CHRISTMASTIDE

The un­ex­pected bless­ing of gifts from the sea on a Low­coun­try evening

Southern Living (USA) - - Contents - BY CAS­SAN­DRA KING

The un­ex­pected bless­ing of gifts from the sea

MY LIFE HAD JUST UN­DER­GONE

a ma­jor sea change, and the next thing I knew, it was Christ­mas. Af­ter years of ur­ban dwelling, I had moved to a South Carolina bar­rier is­land to be with a new hus­band, where we’d start our new life with a blended fam­ily. Although I’d fully em­braced the change, ev­ery­thing sud­denly felt strange and un­fa­mil­iar. The hol­i­days had al­ways been about tra­di­tion, not start­ing from scratch smack-dab in the midst of midlife. How did any­one even do such a thing? Stand­ing on the shore of the At­lantic Ocean on Christ­mas Eve, alone and be­wil­dered, I won­dered what I had got­ten my­self into.

I’d tried hard to get into the spirit of a Low­coun­try hol­i­day. I’d dec­o­rated my new house with seashells, sea­grass wreaths, and pal­metto fronds in­stead of holly and mag­no­lia. Our spe­cial fam­ily din­ner would be the lo­cal Low­coun­try boil, a dish I didn’t es­pe­cially like. And although Christ­mas on the beach felt all wrong (it wasn’t even cold!), I planned a cozy walk at sun­set, hand in hand with my brand-new hus­band.

It would be a spe­cial end­ing to a spe­cial day, I told my­self. To make a new life, we had to start new tra­di­tions.

Ex­cept New Hus­band wasn’t hav­ing it. En­grossed in a foot­ball game on TV, he cheer­fully waved me off. “But you’ll miss the sun­set!” I wailed. He an­swered with a shrug, his eyes never leav­ing the screen: “There’ll be an­other sun­set. En­joy your walk.”

So much for a ro­man­tic stroll on our first Christ­mas Eve to­gether, I thought as I slammed the door be­hind me in a huff. On the beach, the salt air was sharp and crisp, but I barely no­ticed. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Even worse, the sun had dis­ap­peared into the ocean, leav­ing be­hind only a rosy glow in the western sky. My bad tim­ing was my hus­band’s fault, I de­cided. If he’d come along as I’d planned, all would be well. The sun would be hang­ing over the hori­zon where it be­longed, and we’d watch it set as we hud­dled to­gether, our faces bright with love and hap­pi­ness.

I trudged over wet sand un­til I’d had enough. It was my least fa­vorite time on the beach, low tide. Ev­ery­thing had be­come a let­down on a day I’d planned with an­tic­i­pa­tion. Just as I turned to go back, some­thing caught my eye. I stopped and blinked. I’d heard about the sand­bar but had never seen it. There it was, a nar­row strip of white sand stretched like a fin­ger into the ocean. Is­lan­ders were al­ways warn­ing strollers away from it, point­ing out that sud­den shifts in tides cre­ate dan­ger.

By the time I reached it, the sand­bar stood out even more against the gray wa­ter. Then ev­ery­thing changed: The shock­ing pink glow of the western sky sud­denly deep­ened in color and spread out like a fan across the hori­zon. With­out a thought of dan­ger, I hur­ried down the sand­bar for a closer look, and my mood lifted. It was the bless­ing I’d come for. I stood at the tip and stared in won­der. The hori­zon, where vast wa­ter met vast sky, was the deep pink of a Christ­mas rose.

Af­ter the glow faded and the sky be­gan to darken, I turned to go and found my feet bogged down in wet sand. The tide was com­ing in, and I was a good dis­tance from the shore. Al­ready, the sand­bar had be­come an is­land en­closed in surg­ing wa­ters. Then I spot­ted what I had failed to see in my rush to view the sky—the soggy fin­ger I stood on was cov­ered in sand dol­lars. With a gasp, I knelt down for a closer look. On my pre­vi­ous strolls, I’d seen their im­print left in the sand by the re­ced­ing waves or found bro­ken frag­ments on the shore. But I’d never seen them alive. It had been the bot­tom of the ocean; now, at low tide, its sea-dwelling crea­tures re­vealed them­selves. Not the daz­zling white disks that beach­combers of­ten col­lect, these sand dol­lars were dark lit­tle sea urchins, aflut­ter with life.

I made my way back to shore on tip­toe, care­ful not to step on them. My shoes filled with sea­wa­ter when I crossed the tidal pool to safety and made a slosh­ing sound as I ran home. The sand dol­lars had caused me to for­get my dis­plea­sure with New Hus­band, and I burst in on the last quar­ter of his game. “You’ve got to see what I found on the sand­bar,” I said. His alarm that I’d gone where an­gels fear to tread gave way to his avid cu­rios­ity, one of the things I loved most about him. This time, he fol­lowed me with­out protest.

In the short time I’d been gone, the tide had changed. I dis­carded my wet shoes and waded an­kle deep into the in­com­ing waves in be­wil­der­ment. “It was right here; I swear it was!” I cried. I kept search­ing as dark­ness de­scended, so sure that the sand­bar would be vis­i­ble even un­der­wa­ter. New Hus­band waited with sur­pris­ing pa­tience un­til he reached for my arm.

“Come on, Sweet­heart. What­ever you saw is gone. The tide got it,” he said.

I hugged my­self against the salt-laden breeze and leaned into him. “Sand dol­lars,” I told him. “So many sand dol­lars. I’ve never seen any­thing like it. I wanted you to see them.”

“I wish I had,” he said, and I knew he meant it. He would’ve trea­sured it as much as I had. “I should’ve come with you.”

It was the per­fect op­por­tu­nity for wifely rec­ti­tude, a self-right­eous re­minder of my virtues and his fail­ings. But in­stead, I gave him a hug, lov­ing him again, and said, “Let’s go home.”

Later, New Hus­band sur­prised me by in­sist­ing that I open the gift he’d got­ten me in­stead of wait­ing un­til the fol­low­ing day, when fam­ily would come for the ex­change of presents. “You’ll see why,” he told me, and open­ing the box, I did. Pearl ear­rings to match the pearls he’d given me for our en­gage­ment. “More gifts from the sea,” he said.

De­lighted, I showed off my pearls the next day, and I would wear them many times in the years that fol­lowed. But I never did so with­out re­mem­ber­ing our first Christ­mas to­gether, and the un­ex­pected bless­ings of a Christ­mas Eve on a sand­bar, where I knelt to mar­vel at sea crea­tures. It was a long-ago time when love was bright and new, be­fore the tides of change came into our life and swept ev­ery­thing away, leav­ing only mem­o­ries be­hind.

“A LT H O U G H CHRIST­MAS

ON THE BE ACH FELT ALL WRONG (IT WASN’T EVEN COLD!), I PLANNED A COZY WA L K A T

S U N S E T, HAND IN

HAND WITH MY BRAND-NEW HUS­BAND.”

Au­thor Cas­san­dra King and her late hus­band, Pat Con­roy, in South Carolina

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