Fall 2019Non-Fiction

Stealing Sand – Christy O’Callaghan

My older brother JJ mumbles to himself like our mom always does when she’s pissed off. “Enter Sandman” plays from the same tape he’d been rolling for the last five years. The song blasts from the speakers of his black pick-up truck, the vibrations slamming against my bare legs. At my feet sits the red plastic bucket and blue plastic shovel that we used as kids. Our grandmother Monk never misplaces things like that. Skinny tall pines drift past the windows as we pull off the cracked pavement. The tires kick up dust as we continue down the dirt road that cuts through the woods to a white sand beach—a secret luxury along the rocky coast of Maine.

For as long as my family can remember, it had been an unmarked beach that the locals called Lusha, but today a fancy brown State of Maine sign looms over the dry dusty parking lot. The mid-90’s was bringing modernization—a new name, a set of rules, and a white plastic pipe to drop in a couple of sweaty dollars as the admission fee. On the other side of the cars is a spanking new two-holer outhouse with doors and everything. Crap, I think, the beach has gone corporate.

I stop to inhale the sweet fragrance of the deep pink Rosa rugosa blossoms and kick off my flip-flops at the grass strip that separates hard dirt lot from soft grains of sand. Then I scan the beach for a dry spot without too much crusty seaweed or dead crabs. When I find one I squat down and start to dig.

The sand slipping off the blue shovel into the red bucket feels like childhood. For a week or two each summer my family visited our grandmother’s cottage. We used this bucket on this beach to build castles and collect shells and throw water on the one who fell asleep. At home our mom worked a couple jobs at a time, but in Maine our mom relaxed and let Monk take over. Monk wasn’t a play in the dirt kind of woman, but she was happy to let us loose with the ocean as our playground. Both in here and at home my brothers and I spent more time together than other siblings we knew. We had to be close, even if we didn’t always want to be.

JJ, my older brother, towers over me, his arms crossed, and his face scrunched up against the glare of the sun. The summer sun has forced freckles, the same shade as his dark brown hair, to pop-up across his face. He always hated his freckles, our mom called them Angel Kisses, which never made him feel better. He looked different from our younger brother and me. JJ’s taller, leaner, and has greener eyes to our blue. If you didn’t take time with him, he seemed quieter too. Once you get to know him, he’ll talk your ear off about math, Legos, chess, the latest Republican agenda, or the boat he wants to build someday. A smirk crosses my face as I look at his light blue jeans, his tucked in button down shirt, and the sneakers still strapped to his feet, and I realize he’s never been on one of Monk’s capers with me before. These past few years life has changed. JJ and I are both in college, but he lives at home, and I live in a dorm.

“This is nice,” I say. “I miss hanging out.”

“Shut up.” He rolls his eyes. JJ’s not one to discuss feelings.

Maybe Monk doesn’t include him in these adventures because he’s a guy. I don’t remember her involving my younger brother Patrick either. It’s just my grandmother and me. Her daily constitutionals are the same, only the two of us. Walking with her is both a delight and a chore. I prefer to stroll and stop to look at insects, flowers, or boats. Monk, however, is a hummingbird. Her thin limbs always move at a brisk clip. Her white hair set in a curled halo around her head, a scarf at her throat to hide the one place her skin shows her age. “America has gotten too fat,” she complains because she can no longer find clothes small enough to fit her petite frame.

As I pick up my pace to keep up with her, she talks non-stop. We only pause when Monk desires to point something out to me, like the berries on a juniper bush that are used to make gin, or the smart color someone painted their door, or a bleached animal bone she wants me to pick up so she can add it to her display shelf, or when she wants to show me how more seaweed is covering the rocks than the previous year and to speculate why, or to eat the hips off beach roses. We walk through yards, woods, gardens, and driveways. As I’ve gotten older, more Private Property signs have appeared as new names show up on mailboxes. My grandmother never sees the signs, or if she does, she doesn’t believe they apply to her.

For as long as I can remember, an old German farmer and his less-old German wife have owned a sheep farm that borders one side of the cottage property. Two years ago, the old man died, and the wife got nervous about strangers. Her husband had done most of the talking, and she never gained a confident grasp of English. She painted a No Trespassing sign on the side of a boulder we call Split Rock, but the red letters outlined in black actually read “No Trestassing.” Sometimes when I take walks by myself, I’m met by the barrel of the old woman’s shotgun. I put my hands up and remind her that she knows my grandmother. She lowers her weapon, offers a few kind words, and allows me to pass.

