“Go to your room. NOW!” Mom shouted. I had just talked back to her, an out-of-character act for me. But my seventh birthday was around the corner, and it was my new way of dealing with getting uprooted from my childhood home so that Mom could care for Grandpa. He had just had his second stroke, which left him with a big green oxygen tank and limited mobility on his left side. His sickness scared me.

Everything was changing

tornadoSo many things changed that year. I stopped seeing my real father because he moved away; not that I saw him much anyway. He was more like a shadow than a real person to me.

Mom said Jim would be my stepdad. They were planning a wedding at the courthouse because Mom had a baby in her belly. She said it would be my new sister or brother, but I already had Jim’s kids around on the weekends and I didn’t think I wanted another kid to share stuff with. Everything was changing.

That day, Grandpa wasn’t doing well, which meant Mom wasn’t doing well, either.

I sulked all the way to my room and shut the door. It wasn’t my real bedroom, but just a temporary one, a space with four annoying yellow walls to cram my dresser and bed between. My real bedroom sat on the other side of the city. A friend was sleeping in my real room. Mom couldn’t work while she cared for Grandpa, so Jim had rented out our home to keep the bank from taking it. I missed our home.

Nothing but Barbies, shoved under my bed, were brought for me to play with. Most of my things had to stay back in my toybox—not enough room here. I had grown to hate the dolls and all their perfect smiles. I lay on my bed, still in trouble for talking back, and crying for Mom to relieve me of my sentence.

Mom’s beautiful seashells

seashell collection“I’m sorry, Mommy. Can I come out yet?” I asked. No answer.

I stared at the door, wishing she would come and release me. That’s when I caught sight of them: Mom’s beautiful seashells from Florida that she had collected long before I was born. A hundred or so small ones were piled in mason jars. The big ones sat alone: conch shells, sand dollars and starfish, each fragile and unique.

When we moved in with Grandpa, Mom had nowhere to display her collection, so Jim had mounted a shelf in my room. Although I had shared my space with the shells for months, it had never occurred to me to climb up and get them. For as long as I remembered, even on Custer, they had always just sat pretty on display.

The shells always made her smile. I thought maybe if I got them down for her, she would be less sad.

On occasion, Mom would bring them down for me to shake the sand dollars or hear the ocean in the conch shells. She’d tell me stories about Florida, and how beautiful and warm it was there. It was her favourite place.

But the shells never stayed down. She always put them away just as quickly as she let me hold them. They were special to her, from a time before me when life was easier. The shells always made her smile. I thought maybe if I got them down for her, she would be less sad.

I climbed down and pulled out the bottom drawer to use as a ladder.

While stepping onto my pajamas, perfectly folded inside the drawer, the dresser wobbled. I paused for a moment and considered whether I should go on, then decided it was fine. I wrapped my fingers around the top of the surface and then hiked my legs up one at a time, crouching all four limbs on my dresser.

I thought again about getting back down. Maybe climbing onto the dresser wasn’t the best idea. The top wasn’t so high from the ground, but from up there, the thought of standing on it made the room spin like a tilt-a-whirl. I grabbed the front of the dresser with one hand and the back with my other hand, and anchored my feet beneath me.

I hunkered just beneath the shelves, determined to get the big conch shell so that Mom and I could listen to the ocean. I didn’t want to think about Grandpa’s tubes that snaked from his nose to the oxygen tank.

Inch by inch I stood, careful to keep the dresser steady. I stayed quiet because I wanted to surprise her. Plus, Mom would get mad if she knew I was climbing, and would have wanted me to ask to see the shells. I stood and stretched my hand up, inches away from the conch shell, when the door swung open.

Wanna listen?

conch shell“Danielle, you all right?” Mom asked. My arms swung up in a windmill motion, first one and then the other. My right hand bumped the shelf that wasn’t secured to the wall like it should have been.

It toppled sideways, sending seashells crashing to the floor and leaving me standing there on the dresser, surrounded by a mess.

“My seashells! What were you thinking?” Mom shouted. She wiped moisture from her eyes with her fingertips. Her hands trembled. “I can never get those back. They were special, Danielle.”

All her shells lay on the floor, some in pieces, some only chipped. She picked up a few of the bigger shells that could be salvaged, and placed them on my dresser with care.

“I thought they would make you happy,” I said. New tears welled up in my eyes.

Her expression softened. “You could’ve gotten hurt.”

“Sorry, Mommy.”

Mom picked me up and put me on the bed. “Stay there. I’ll get the broom.”

When she left, I leaned over the edge of my bed. The conch shell was within reach and still in one piece. Little miracles do happen. I picked it up, held it close to my ear and listened to the “whoosh.” I closed my eyes and imagined the ocean Mom had told me about. I had never been to the beach, but I knew it was better than the yellow room on Lagrange Street.

Mom walked into the bedroom with the broom and dustpan, and I held the shell up. “Wanna listen?”

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