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The Day the Clams Swallowed Me

I tripped over a memory the other day, the way one comes across a quarter in a parking lot. I was shopping at the old department store in our small harbor town. Nothing in there had changed since the 1950s. I stood next to the counter, waiting to pay for the wool socks I had picked up for my son, and something carried me back to the summers we spent there when I was a child, the youngest of three sisters.

We stayed on Cedar Island, a thin grassy strip of sand - really just a big sandbar - off Clinton on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. We had a 1930-ish cottage on the harbor side of the island, the "cheap" side. The cottage was yellow and built like a big box, just big enough for the six of us. There was no electricity, but there were many windows, a flush toilet, and a shower.

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Each night, my mother lit the gas lamps. She took great care, teaching us about the danger of the lamps and the chance of fire. When darkness came and the lamps were lit, all the silliness in our play had to end. We settled in for nighttime, seriousness, and sleep.

On the harbor side of Cedar Island, the beaches weren't as nice as the ones on the Long Island Sound side, but I guess this was what we could afford. Our time was filled with simple pleasures: flounder fishing at 6 a.m., portulaca picking, and swimming in hot black inner tubes all afternoon.

There were about 20 cottages in all. The Sound side had nine or 10 large, comfortable cottages set on creamy yellow sand. The harbor side had a dozen crate-like wooden houses on stilts, all stuffed together. They were so close together, in fact, that one day my sister Wendy went into a cottage and stayed for quite a while before she realized she was in the wrong house.

On the harbor side, the water was black, like watery ink. There was a broad band of water closest to the beach, which was carpeted with slippery green rocks. At low tide, for the rest of the way out, all the way to the channel, there was a dense covering of harbor mud - thick, black, gassy-smelling muck. Skinny children sank in it to their ankles, and paunchy adults went up to their knees.

Millions of creatures existed in their unnoticed world. Green crabs skittered out from under our feet. Schools of small fish hurried by in the hundreds, bumping into our legs. Clams burrowed under tangled trails of seaweed. We waded through the muck when we swam, and we waded through it when we clammed.

CLAMMING is what I remember so vividly, the happy memory just surfacing in my mind. On those Saturdays when the tide was right - low in the morning - all of us (except for my mother, who hated the muck), put on our oldest sneakers and waded out. We towed a little rowboat to put the clams in and felt with our feet for rock-like mounds in the muck: big quahogs humping out of the underwater earth like beets and turnips growing in a good vegetable garden. The mud was alive with them.

In three quarters of an hour we'd have enough quahogs for my mother to make a delicious chowder. On most days, we lived on clam chowder for lunch and flounder for dinner. My Yankee mother loved this part of island life. She loved living off the Sound and its bounty.

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One morning no one wanted to go clamming, but my mother still wanted a chowder. "Sal?" she said to me, "think you could get the clams? I'll take you across to Petrie's later and buy you a popsicle."

I couldn't believe this bargain. I loved to clam. I loved to eat popsicles. Most of all, I loved to do things for my mother. In a flash, I was in the water. I was too small to tow the boat, so my plan was to bring the clams up, two at a time, and walk them all the way back to the water's edge. I needed 18 for chowder, which meant nine trips. The muck was a long way out for a six-year-old, and after two long, hard walks under a broiling summer sun, I discovered something that made this whole adventure much easier. I found that I could put the mucky clams down the front of my bathing suit and continue hunting for more.

I remember this bathing suit quite well. I didn't like it much. It was red and scratchy and, I think, woolen. It had straps that crossed at the back and buttoned in the front. The minute this suit got wet, it would stretch and stretch, becoming longer and longer by the minute. I spent half my time pulling it up. This made swimming almost impossible. But for the purpose of collecting clams by myself, the suit fit my needs perfectly. I found, as I put more and more clams down the front, that it went right on stretching, accommodating as many clams as I could find.

This was fine while I was waist-deep in water, but when I attempted to walk out of the water, I discovered that I had become so heavy with clams I could not lift my own weight. I had two choices: leave the clams in a pile where I was and hope that I could find them again, or stand there and call to my mother. She was all the way back in the kitchen of our cottage, preparing the potatoes and the onions for the chowder. I decided to call to my mother.

I CALLED and called and called. Amazingly, she heard me and came. When she saw the shape of me and realized what I had done, she threw her head back and belly-laughed. She laughed all the way from her toes. She laughed so hard she lost her balance on the uneven sand and nearly fell over. I had never seen my mother laugh like this before, and I didn't know what to do, so I stood there and waited, feeling heavier and heavier. I, of course, had no idea how funny I looked.

Eventually, my mother regained control and, without hesitation, waded out into the muck barefoot, soaking the bottom of her skirt. She hauled me in like a sack of potatoes. All the fist-sized clams had settled around my hips and bottom, at least 15 of them. I must have weighed 20 pounds more with the clams added to my weight.

For years afterward, my mother would tell this story, usually at suppertime when everyone was there. I loved it when she did. It was something that had happened just between the two of us. As she retold the story, she would look over at me several times.

I love this memory. I love to remember my mother's face that day when she was laughing and how proud we both were at my success in bringing home the clams.

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