On walks, drives, visits, dinners, any time we’re together, Monk tells stories and shares the wisdom she feels essential to impart. Her stories are instructions on how to be a woman. She was sixty-three when I was born, and her lessons come from a life far removed from my own.

“When you are married, the husband makes the final decision.”

“Why? What if he’s wrong.”

“Don’t marry a fool.”

“Shouldn’t we make decisions together?”

“That’s not the way the world works.”

“Then I won’t get married.”

I often wonder if she has the same conversations with my brothers. I hope not. Neither one of us would want them to misunderstand or abuse the power men possess.

Perhaps Monk didn’t include JJ because she knows his morality is all rigid black and white lines while mine is wavy gray swirls. She only sent him this time because I don’t have a license. To be honest, I drive, just not legally, and I can’t tell JJ that. It’s like how I never discuss my years of sneaking into bars and clubs, not even to drink, since there always seemed to be plenty of drugs and alcohol around, but to see bands I like. I could never explain the freedom of the pounding waves of music vibrating off my ribcage and the electricity of a room packed with anonymous people I didn’t have to talk to. Nor did I tell him about the abandoned and locked down places I broke into with my friends. Signs, laws, warnings, are only vague ideas to me, but to him they’re tangible.

JJ isn’t without risk-taking behavior. In high school, he found a group of friends that were way dirt-baggier than he could ever be. He grew a mullet, started smoking, and going out more. One night he came home with a kitten buttoned inside his smoke-tinged denim jacket. He’d stolen the kitty from his friend’s house. He said there were so many other animals that it wasn’t getting enough to eat. Our house was a refuge for misfit pets and friends, so Clepto the Wonder Cat fit right in. Clepto had an odd habit of washing food with her front paws while sitting up on her hind legs with her tail curled into a question mark behind her for balance. She taught the other cats this strange behavior. JJ’s small act of rebellion had a ripple effect for years.

Monk’s rule-breaking should be admired for its class and sophistication. For several years, my mom worked at a sleep-away camp in the Berkshires, and we didn’t get to visit my grandmother at the cottage. Monk sent us letters and care packages. The items didn’t always make sense to onlookers. For example, she sent old wallets she’d accumulated. Monk loves pockets and anything that keeps her organized. My brothers and I learned to look in every nook and cranny of whatever she sent. We found money, baseball cards, pictures, articles, candy, and gum. She knew from letters I sent that gum was forbidden, safety or whatnot. So, she smuggled in the contraband. This always struck me as funny because she hates when anyone chews gum around her. She sent it only because it was a no-no.

This past fall Monk went to lunch to meet my Serious Boyfriend, whom I met at the summer camp in the Berkshires. She took in his more than six feet of height, his halo of curly hair, lopsided smile, and violet eyes, and decided he wasn’t devious enough. She knew something was different about this guy and hoped he’d be the one to break my anti-marriage oath. For that to happen, he’d have to toughen up to be with her Favorite Granddaughter as she calls me. “Your only granddaughter,” I always reply.

Monk liked the paper napkins at the restaurant because they felt like cloth, plus the restaurant had, as she said, “the good sugar packets.” She spotted where the hostess stored them and asked my boyfriend to pinch a pile for her. She said she had room in her purse. David looked at me to see if this was one of the pranks the members of my family are always playing on each other. I whispered that I’d do it. He sighed, stood up, and loped across the room. He nabbed a stack of napkins and a fistful of yellow packets and handed them to her under the table. “You’re a good boy,” she told him.

The filching doesn’t stop with napkins or a bucket of sand to level a step. Over the years, it’s been plastic lobster bibs, Sweet and Low, handi-wipes, all the grapes you could sample, stale wafer sugar cookies from the barrels at the warehouse grocery store, cuttings from houseplants she admired, tulip bulbs dug up from other people’s gardens, paper cups, rolls of toilet paper, anything that would fit in her purse. No one ever said a thing. I never questioned if we were breaking laws or just bending them.

