Friday, January 26, 2007

The Conch Shell

Just last week, my maternal grandmother died. She and I were quite close. I haven’t fully processed this grief, and have yet to write about it here. Living vicariously, though, I have been paying especial attention to other what other bloggers are writing about grief. Mary wrote a few days ago about the joy and comfort she gets from using items that once belonged to departed loved ones. Then today, Phantom Scribbler shared with us the frightening tale of a mercury spill and the sadness she is feeling over the loss of a plate. As I read her tale, I recalled my panicky feelings when I thought I’d lost my conch shell.

I was eleven years old when I experienced my first death in the family. [And yes, I am aware how fortunate I am to have been spared earlier losses]. It was my paternal great-grandmother (GGM) who had passed away, at the advanced age of 99 years. In my memory, she was always tiny and wizened, but I gather she was a fiercely strong woman in her younger days, and I love hearing those stories. She retained quite a bit of independence in her old age, shoveling her own driveway and patching her own roof well into her nineties.

She lived in an old farmhouse that had been built in 1822, by our mutual ancestors. She had inherited the family farm with an obscene level of debt, and fought tooth and nail to keep the land in the family. Whenever we went to visit her, she would be sitting in a rocking chair by the wood stove. It was probably the very same wood stove into which she put her twin sons to keep them warm after she gave birth at home in 1911: my grandfather and his twin brother were born weighing just over two pounds each.

Eventually GGM broke her hip, and spent her last few years living first with my grandfather, and then finally in a nursing home, so my memories of visiting her at the old farmhouse are not very clear. I remember the big, thick molasses cookies she would always give us kids, and the French doors leading into a parlor where Sis and I would bang away at the piano while the grown ups visited.

From her estate, my Dad selected one conch shell each for my sister and I. Conch shells are sort of incongruous for this part of the country; we are not near any oceans, and unfortunately I do not remember any stories explaining their origin. These particular conch shells have the tip of one end sliced clean off, and can be played like a bugle. Apparently, GGM had used the conch shells to call her dogs.

They were left to my Dad, because growing up, he was the only one to master the trick of playing them. I myself never learned to play, although Sis did, perhaps translating some essential skill from her flute lessons. SodaBoy can also make it bellow. Although I never learned to play, I have always treasured the beautiful shell, and the memories and stories of the woman it evokes. Sometimes I have used it as a doorstop; other times it has graced shelves as a bookend.

After we moved this last time, I couldn’t find the conch shell anywhere. I tore through closets and boxes, and not finding it, became more and more distraught. I became convinced it was one of the many items that had been lost in the move, or accidentally left behind. Like the dish towel printed with blue kitty cats, given to me by my step-mother as a thank you gift for pet sitting services, which may still hang on the refridgerator door in the old apartment. While I wasn’t particularly happy about any of the missing items, I was truly devastated to think I’d lost the beautiful old conch shell, my only physical memento of GGM. I hurled many a cruel invective at SodaBoy, foisting all blame on him.

Months later, when I finally rediscovered the conch shell, I was flooded with relief. Some guilt, yes, for having falsely accused SodaBoy, but mostly just a lightening of spirit. I still have that little piece of GGM, not just in my unreliable memory, but something real, something solid, something tangible.

Something beautiful.


Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I can blow the conch shell too! Or, at least I could blow one when I had access to one.

What a nice memory, a beautiful story! So sweet!

Nicole said...

I am so glad you found it. I know exactly the feeling you are talking about. I am intensely attached to material objects that have any family history to them. While I try to go with the Buddhist idea of no attachments, it never quite works in practice. Admittedly, I don't really try that hard. I like things.

Erin said...

Oh yes, this is lovely.

Not so little sister said...

Beautiful post. I, too, hold dearly to the things I've been left with each passing grandparent.

Phantom Scribbler said...

What a lovely post, and what a lovely object with which to associate your memories.

Aliki2006 said...

I'm so sorry about you grandmother...and so glad you found the shell. What a beautiful tale of how important such objects can become!

BerryBird said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone. Welcome, Phantom! It's nice to see you here.