The Truth of a Junonia
Excerpt from a memoir Beautiful and necessary for survival
As soon as the waves pulled back, thousands of rainbow-colored coquina shells glittered orange and gold along the shore before quickly burrowing back into the sand. Holding coquinas in his hands, Aiden laughed at the feeling. I remembered at his age what it felt like to scoop the tiny coquinas which wriggled down into my palms when I was a child growing up on the island. His slim, 4-year-old body was covered from head to toe in white sand and broken shells. Highlighting his smiling face were the colors of the beach—a perfect creation, as if the sea itself had formed him from water and sand. He asked me to dig a hole with him. I sat beside him, just us, on our vacation, without any other family. Here on Sanibel, as the sun started to set, all we needed were the sand, the water, the shells, and each other: mother and child. Shells covered the beachscape in patchy blankets of tans and creams. We dug our toes in the soft damp silt of the beach and watched the sandpipers dance along the shore. As we scooped away at our hole, Aiden noticed an olive shell beside my toes. This type of tulip snail is olive shaped, glossy, with a brownish-gray exterior and an undulating perfect whorl shaping a pink, pointed tip, and lastly speckled with spots of black. I had never seen such a shell. “How are shells made?” my son asked. “Well,” I started, thinking carefully how to say this: “They are formed from the animal inside, giving it protection from the ocean, where currents and predators could harm its life. As the animal grows, so does the shell it carries like a house.” My son nodded while he turned the shell around in his hand, the sun glinting off the enamel. The shell in my son’s hand had been
My mother never wanted to buy the shell— the junonia was something to discover.
through some challenges―we observed the scratches along its back and the small hole that penetrated its hard exterior. Such a hole, as small as it was, could make the entire shell vulnerable. “I’m sure this animal tried to fix its house,” Aiden said as he picked it up. The spots on this olive shell reminded me of the junonia from the same tulip snail species … but more rare. My mother and I spent years combing the beach for the junonia. This palm-sized shell ringed with large giraffe-brown spots normally lives offshore. But on rare occasions it washes to the beach as an empty vessel. Sanibel Islanders prized it for its rarity, its beauty, and the adventure in finding one. My mother never wanted to buy the shell―the junonia was something to discover. The rare junonia shell is usually found after a powerful storm. Finding one is a gift coming at the end of an evolutionary cycle of the shell’s life; from the animal to a speck of sand, to a chamber of beauty, to the death of the creature, to spinning around in a storm’s raging waters, until finally the junonia is exposed as a gemstone along the shoreline. My mother found that shell on her own one day and she believed it was a redemptive sign at the time when she was raising me alone. The name of the junonia shell refers to the Roman Goddess Juno, protector of the well-being of women. As an immortal being, Juno is depicted as a woman of majestic size and beauty. She appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, as queen of the gods, and her name is used in the movie Juno, which is about a teen navigating through an unplanned pregnancy. I thought about those things, about Juno, the junonia shell, about my mother who had passed away, and looked to Aiden, who was still digging into the sand with the olive shell tucked into his pocket. My marriage was ending and I was going to be a single mother; the situation hovered over me like an approaching Gulf storm. I had a hole in my own shell that needed repairing. There were dark days ahead for us, but at the moment I was present with my son, contemplating the beauty and strength that shells withstand as they tumble out of the ocean and into our palms as keepsakes. After life had shifted for us, I kept that olive shell and others like it nearby to remind me that repairing holes is beautiful and necessary for survival.