Sea Glass


Every summer I join my cousins at the family cottage on Folly Beach, a South Carolina Sea Island, where war history meets pirates meets a childhood yearning to belong.


Rows of jars filled with multicolored sea glass sit on a wobbly wicker table inside the screened porch.  On sultry summer afternoons we cousins empty Grandmama’s treasures onto the sandy wood floor and sort them like jewels. Today I palm a favorite, a muted green piece shaped like a shark’s tooth, and stow it where the elastic of my one-piece bathing suit joins the skin of my thigh.


I could have been around ten years old the first time I asked Grandmama, ‘How long does it take sharp glass to become smooth as a baby’s butt?’ Grandmama replies, ‘But child, see for yourself.  There are books on the shelf by my bed.’ Grandmama murmurs to herself the words, mermaid’s tears.  ‘It’s an ancient legend,’ she says.  ‘When a sailor dies at sea, a mermaid cries and her tears wash up as sea glass.’


Turning the worn, salt-crusted pages of Grandmama’s books, I read you need silica, soda ash, limestone and minerals to make glass. The ingredients must melt at temperatures up to 1600 degrees centigrade to create hues of blue, brown, black, green, yellow and the rare reds. The result appears hard and smooth, but it’s not what it seems.  I read when you peer through a microscope and observe the molecules arranged in irregular patterns, they are neither typical of liquid nor solid. Glass is sometimes called an amorphous solid, a frozen, super-cooled liquid, never fully set.


I learn glass is the ultimate garbage. It doesn’t rust or decompose. For millennia people have dumped refuse from cliffs or rowed it out to sea. Ships passing close to shore jettison the unnecessary. Detritus from shipwrecks washes ashore. Moderate beach slopes with two foot tumbling waves and a sea fetch of 12-25 miles are the perfect environments.  After decades tossing in water, some chemicals leach out and edges become smooth.  The glass takes on a soft, frosted look.


It’s low tide.  Grandmama and I approach a crescent bar of fine crystalline sand arching into clear, green water accessible only on foot, or by shallow draft boat.  I wear old trousers with deep pockets.  Grandmama’s arthritis slows her pace so I slow mine.  She and I walk in parallel lines as the younger cousins dance around a dead crab the size of a large man’s palm.  Grandmama stoops, collecting an almond-shaped, yellow-green piece of glass.  She turns it over in her hand and tosses it back into the waves. ‘That one’s not ready yet,’ she says. ‘You can’t hurry glass.’ And you can’t hurry Grandmama.  I can’t help myself: I break away from our moseying and kick into the surf. Grandmama moves to a mound of sea grass, inviting us to ‘sit for a spell and have a snack.’


Brandishing driftwood sticks and using our best pirate voices, we urge Grandmama to retell Carolina pirate stories. She launches into our favorite: Blackbeard. ‘A man named Edward Teach,’ she says, ‘was a legitimate privateer until 1717. He turned to piracy after he captured the French slave ship La Concord.  He freed the slaves and crew on a one of the Sea Islands.  Then he refitted her with 40 guns, and renamed her Queen Ann’s Revenge, flying his Skull-and-crossbones.’ Grandmama tells us how Blackbeard was a giant of a man who brandished pistols in both hands. He set fire to slow burning hemp strips twined into the ends of his long black beard to strike terror into the hearts of sailors as he approached their vessels. If they didn’t resist, he took their ship and set them free. Rumors of his savagery spread. ‘Listen up,’ She says. ‘In 1718, Blackbeard blocked Charleston Harbor for a week while he awaited trunks of medicines he required, then released his hostages unharmed as promised. So you see, he was also a man of his word.’


Grandmama seems to want to rest longer today. Her eyes take on the soft tone of the blue piece of glass deep in my pocket. She launches into a story about  ‘The War of Northern Aggression.’ Those stories always twisted my stomach. ‘Damn Yankees,’ my Carolina cousins chortle.  I’d heard over and over how Union Soldiers confiscated the family dry-goods store, leaving them to survive on collard greens and goober peas.  Grandmama laughs: After so many years eating peanuts, her family never bought the commercial kind when it appeared in stores.


While Grandmama is laughing, I pose a family history question: ‘I heard Aunt Liza and Ann talking but when I moved closer, they dropped the subject. Why did the family’s women live apart from the men after the war?


Grandmama says, ‘It’s a sad story, but one y’all should know. As a small child your Great-Grandmamma hid in the root cellar while Union Soldiers chased her sister around the store until they had their way with her. In those days, unsupervised, angry Union soldiers occupied Charleston. So your Great-Great-Granddaddy built a cottage deep in the cypress forest to keep our women safe.’ I absorb this new information sitting silently ashamed on my towel, wishing I could disappear.  Those Union Soldiers were my people, too.  My momma is a ‘Yankee.’


I knew the Civil War created generations-long sharp edges for Grandmama’s family.  Seeing me there, fighting back tears, she takes my hand.  ‘You know, sweet darlin’ child? I didn’t like it a bit when your Daddy married North of the Mason Dixon line.  For years I believed he had betrayed our family. But knowing your Mama all these years and loving you as I do has softened my edges, just like sea glass.’


First Published in Signs of life, 2015, p18-19