Broken and Beautiful

My grandma lived in Florida for almost three decades, where she became a very discerning shell collector.

When we visited the beach with her on our vacations, it was always on the Gulf Coast, at any number of locations along the short stretch between Clearwater and Fort Myers, including the seashell haven of Sanibel Island. My grandma passed her skills to us – me and my brother – teaching us which shells were most common and not worth keeping and reminding us we need not save any broken ones. 

I can understand her obsession. She used the shells for crafting, from seashell wreaths to shell-filled lamps, to sand dollar Christmas ornaments and little animals. It makes perfect sense that she would only look for unusual and whole shells. In each of the houses she and my grandpa lived in, she had a work room, a studio if you will, which always had a desk stacked high with the little organizers you might see used for screws and nuts and bolts. Instead they were filled with shells, the names of many I can still remember. 

Olives. Whelks. Cockles. Scallops. Venus clams. Augers. Jewel boxes. Jingle shells. Moon snails. Kitten paws. 

These words became even more familiar to me after we moved to Florida when I was eight years old, and our beach trips became more frequent. One of my favorite pastimes was examining the poster she had for shell identification, matching up the outlined shapes and numbers with their corresponding pictures and names.

All this “training” means I can’t help but look for shells no matter what beach I visit. Even along the shores of the Great Lakes, where I might only find mussel shells or fossilized imprints, I hunt. And last week, when we visited the Atlantic coast in South Carolina, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the sand. The Gulf of Mexico is relatively calm and tends to preserve seashells, but the waves of the Atlantic pound them to pieces, and in five days at the beach, I saw very few unbroken shells. I’m particularly proud of the whole coquina I found, yellow-green and splayed open like a butterfly. 

But on our last morning, when I slipped out before sunrise to walk the beach alone, it struck me that, not only can I collect the broken shells if I want to, some of them are also just as beautiful, if not moreso, than whole shells. If I feel lucky to find the inner spiral of an olive, there’s no actual rule saying I can’t keep it. And if I look down to see the shard of a cockle shell that boasts a bright-orange-and-rust pattern, I don’t have to leave it half-buried in the sand for the tide to take away again. 

They can be mine.

Whole things aren’t the only lovely things in the world, nor are they the only things worth saving. What we love and keep and nourish is our own choice, and the beauty is in our eyes and no one else’s. My grandma preferred her shells fully intact, and to be honest, so do I. But there’s plenty of room for beautiful imperfection, too.

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