Pink murex. Melongena corona. Cowry. Conch. Mussel. Left-sided whelk. Lightning whelk. True-heart cockle. Olivella. Pribilof lora. Angel wings.
These are the names of shells, the shells my grandmother and I catalogued together during the winter of 1963. I was eight years old.
With field guides all around us, we thumbed through plates of photographs, identifying each shell. Mimi would read the descriptions out loud to be certain our classifications were correct. Then, with a blue ball-point pen, we would write the appropriate name on white adhesive tape and stick it on the corresponding shell.
“It’s important to have a hobby,” Mimi said, “something to possess you in your private hours.”
My grandmother’s hobby was spending time at the ocean, walking along the beach, picking up shells.
For a desert child, there was nothing more beautiful than shells. I loved their shapes, their colors. I cherished the way they felt in the palm of my hand—and they held the voice of the sea, a primal sound imprinted on me as a baby.
“Your mother and I took you to the beach shortly after you were born,” Mimi said. “As you got older, you played in the sand by the hour.”
I played with these shells in the bathtub. The pufferfish was my favorite animal. I knew it was dead, dried out, and hollow, but somehow when it floated in the hot water next to my small, pink body, it came to life—a spiny globe with eyes.
Mimi would knock on the bathroom door.
“Come in,” I would say.
She surveyed my watery world. I handed her the puffer, wet.
“When I die,” she said smiling, “these shells will be your inheritance.”
Thirty years later, these shells—the same shells my grandmother collected on her solitary walks along the beach, the shells we spread out on the turquoise carpet of her study, the shells we catalogued, the shells I bathed with—now rest in a basket on a shelf in my study. They remind me of my natural history, that I was tutored by a woman who courted solitude and made pilgrimages to the edges of our continent in the name of her own pleasure, that beauty, awe, and curiosity were values illuminated in our own home.
My grandmother’s contemplation of shells has become my own. Each shell is a whorl1 of creative expression, an architecture of a soul. I can hold Melongena corona to my ear and hear not only the ocean’s voice, but the whisperings of my beloved teacher.
“The Architecture of a Soul” from An Unspoken Hunger by Terry Tempest Williams, copyright © 1994 by Terry Tempest Williams. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.