Stories on Sanibel
I see a stooped, white-haired lady walking a grocery store aisle, I think of a comment my Gomama made nearly 20 years ago. “Sometimes days go by and I don’t talk to anybody.” This healthy, self-sufficient, mostly content widow in her late 80s said, “I visit the library or grocery store, and unless I have a question, I can complete the transaction without a word being exchanged.”
Before I married and moved to New York, we spent many Saturdays together. I’d pick her up and we’d drive the 45 minutes to the Cleveland Museum of Art, then find a place for a leisurely lunch. I vaguely recall the art, but I do remember the stories. I’d ask questions, and off she’d go. Gomama talked so much, it was practically a monologue.
I heard stories about growing up the only child of a successful businessman in prewar Hamburg, Germany. About how her dad spoiled her shamelessly but was cold toward her mother. About what it was like to travel here or there with my Gopapa. And about the two weeks every summer she and her mom spent at the sea—they were the happiest days of her childhood.
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When Gomama turned 88, I was newly engaged and she asked me to join her on one last getaway. She had her sights set on Sanibel Island in November. “I want to see the ocean again and pick up seashells,” she said.
It poured. Three straight days of unrelenting, hard, sideways rain. We played cards over tea. We strolled around a seashell museum that I pretended was interesting. We shopped in boutiques where the glass dripped from the humidity. And we talked. Over deliberately drawn-out meals, she’d describe a piece of music she’d heard or a magnificent sight she’d seen or a specific way her only child (my mom) made her proud. I listened and asked questions to keep the stories spinning.
On the morning of our departure, she still hadn’t picked a single shell. As we pulled up to a beach, Gomama said, “I insist you stay dry. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.” I sat in the car with the wipers going and watched her lean into the wind, her canary rain slicker billowing behind. As she walked the last beach of her life, it occurred to me that everything that was ahead for me—my wedding, babies, a lifetime of travel, friends, homes, and jobs—was behind her.
Now, they were her stories. I marveled that telling them didn’t fill her with regret or longing and that she didn’t share them wistfully. She hadn’t come down here to unburden herself.
She just wanted to see the ocean again, look for seashells, and talk.