Of mermaids' purses

My grandson and I have our favorite beaches, from Point of Rocks on Cape Cod to Kaanapali on Maui’s westernmost tip.

But where boogie boarders rip through crashing breakers on those silvery strands Jackson and I tiptoe along the high tide lines, proding gently with our driftwood sticks as we uncover elusive treasures: mermaids’ purses and devils’ pocketbooks, fragile sand collars and spiny purple urchins.  

My six-year-old pal has been combing beaches with me since he was a gung-ho toddler stumbling from one pile of kelp to the next. Today, like many parents and grandparents who are returning to beaches for the first time since COVID emergencies were declared a year ago, Jackson and I are reminding each other to slow down and listen for the tiniest scurrying sand fleas. Nowadays he’s often the one who crouches down to uncover a glistening blue mussel amongst the rockweed. Jackson likes the way a handful of jingle shells can carry a merry little tune. He likes opening a dried-up mermaid’s purse—actually, a skate’s egg case--and finding a tiny embryo inside. He especially likes the way a diminutive fiddler crab can fend off predators by shaking a giant claw at them, like a first violinist gone berzerk. 

As Jackson and I drop our sandy treasures into our collecting baggies I can almost hear Miss Edith over my shoulder. ‘There’s a crack in that angel wing,” she would have opined. “Let’s find a perfect one.”

Miss Edith was the iron commandante of the nature cabin at Sea Pines, the girls’ summer camp on Cape Cod that I attended from third grade through college. She determined which of the shells we gathered on the beach were acceptable for our collections, by virtue of having no hairline cracks, and which shells did not make the cut.  

As a third-grade Merrymaker, I had to find and label five different seashells to qualify for a camp award. As a fourth-grade Pathfinder, the ante was upped to 10 and the shells had to be museum quality. Woe to the fifth-grade Pioneer who tried to slip a capsized boat shell past Miss Edith’s exacting eye.  

There was much to be said for Miss Edith’s insistence on perfection but Jackson and I take a more laissez-fair approach to the flotsam we pick up. Sure, we’d be thrilled to turn over a sunrise clam in all its pink- and yellow-striped glory, but we’re just as happy to discover that a smooth shard of turquoise beach glass is a throwaway bottle become a dazzling gem.

As for the ugly, gray, chipped shells of the quahog? Had any chowder lately?   Bellissimo! 



  1. Wonderful, so evocative of beaches past. I never had a Miss Edith but I do have shell-collecting granddaughters.


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