I can’t remember our ever being so young that we didn’t know how to hunt for sharks’ teeth, our primary pastime whenever Mom and Dad took the three of us to visit our grandparents at Scientists’ Cliffs. Grandpa and Grandma lived in a log cabin perched on top of an undercut cliff that overlooked the Chesapeake Bay. The petrified teeth could be found on the beach below. They were rare enough to offer challenge in the hunt, prevalent enough to offer satisfaction in the find.
Eons ago, the teeth had been compressed and fossilized in the strata of the clay cliffs to later be loosened by erosion and storms, and washed onto the beach to be found by vigilant beachcombers. The journey from shark mouth to human hand took millions of years, more than our young minds could conceive, though we tried, conjuring images of prehistoric times and fish so large that we would be the size of their dinner.
At first Mom and Dad must have taught us what to look for: the distinctive shape of the teeth and the way they slid over the sand in the lip of water that kissed the shore. We honed our skills quickly, sighting teeth so tiny they were invisible to the uninitiated; and big ones too, sometimes an inch or two long. Steven always seemed to be better at finding those. Each summer we returned to the cliffs taller than the summer before, ever stretching our capacities to distinguish between a tooth and a pebble or piece of bark or shell. It became a matter of pride to never reach for a bit of flotsam that looked like a tooth but was not. A bend of the waist that didn’t result in a grab felt like defeat. With endless hours of practice, the spur of competition, and the advantage of learning the craft when our eyes were close to the ground, we developed tooth-finding abilities that would amaze our friends in years to come as they tried and failed to mimic our success.
In my memory, a still-boyish Steve with a butch haircut digs in the cliff’s fossil layer looking for teeth with his Boy Scout knife — against beach regulations. Carol, small enough that she needs to
scramble to keep up with us, tarries behind to poke a jellyfish with a stick. The breeze is salty on my tongue.
We never tired of walking the beach, happy to stay there long after Mom and Dad returned to the cabin to prepare lunch or to retire to an afternoon gin and tonic. Mom warned us before she departed not to get too much sun, a warning we ignored as we jockeyed for the most advantageous position for working our way up the beach. The sun pinked our necks as we concentrated on the square yard of sand just ahead of our footsteps, losing ourselves in the task of finding one more tooth.
Always we guarded in sandy pockets the precious few teeth we harvested from our morning excursions. Only when hunger overtook us or the afternoon shadow of the cliffs greyed the beach did we reluctantly stop. Then we raced each other up the 144 cement stairs that rose from the beach to the gravelly path at the top, then over the wooden bridge that crossed the ravine and led to the log cabin. Our haste was diminished only by remembering the thick black snake we had once seen slithering across the bridge; it looked like the water moccasin illustration in one of our nature books and we didn’t want to risk a close encounter. At the back door of the cabin, we hurriedly hosed off our gritty feet to avoid a don’t-tramp-sand-into-the-house scolding then charged up the stairs in search of the adults.
Grandma was sitting in an Adirondack chair on the front porch, watching a ship pass on the horizon of the Chesapeake, shaking her cigarette ash into an oyster shell ashtray. Dad and Grandpa were talking over books in the study, a bit less available than we wanted them to be. Mom was in the kitchen. We rushed to her first, pulling the day’s finds from our pockets, feeling the bottoms with our fingers to make sure no tiny ones got snagged on fraying pocket seams. Eagerly, we offered hands dotted with curved triangles for parental inspection.
Always I hoped that today my collection would be deemed the most noteworthy. That today I would have the most teeth or the biggest one or the most miniscule. Today would be the day that my accomplishments would put me ahead of my sister and brother. It was a hope that never abated, even as Mom did her best to make each of us feel worthy of commendation. It didn’t matter what your hands held; if your catch wasn’t distinguished by size, she might compliment an unusually symmetrical tooth or an especially delicate one that must have been hard to find. Still, we could each see for ourselves whose hand held the biggest tooth, now mirrored in the parental gaze. I often felt a flutter of disappointment, though always knowing that today’s disappointment could be redeemed tomorrow when, sun rising and our parents still in bed, we would again scurry over the rocky path, across the bridge, and down the stairs to seek whatever new teeth had washed ashore during the night.
My grandparents died more than thirty years ago. It has been that long since Carol and Steven and I last enacted our ritual sharks’ tooth competition at Scientists’ Cliffs, though I am certain that when they find themselves on any beach –like me — their necks bend and their eyes scan for
teeth. These days I am the only of us who regularly visits the cabin, no longer owned by family. I rent it for a few days once or twice a year. Now it provides a healing retreat, and a reminder of all that transcends time.
Last week I walked the beach alone. I found just a few teeth, small ones. Still, the next time I visit Mom and Dad, I will take them along to add to the family collection they keep in a gallon jar in the basement. I wonder how we will divide the stash when they are gone.