Most families have some tradition they can’t explain.

I once read the account of a woman who always cut the end off a ham before cooking it. When her daughter asked her why, she answered, “That’s what my mother did, so it must make it taste better.” The daughter asked her grandmother, who replied, “My pan was small. That’s how I made it fit.”

Something practical becomes magical.

My grandmother always kept a fern in a large seashell on her porch. I assumed ferns grew best that way.

I never once considered how my grandmother, living all her life in Southern Illinois, got that big shell. I don’t remember ever hearing a story of a relative traveling to the ocean and bringing it back as a souvenir. She came from a long line of farm people, and they never left home for longer than a few hours.

Who would feed the chickens? Who would mend the fence? Who would pull the weeds? They lived a Little Red Hen life without complaining.

By the time I wondered about it, my grandmother had died. My mother didn’t know the answer either.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For some reason I’ve always believed that if I thought long enough about any puzzle, I could connect its dots and find a plot line, a character’s motivation, a meaningful metaphor. I could solve anything.

I remembered summers in the front yard swing with my grandmother. I’m sure now it was how she got me to take a nap, my head resting in her lap. To my right, her seashell fern bobbed in the breeze on the porch, a wide expanse of cement beach out there in the country. And in the distance, the wind blew the rows of corn, the stalks rising and falling like green ocean waves. The warm air rushed up to us, ruffling the long grass blades at her feet. My grandmother and I rocked together, our hearts afloat in our swinging boat, daydreaming together on the Illinois seashore.

Forever after, I’ve kept a fern in a conch shell, too, not because I know why, but because she did.

That’s reason enough.   

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2 thoughts on “The Illinois Seashore

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