Mother-In-Law, Ocean Sister

In about a week, we will be heading to Sanibel, Florida to drop in on my mother-in-law, Barbara. She has been visiting Sanibel for over 20 years, and she hooked us on it when our two kids were small. We've gone every year since Lena was three or four and had her first run-in with fire ants. Lena's eighteen now (how did that happen?), and this will be her last visit before heading off to college next year.

Barbara's birthday is just two days after mine, so we not only share the Pisces sign but the love of all things water. She is lucky to live right on the water in Massachusetts - at high tide, you can practically spit in the water below her house; at low tide, her beach appears and dries out while the rest of the bay settles into a mucky expanse until the tides shift and the water returns. This photo of the view from her deck is unfiltered - I kid you not.

If I had a dollar for every cocktail we have enjoyed sitting on her deck while watching the sun set, I'd be a rich woman.

Over the years, we have found any number of things washed up on Barbara's beach: lobster buoys, horseshoe crab shells, beach glass, and one year, inexplicably, shard after weathered shard of broken, patterned china. There are two tall stones that we call "the ladies" and Josh's job every year when we arrive is to make sure that they are standing tall.

Nearby is Plymouth Beach, a mighty, wide and long beach great for walking. Years ago, there were sand dollar beds in abundance, but not so much recently - the sea gives to us and the sea takes away. This is a nice selfie of Josh and his mama on Plymouth beach last summer.

Barbara's house is filled with things she has picked up from the beaches over the years. A shelf full of tiny clear, water tumbled antique bottles. A curio table filled with shells and stones. A huge jar of pale green and white beach glass. Driftwood.

Her collection also includes years' worth of treasures found bending over in what is known as the "Sanibel Stoop" - a wonderful name for the pose everyone strikes as they bend over while shelling. Tough on the back, but irresistible.

Sanibel is known for having some of the best shelling beaches in the United States. Sometimes, the ocean literally barfs out huge piles of shells that folks sift through looking for augers or worm shells or whatever they prize. People who find an elusive Junonia shell get their picture in the local paper.

Barbara sees beauty everywhere in nature - its plants, water, and birds. When you look over the tableful of things she has collected from the beach, the display is just as likely to contain broken shells as perfect specimens. Sometimes those imperfect pieces just speak to her and demand her attention.

Over the years, the two of us have solved all the problems of our lives and the world on long walks on these beaches. I wish that were actually true, but I can say that it feels like the truth. As much as I loved my own mother, and miss her every day, we never had the kinds of talks I have with my Mother-in-Law. Barbara's heart is open in such a remarkable way, and I cherish her love, spirit, and zest for experiencing life.

So while we might stop to admire a bird, or stoop to see if a shell is worth keeping, what I treasure most, and what I take home with me, are the most beautiful memories of the time we spend together.

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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