Shells & Fiddler Crabs – Gifts From the Water’s Edge

Bringing up my children in Mattapoisett, a small seaside town on the underbelly of Cape Cod, was the best gift I could have ever given them. Protected by the Elizabethan Islands chain, Mattapoisett’s deep harbor faced Buzzards Bay and on clear days, wecould see Cuttyhunk on the horizon. Wood’s Hole lay to the southeast, a near neighbor as the gull flew, home to scientific ocean-going ships and ferry service to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. What made the town alluring, and also exclusive, was its library, schools, churches, shops and connecting sidewalks. Walking four blocks to the west brought us to my children’s grandparent’s large Victorian house with its widow’s walk spying out toward the sea. Four blocks south, starting across from the brightly painted seahorse, the ocean beckoned us to play. We were lucky to live within the village and learned to tell time by its holidays, ocean tide charts and storms.

My oldest child considered the town beach hers – her doting grandfather granted her this luxury by calling her Princess. Taking Pepe at his word, she practiced benevolence by allowing other children to share the beach swings and sandy slide. On hot, still days, we packed up her wooden wagon with an old beach quilt, towels, lunch and sunscreen, and walked four blocks down to the beach. Arriving early enough we would catch the lifeguards raking the sand. The beach looked pristine – all combed and open for business.

Although we tried, my daughter and I could never arrive before the matriarchal beach moms had staked out their perpetual spot next to the wharf wall. They faced their lounge chairs toward the sun, frequently readjusting them to catch the full benefit of its tanning rays. They had the best piece of waterfront property on the beach: a protective nook that let them sun themselves in relative peace and quiet except for their constant patter, which informed the rest of us mothers about the news of the day, as well as weather forecasts, town pregnancy and grandchildren reports. Our own children would have to be in their thirties before any of us mothers could inherit the coveted beach-mother corner of the sand.

On good weather days, light breezes ruffled the small waves that lapped at the shore. It always amazed me how calm and warm the ocean was in Mattapoisett compared to the freezing cold water that pounded the rocky beaches of my childhood in Maine. Our tattered beach quilt, held down by our sandals, books and lunch, was designated as home base to my daughter’s wanderings under my watchful eye. I wanted her to experience as much independence as was prudent; I taught her to check in with me before wading along the water’s edge. She was absolutely not allowed past, or on the breakwater, nor into the bath house without my supervision; beach rules governed our summers and became house rules once my daughter began full-time school in the fall.

We had four full weeks to bask in the sun without any cares. Our main goal was to learn the lessons of the ocean presented to us in easy-to-understand-bits, researchable at the town library later in the day. When the four weeks were up I would have to resume my work schedule and my daughter would rejoin her preschool class and afternoon visits with Meme, which focused on French cooking, perusing Gourmet magazines, proper etiquette, conversation, and constitutional walks around the village with Pepe. My daughter’s scope of community was large and populated by many eccentric older individuals, as well as friends and peers from the beach and playground. She was a happy inquisitive child, dearly loved and loving in return.

Although slow during the summer months, town life enabling long lazy days of exploration and picnic lunches amongst the bayberry bushes, in the curve of the harbor where all the best unbroken shells washed up, or at Strawberry Point – whose sandbars were located off Point Connett, a summer community that tried in vain to restrict access to town people. After asking if we could park our car in a friendly yard, my daughter and I hauled our pails and towels down the long winding sand dune lane to the big rock entrance to the sandbars. Strawberry Point was my most favorite part of Mattapoisett (besides the name of the town itself); I loved walking on the rippled sun-drenched sand and wading in the clear lapping water. A poor man’s Key West, forsome reason hardly used by the town folk, even though the point belonged to the town the lane leading to it did not which tended to deter many visitors. Strawberry Point was my summer classroom: we found little fiddler crabs, young horseshoe crabs, message bottles, clams and scallops left by the waves for our observation. We learned scientific names and terms for the sea life as well as clouds, weather patterns, and the different types of sail craft that sailed in the harbor. We sketched, water-colored, wrote stories and recited poetry; Jean Jacques Rousseau would have approved my pedagogy.

