The beauty of the oyster bed


I grew up living on the water. My parents were lucky, smart, blessed (you pick the word) and bought a waterfront lot on a relatively undeveloped Florida barrier island in 1971. 

I loved growing up on the water. Fishing, swimming, sailing, I was blessed to be able to do them all and often.

Our backyard was at the end of a canal on the intra-coastal waterways. A mangrove tree hovered  over the corner of our seawall and a large bed of oyster shells grew below. I never thought these shells were particularly attractive. In fact, we deftly avoided them when we ventured below the mangrove branches to launch a boat or go for a swim. If you’ve seen an oyster bed then you know they’re not beautiful. Oyster shells aren’t like the star fish or conch shells that tourists and natives alike seek as they walk the white sandy beaches of Florida.

Lately though, I’ve been re-thinking the attractiveness of this rustic and under-appreciated shell.

It started when I re-read a chapter of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book, Gift from the Sea. In it Lindbergh compares the stages of love to different seashells she finds on the shoreline. She likens the intial romantic stage to like that of a double sunrise seashell, a beautful, delicate bivalve; each side mirrors the other and is held together by a fragile band that’s easily broken.

For Lindbergh, the middle stages of love and marriage are like the oyster shell. An uninviting analogy, at least I thought so when I started to read her book. But now, as Scott and I move into our 15th year of marriage, I find her description of this season of married life familiar and even comforting. So much so that I’m sharing a few of her words with you (ok, more than a few, but they’re worth the read, so keep reading)…

The sunrise shell has the eternal validity of all beautiful and fleeting things. But surely we demand duration and continuityof relationships, at least of marriage. Not necessarily continuity in one single form or stage; not necessarily continuity in the double-sunrise stage.

There are other shells…here is one I picked up yesterday, an oyster…Sprawling and uneven, it has the irregularity of something growing. It looks rather like the house of a big family, pushing out one addition after another to hold its teeming life– here a sleeping porch for the children and there a veranda for the play-pen; here a garage for the extra car and there a shed for the the bicycles. It amuses me because it seems so much like my life at the moment, like most women’s lives in the middle years of marriage. It is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations…

Yes, I believe the oyster shell is a good one to express the middle years of marriage. It suggests the struggle of life itself. The oyster has fought to have that place on the rock to which it has fitted itself perfectly and to which it clings tenaciously. So most couples in the growing years of marriage struggle to achieve a place in the world…In the midst of such a life there is not much time to sit facing one another over a breakfast table. In these years one recognizes the tuth of Saint-Exupery’s line:

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other (one perfect sunrise gazing at another!) but in looking outward together in the same direction. For in fact, man and woman are not only looking outward in the same direction but working outward.” 

Observe the steady encroachment of the oyster bed over the rock. Here one forms ties, roots, a firm base. (Try and pry an oyster from its ledge!) 

Here the bond of marriage is formed. For marriage, which is always spoken of as a bond, becomes actually, in this stage, many bonds, many strands of different texture and strength, making up a web that is taut and firm.

The web is fashioned of love, yes, but many kinds of love: romantic love first, then a slow-growing devotion and, playing through these, a constantly rippling companionship. It is made of loyalties, and interdependencies, and shared experiences. It is woven of memories of meetings and conflicts; of triumphs and disappointments. It is a web of communication, a common language, and the acceptance of a lack of language too; a knowledge of likes and dislikes, of habits and reactions, both physcial and mental. It is a web of instincts and intuitions. The web of marriage is made in the day-to-day, living side by side, looking outward and working outward in the same direction. It is woven in the substance of life…

In the oyster stage of marriage, romantic love is only one of the many bonds that make up the intricate and enduring web that two people have built together.

I am fond of the oyster shell. It is humble and awkward and ugly. It is slate-colored and unsymmetrical. Its form is not primarily beautiful but functional. I make fun of its knobbiness. Sometimes I resent its burdens and excrescences. But its tireless adaptibility and tenacity draw my astonished admiration and sometimes my tears. And it is comfortable in its familiarity, its homeliness, like old garden gloves which have molded themselves perfectly to the shape of the hand.

Today, at Claire’s request, we went for a family jog. Before returning home we stopped for a rest at the bridge a few blocks away and peered over the seawall.  A large oyster bed was nestled below.

I marveled at the the beauty of these shells and the life-sustaining nature of each oyster. Each oyster strong and unique. Each shell protecting the life within. Each one clinging to the solid rock underneath.

“They’re kind of  beautiful, aren’t they Claire?” 

“I’m not so sure Mom.”

“Oh, but I am.”


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