AT THE BEACH The Prince collects rocks and shells. He wanders, head down, sometimes for hours, looking not at the ocean, but at the bits washed up onto the sand. He’ll return to me, lying on a towel, nose to book, clutching his treasures.
“Look at this one!” He’ll say of a craggy gray hunk of something. “It’s millions of years old,” he’ll tell me, eyes bright with wonder.
“Yes,” I’ll squint up at him. “It is. Wonderful.” My approval pleases him.
“And this one, the color!” he’ll sigh. Of course it’s wet, and therefore is shiny, and the lovely coral hue will fade as it dries. But I don’t tell him, why pop his bubble? He’s just a happy boy at the beach.
Going to the beach for us usually involves an airplane to Florida where Number One Sister perches eight floors above the least-crowded stretch of sand in South Florida. Here we can sit on the front terrace and see hardly a single soul.
We’ve been visiting her here every year for the 25 years or so since she moved south from New York. Being beach people, we have made numerous tropical island hops between times. That’s a lot of rocks and shells. Most of them, in my snooty opinion, not in the least worth the effort. And all of them have to be heavily hauled, dragged, schlepped and shoved onto the plane home.
At home, the bags are emptied onto the back porch, where the collection sits in sandy memory until I figure out where to hide them. Dump any one of our garden pots and you’ll find a layer or two of who-knows-what-from-where, serving as drainage.
On a side trip one year to Key West, we were wandering along Duval Street just where clever and cool met T-shirt honky-tonk and came upon a little shop whose entrance was marked by a small claw-foot tub encrusted with shells.
These were beautiful shells, perfect—scallops and bullas and little conchs, even the shells that were cut in half to expose their inner whorls and pearly centers were precisely measured. They were all shades from tawny and tiger-striped to white, and interspersed with pearls and bits of sea glass that caught the sunlight.
I was overcome with the thought that this was either one of the most fabulous things I’d ever seen or a tacky margarita-fueled horror that would only be considered wonderful here in the Conch Republic, or a Carl Hiaasen novel. *
Meanwhile, I fantasized it into the middle of the garden back home. A wallowing pool. For me. If I’m being honest, unless I’m lying facedown in the water with a mask staring at fishies, I rarely do anything at the ocean besides sit in the water and read—sometimes I stand and read, if I need exercise. I can just as well do the lying about in a tub, surrounded by ferns and jasmine and parlor palms, bringing the tropics to Capitol Hill. One can make a margarita anywhere.
And it’s practical! When I’m done for the day, I figured, just pull the plug and water the plants.
There was even a how-to book handily for sale at the shell shop, with instructions for encrusting your own tub (or bird bath, chandelier or grotto) with shells. Shell Chic, by Marlene Hurley Marshall, with photos by Sabine Vollmer von Falken, is still for sale on Amazon. It was brand new at the time, August 2002.
All we needed, besides $35 for the book, was a claw-foot tub, rustproof paint, a ratchet gun (What’s that? Ask the Prince), silicone adhesive, beach glass, pearly beads and shells. A whole lot of shells.
But a creative snap! I thought, studying the diagrams.
So in addition to his usual bag of rocks and shells, we now had my bag of shells—collected at shops with cunning names like Shell World and Joyce’s Shells & Gifts, places I had theretofore averted my eyes from, along the 98 miles between Key West and Key Largo and the highway north to Sister’s.
I recall being eager to get home and begin, a sop to vacation’s end.
Only guilty reminders remain of this project: A strand of cowries, I think they’re called, hanging on the back porch; heaps of loose shells, many now broken, in the dusty wicker basket I like to think of as my craft box; and strands of fake pearls and bits of sea glass.
I suppose I could have glued these bits to something else, but my enthusiasms often fade as quickly as they appear, particularly when it comes to arts and crafts. If it can’t be done in 10 minutes with a paint roller or extra-large knitting needles, forget it.
Meanwhile, My Prince, bless him, continues to keep an eye out for that claw-foot tub. Amazing that despite how everyone seems to be tearing them out for glass-walled showers the size of small rooms with benches and multiple heads for rain and steam and hoses for the hard-to-reach spots, old claw-foot tubs are both hard to find and bloody expensive. Shouldn’t he have found one in the trash by now?
LittleBird Stephanie says that her next column will feature five almost-instant ways to wallow in water in the garden—maybe 10, if she can think of that many.
* If for some reason you don’t know who Carl Hiaasen is, go immediately to the library or a bookstore and enjoy.