Back at the town beach we found ancient horseshoe crabs gathering to socialize and find a one-of-a-kind mate in their annual waltz, which fascinated young and old children alike. Several mornings would find the ocean roiling with bluefish rushing prey fish toward the beach in a feeding frenzy. Of course wading and swimming would be banned but the diehards stayed to sunbathe, read summer novels, collect shells and beach glass teased from the tangled flotsam of dried seaweed that marked high tide. Gray, cloudy days encouraged reading stories about ducklings, but even hard rain didn’t keep us indoors. We donned our yellow slickers and rain boots for a splashing walk to see how our little beach fared sheathed in fog and low hanging clouds. The ever-present gulls would be still at work breaking quahog shells on the wharf, squawking “mine, mine, mine!” possessively, and trying to keep other greedy gulls away. A storm might wash up heaps of scallops for easy picking – you just never knew what you would find or what project inspired.

Resembling a hive, the town’s commercial wharf was a very busy place; its activity was dizzying to watch at times. Sights, sounds and motion mesmerized us for hours as we sat on the wood benches pointing out this or that sight: muted pastel dinghies rocking with the oily wave swells, their pulleys squeaking as they jostled for cramped positions, rattling lobster pots piled shoulder-high, and sailboat guy lines singing in the breeze. On Wednesday evenings Shipyard Park’s gazebo played host to the town orchestra that attempted to meld their musical selections with the sounds of the sea. During the day Brownell trucks hauled boats and yachts in and out of the water on long bed trailers, sometimes using slings to softly cradle precious sailboats for gentle release into their wharf-side berths. Hollering and gestures unique to the trade accompanied these delicate maneuverings. Whenever the boat ramp was free flashy powerboats launched in quick efficient succession. Men scrambled to release trailer stays so that their boats could lift off and merge with the water within the center wharf. Townies, intermixed with summer people, waited in line at the ice cream pushcart and joked about the weather, and whose boat was going in next.

Often my daughter and I ate our packed lunch under Shipyard Park gazebos’ weathered roof surrounded by gulls calling for our attention. Here was where the bark Wanderer received her mighty masts and keel. Hailing from Mattapoisett’s Barstow shipyard in 1878, she was the last whaler put to sea from New Bedford. Some 46 years later, the Wanderer wreaked off Martha’s Vineyard rocky coast during a terrible storm. After finishing our lunch we would slowly wend our way around town greeting fellow town citizens on their strolls through the historic lanes and narrow streets. Across from Center School lay a long low building once a church, called Good Speed, refurbished into a home with a swing set along side. This little building with its centuries old name fascinated my imagination – I felt that it would have made an excellent art studio, or a weaving loft, or perhaps a bookstore, all influenced by my interests at the time. Naptime called us home to dream of salty adventures; sand clung to our boots left by the door, our tans waited for the next sunny day to renew our rosy cheeks. Our shells perfectly aligned along the porch railing,waited patiently in line to join their mates on the dining room table.

Through all four seasons, and the New England weather, both sunny and inclement, my little family experienced the pull and flow of the tides. My son, years younger than his sister, repeated her rituals at the water’s edge. We collected the same sea glass and poked at the same horseshoe crabs. We watched the same boats being launched from the boat ramp, and get hauled from the water in rapid haste trying to beat an incoming storm. Our supply of shells, rocks and driftwood was stored in old baskets by our winged-back reading chair, to my son each shell was unique, each rock a gem. The Sailor Dog, my son’s favorite book, stands ready for its two-hundredth read, along with a well-thumbed hard cover of Make Way for Ducklings. Sunrays caressed drawings of shells and sailboats crowding the living room walls that played art gallery to previous paintings of starfish and crabs, now labeled and boxed. Recycled boots and slickers hang ready to take us down to the beach to watch the gulls drop their clam shells on the wharf in the rain. I will never tire of the gull’s calls, or the feeling of a little hand holding firm within my grasp. Old New Englanders say, “wait a moment and it will change” when advising about the weather – I think the same can be said of the ocean.

Kathryn Berry Poulin© 6/12/2010

One response to “Shells & Fiddler Crabs – Gifts From the Water’s Edge

  1. Hi Kathy-

    Whoa…thanks for posting these memories, some of which are common to more than a few of us!

Thanks for reading my blog!

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