She doesn’t need these things. My grandfather grew up poor and didn’t want to work in the coal mines like his father. Instead, he became a doctor. He worked hard to have an education, made a good living, and invested everything he could. Before he died of a heart attack in his office, three years before I was born, he ensured my grandmother had enough to be comfortable.

Perhaps this behavior is a leftover habit of the Depression era when she came of age. She tells me stories of rent parties, envelope systems to pay bills, and how to use a door as an extra-large table for guests—survival skills. Maybe it comes from her worry that there’s no adult male in my life on whom I can count if things go sideways. No safety net in case life should fall apart. She wants me to know how to get what I need. My declaration that I’d never get married probably doesn’t help. My grandmother uses everything we take, integrating these small components into her life, not hiding them away in the back of a closet. She never mentions to anyone how she got these particular items. If she wants something, I get it for her in exchange for praise and hugs and to be told I’m a good girl.

“How much sand does she want?” I ask JJ, trying not to chuckle at his pained expression.
“I don’t know. Hurry up would you.” He looks at the locals relaxing on the beach. Making sure no one notices the two people from “away,” dressed in their going-out-to-dinner-with-Grandma clothes and filling a child’s bucket with sand that belongs to the State of Maine. But no one looks up. They’re all busy recharging their batteries after long days of hauling traps or serving tourists, trying to make enough money to survive the next winter.

I brush the sand off my knees as I rise. JJ rushes towards the parking lot, lowering his head as a family approaches, and dashes for his truck with its out-of-state plates. I stop in front of the father, my flip-flops in one hand and the heavy red bucket in the other. The man nods his family along. He scans me up and down. I prepare my “Oh, I had no idea,” face and blue eyes for batting if he says I can’t take the sand.

Yesterday, when JJ and I arrived at the cottage, my grandmother had her usual stack of clipped articles ready for me to read. Monk doesn’t save whole magazines or newspapers, only the parts she thinks are interesting. This is a habit my family has practiced for generations. When I flip through old books at the cottage, the pages are filled with fading notes in various handwriting, crispy pressed flowers, and cut out pieces of delicate, crumbly yellowed newsprint. The more recent clippings are wrapped in plastic cling. I’m careful with the glossy magazines and newsprint strips because I know she’ll want to tuck away the most important pieces. One of the articles Monk gave me detailed a request to not remove ferns from the forests or cut slow-growing lichen or moss from the rocks. A while back she mailed an article to me asking people to stop pocketing certain stones off the beaches.

My family has a long tradition of collecting lucky stones—rocks with a ring that runs around the circumference. My great-grandmother, GaGa, started a lucky stone garden behind the cottage. She wanted to fill a gap between some rock slabs. Her visitors returned from walks along the water with these precious objects to fill the void. At times, it’s been level to the boulders, but as rain falls, snow melts, cold snaps, heat bakes, and erosion cuts, the earth shifts, and the giant rocks move causing the smaller stones to settle. We continue to pay tribute to GaGa by bringing more lucky stones to this makeshift altar. I always carry a tiny pinkish lucky stone with a cream stripe. When Monk gave it to me, she said it would ensure I always had something in my wallet.

Another article mentioned tourists taking these small tokens out of Maine and how much time it takes for each of them to regenerate. Some of these treasures can also carry microscopic species to different parts of the world where they wouldn’t typically be found. This red plastic bucket filled with sand is only traveling three miles, but it’s away from this rare soft spot along the rocky coastline. None of the articles discussed beach sand, and in my quick scan of the new sign over the parking lot, I hadn’t seen sand removal listed in the rules. However, this is the first time the State of Maine has staked its claim over this beach and its elements.

I imagine everyone removing buckets full of sand from the limited sandy beaches in Maine. Colorful pails hauling the precious grains away. One giant bucket brigade. I wonder if it would be the same as removing moss or lichen that take years to grow one inch. How long does it take to replace a single bucket of sand? I think of every purse leaving restaurants filled with fistfuls of napkins and the good sugar packets. What kind of impact would that have on the business? I agree with those who worry about upsetting the natural balance and I’m concerned about the generations to come after my brothers and myself. Will they be able to play on the beach, enjoy the sea life, breath the fresh air? I don’t know and yet, here I am.

