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Midwinter Repose

Like a warm scarf, the memories wrap around my thoughts, filling my head with salty smells, squawking gulls, dried seaweed tufts, and clam chowder. My memories skip as quickly as stones skimmed on the ocean's surface. Jumping from one summer to another and leaping over several, my mind sinks down to a special summer and its reverberations. How easily winter fades as my beachcomber's heart reaches out for that perfect memory.

''Grandma, what can I do with these?'' I had asked, holding with eight-year-old fists a sloshing bucket of live clams. As an aspiring beachcomber and a budding naturalist, I had found a home for every small shell or stone I had collected along the shore. My room was dashingly arrayed with loot. Grandma had made allowances for a live-in beachcomber. But would grandma allow a bucket of little guests to share a corner of my room?

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New Jersey natives considered live clams a kind of gift or personal reward for weathering the temerity of the sea. I had earned my clams by enduring the confinement of a torrential summer storm, and by learning that the sea was no respecter of persons or of things.

In early July, the great summer storm rocked the coast. Beach houses were battered by rain and high winds. Sand banks crept up and carpeted wind-side porches. Waves rolled over the beach and splintered the boardwalk. The roar of the sea filtered into our beach house and sea spray tapped at our windows, taunting our four-walled sense of security. Still, I yearned to run out into the storm and test its ferocity.

For two days my grandparents and I lived on the edge of a dream and a nightmare. The basement was flooded with rain and seawater. Armed with pails, we bailed water until our arms ached for release. My grandparents remained calm and serious. But their quiet gave way to a heaviness that blanched my summer memory of laughter and fun in the household.

The morning the storm broke, I awoke to the familiar haunting hoot of our oak tree's owl. A cool breeze rustled my curtains open to the sharp blues in a clear and sunny sky. My one hand dressed while the other washed, and then off down the steps and outside at last!

The screen door banged shut. I sank my feet in the warm sand and drew in crisp and pungent sea odors. A new world spread itself out before me: a smorgasbord of crawling, deep sea treasures! Raised up and spilled over, the ocean had thrown its riders bareback on the sand, bucking for life toward their water home. Burbling clams and crabs, starfish and dull-eyed flounder, littered the beach.

Grandfather and I chose our largest buckets and headed upwind along the beach. The gusty northeasterly elongated the waterline as the tide pushed in toward its beached members. I touched and prodded one creature after another. Crabs skittered sideways with claws arched high, ready for battle. Clams, side-saddled with barnacles and with strings of seaweed, speckled the beach. I played and crouched and studied, and soaked in the scenery and the sun.

In the distance, gulls carried clams several meters high, dropping and splitting them on the rocks below, and dining. To be so protected at sea, and yet so vulnerable when washed ashore! I sadly but firmly gritted my teeth and began a rescue mission to return the living shells to the water. I held on to the prize mollusks, recognized by their superior tray size, and gently pushed the others off into the surf. All too soon, grandfather's voice started nudging me home.

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What could grandma do with a bucket of clammy ''house-guests''?

Grandma made a fabulous clam chowder that evening. And grandma, grandfather, and I were plump, satisfied with our dinner and at peace with the tempermental sea. It had been a perfectly special day for a beachcomber, and for the making of a lifetime's memory.

How readily my heart skips a beat toward summer as I snack on midwinter's memories of clams and chowder!

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