Peñasco with my dad, assembling my own little collection, long gone now.
I sort through the biggest box, combining smaller baggies into larger containers. I pull out one particularly large scallop and look at it closely. Inside the curve is small black ink lettering I hadn’t noticed before. Scallop, Acapulco, April 1961.
I look at others in the box. More small black lettering: my father-in-law’s.
Abalone, French Riviera, September 1970.
I recognize the elongated slant from his travel journals. I never knew him when he was alive, but what I did know about him was that he experienced his life at 150 percent. My husband was raised in Southern California, and his family loved travel and the beach. His businessman dad, I think, fancied himself a lay scientist.
I stop what I am doing and look down at the lively mishmash.
What have I done?
I only wanted to pick out a few pretty shells that could be included in a broken tile mosaic backsplash, maybe, and get rid of the rest. Those boxes have been collecting dust for two decades.
I quickly seal up the boxes, put them back, and go inside.
“Bill?” This is happening at a time when my brilliant husband often doesn’t know where he is in the world. It’s a time when he can’t always trust his brain, and when chaos on the outside creates anxiety on the inside.
“Um,” I tread lightly, “I’m so sorry, honey.” We made a pact years ago to always tell each other the truth. Especially the hard stuff. He looks at me with his flat Parkinsonian affect.
“I didn’t mean to, but I think I messed up your dad’s seashell catalog.”
He cocks his head, turning up his lip a little. “Huh,” he says, almost a chuckle. “You know I have hauled around those damn seashells for over 30 years?”
Less than a year later, on a sunny fall day, my husband died, leaving those boxes of shells on the garage shelf.
In the spring, I travel to Spain to walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. A large scallop shell, similar to the first one I noticed with my father-in-law’s handwriting, hangs from my pack. The seashell is the symbol of the pilgrim, and has been for thousands of years. Since pilgrims walk from France to the Cathedral at Santiago, and then to the sea, in the old days the shell was proof that you completed your walk. Nowadays, townspeople along the Way see the shell and bless the journey with “Buen Camino!” A pilgrim’s only responsibility is to find the yellow arrow marking the path, and walk. Simple. As I walk, I begin to release the exhaustion of raw grief and experience my own pace of life again. I also become part of a community of pilgrims, all wearing seashells, and I return to the Pacific Northwest with the hot desire to simplify my life, my finances, and my responsibilities.
So I do. My grown children and I have a yard sale the following winter. Set out among the kitchenware, tools, coffee cups and CDs, are piles of my father-in-law’s seashells. Some of those shells end up in a middle school science classroom, some big ones in a neighbor’s kitsch cabinet. Broken ones go to the dump.
My house sells that summer.
Now, after almost two years of navigating a pandemic without a house of my own, camping out with family and friends, my continuing journey leads me back to the beach. With only a few exceptions, everything I own fits in the small bedroom of my sister’s cozy condo on the island of Maui. There is no room here for a dresser, let alone kitsch or clutter.
As I walk along the beach now, I look, I touch, I smell, I take photographs. Giant sea turtles nap around scattered coral, driftwood, and colorful beach stones smoothed by time and surf. I breathe it all in.
Then, I go home empty-handed, leaving the treasures right there on the beach.
Robyn Fisher is a writer and memoirist who chases sunsets both on Maui and in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about healing from loss, hiking, and mid-life reinvention. Her work has been published in the Brevity Blog, Daring to Tell podcast, and was a finalist in the quarterly Women on Writing CNF contest in 2021. www.robynpassowfisher.com