When my brothers and I played by the water as kids, we gathered sea creatures in this same red bucket. Patrick adored starfish. There is a three-year cycle for sea urchins, starfish, and kelp. Every three years when the starfish bloomed and coated the rocks, and we’d pluck several for observation. In the off years, we could still locate some choice specimens in crevices, tidal pools, and among the seaweed. We also collected periwinkles, crabs, hermit crabs, and sea urchins. But we knew to never touch the lobsters.

Fishermen who make their living off lobsters live all around the cottage. From a young age we were taught the rules. We had to know how to swim. To respect the tides and currents of the ocean. Don’t throw trash in the water. Never touch the traps or remove the crustaceans. Even on a full-moon extra-low August tide, when shallow traps can be left exposed to bake in the beating sun. You let them be.

Along the Friendly Rocks, as Monk called the smooth flat rocks between the cottage and the ocean, there is a short rusty metal pipe. Monk told us that when our mom was little the pipe stood much taller and they’d tie a small rowboat or a lobster trap to it. They’d throw the trap out in the morning and pull it up when it was time to make dinner. She said that when her father was a child in Maine, he didn’t need a trap. His grandmother would send him to pull up the slimy, limp strands of seaweed, and he’d snatch the giant bugs from their hiding spot. I’ve never in my life seen a lobster under the noodle-like rockweed.

One day my brothers and I found the whopper of all starfish. Its legs hung over the edge of the red bucket as we helped each other haul it up the rocks to our investigation center, the yellow bench next to the kitchen door. We liked to play with the creatures, discuss them, and ocassionally give them names. We used our grandmother’s measuring tape and magnifying glass for analysis of the more unusual finds. Monk sometimes took our picture with them—snapshots of us holding up our squirmy catches or pointing small sun-burnt fingers towards the bucket with our treasure inside. We were always careful to return our little friends to their homes before they died. We never threw into the deep water, but placed them near seaweed so they could hide, or in tidal pools where they would wait until the waves lapped back over the rocks. The mighty beast we found that day was the pride of all our discoveries. Patrick giggled through the holes of his lost baby teeth as we joked that it was so big it might pull off one of his hands. We ran into the cottage to grab our tools and, since exploration is hard work, stopped for a snack of Monk’s bear cookies and some lemonade. When we returned, the monstrous starfish was gone.

Our most significant oceanographic discovery had vanished. We were heartbroken, especially Patrick. It was too big for a seagull to have carried away. The bucket was still upright, and it couldn’t have walked itself back to the water in that short period of time. Some passerby must have taken it. We decided that they were either jealous and kept it as a prize, or thought we were going to kill it and threw it into the ocean. They probably figured we were careless kids and didn’t understand our expertise. Even people with good intentions who don’t know what they’re doing can cause harm. A small impact is still an impact. After we stopped going to the overnight camp in the Berkshires and returned to Maine, there were never as many starfish to discover.

As I stand in front of this local man and prepare myself for his reaction to my bucket of sand, I know I’ll continue to filch what Monk requests. She is my grandmother. We all must decide which laws are most important to us; state, conservation, family.

The father’s bloodshot, tired green eyes meet mine, and I smile. Part of me wants him to stop me, tell me I need to leave the sand where it belongs and not under my grandmothers’ step. The rest of me want to take every grain and more for her. I leave the choice up to this stranger. It’s more his beach than mine I suppose.
He shakes his head and aims a gap-tooth grin. “Have a good one dear.”

I wipe my feet on the grass and slide them into my flip-flops. The music from JJ’s truck thumps from across the parking lot. He’s buckled with the engine running when I climb into the cab.

“It’s just sand,” I say.

“It’s stolen sand. Don’t talk to me for a while, okay?” He glowers at the road as he hits every puddle catcher at full speed. I watch the tall skinny pines whip past the window careful not to spill any sand on his black seat as I hug the red plastic bucket to my body.

Christy O’Callaghan lives in Upstate, New York.  She teaches job skills to incarcerated adults and helps them seek employment upon release.  Her favorite pastimes include hiking, gardening, swimming, snowshoeing, and collecting sea glass—anything in the fresh air.  You can learn more about her, her blog about being an over 40 newbie writer, and her writing at www.christyflutterby.com.  You can also follow her on Instagram @christyflutterby and Facebook at Christy O’Callaghan.

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