Fathom Mag

Show and Tell

The treasures of my childhood are stories for yours.

Published on:
June 10, 2020
Read time:
7 min.
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My son held my hand as we walked the halls of the Natural History Museum in London where we were on holiday to celebrate his birthday. Double digits. He acted younger than his age—the kind of kid who not only sleeps with a stuffed animal at night, but plays with them in the daylight. He wouldn’t stay like that forever, but at that very moment, he rubbed his thumb sweetly against my hand whenever he saw something interesting. We peered into shadow boxes—each holding a treasure with an ancient yellowed label affixed to the corner of the box. 

In one box, suspended against a wall behind glass, a large starfish stretched its creamy arms out like glory. Class Asteroidea (phylum Echinodermata) the card read. It was old. Darwin himself may have brought it back from his travels.

I used to have one of those in my show-and-tell box.

Show-and-tell box?

When I was a child, once a week, teachers would let you bring in something to share in front of the class. It couldn’t be a toy, but something you could educate the class about. I had a whole box of treasures I’d collected. I’d look up information in my grandmother’s encyclopedias and would jot facts down on three-by-five cards to share with the class.

What was in the box?

Objects I thought were beautiful, like that nautilus there in the case. But mostly items I found mysterious. I’d lay on my bedroom floor looking at them for hours.

Your childhood sounds magical.

It was not. My childhood was filled with fear and want. Love dissipated like morning fog in the afternoon sun.

Looking at shadow boxes with my son, I know his childhood is magical. I created the world he was placed in. 

What if I could see magic in my childhood too? Could I peer through the frame and fixate on whatever magic I could find?

The most beloved moments of my childhood were ones spent in my inner life, the worlds created between the pages of books and amid glimpses of beauty. It’s where I’d escape, where I’d lose myself—or where I was found.

What if I could see magic in my childhood too? Could I peer through the frame and fixate on whatever magic I could find?  

My grandfather snipped a branch from the plum tree of his garden where a hummingbird had made her nest. He squatted down so I could see the tiny wisp made with twigs and cobwebs.

See where she peeled paint chips off houses to stick to the sides of her nest? 

He turned the branch so I could see the rainbowed flecks of emerald, violet, and gold that shimmered like the mother bird herself when she whizzed through my grandfather’s garden. Even birds like to make things beautiful.

Inside the nest lay a small egg, not much larger than a tic tac. A hole pecked into it revealed it empty, hollow.

Where will she live now?

She left this home long ago. In these parts, hummingbirds don’t reuse their nests. They recycle them, taking the best parts to make a new and improved nest.

My grandfather emptied out a quart-sized mayonnaise jar from his tool shed. It had held nuts, bolts, and nails—now spilled out on his workbench. He washed it out with hot soapy water until the glass sparkled again. He dried it with a clean, white bar towel and placed the branch inside, twisting the metal lid tight. Now I could gaze at the nest over and over without damaging it.

It was a lovely little thing.

The hummingbird had fluttered about gathering the precious tendrils—twists of trees and treasures with the patience of love. The nest seemed too fragile to hold a family, but the mother could fly backward and had wings that sliced like blades.

The tiny octopus looked alien, staring at me with its one visible eye. Its dead body squished into a baby food jar of “Blueberry Buckle,” the label peeled off.

I turned the jar in my hands and heard the fluid slosh behind the glass. I wasn’t quite certain what I was looking at. Its bruised, bulbous head took up most of the space in the jar. Its tentacles pressed up against the slides of the glass, exposing the suckers. It wasn’t quite purple in color, but neither was it red.

My grandfather wasn’t certain if it was a baby or just a small octopus, but he’d found it in his net while fishing off the coast of Baja. He said he put the specimen in the jar with formaldehyde, but years later, the body looked soft and began to disintegrate as bits floated in the liquid. I then suspected it was just sea water. I knew my grandfather wanted me to see something marvelous. I might not have the chance for an encounter on my own, so he brought the waters of the deep to me.

The cottages were lined up like shark teeth along the Crystal Pier where my grandparents invited my family to join them a couple times a year. The waves lulled us to sleep each night under the planks of the pier, the rhythm of the sea becoming part of our dreams. The cottages were simple one-bedrooms with a pull-out couch in the front room for us children. The smallest of us would push two bright, blue vinyl-covered chairs together to make a bed of our own, careful not to push it apart in the middle of the night and end up on the ground.

My grandfather spent the day fishing, sharing cigarettes and an occasional story with the other men at the end of the pier, while my grandmother sat in one of the cottages playing Skip-Bo or Phase-10 with her sisters and their husbands. They’d sip their diet 7-Up with bendy straws and if I was lucky enough, they’d let me play. You’d have to be quick though or Great Uncle Bob would rap his cards on the table to suggest you’d need to speed it up.

If I woke up early enough, my mother would walk us down to the beach to find sand dollars left by the low tide. Still purple and swollen, the sand dollars were already dead from hours out of the ocean water, laying in the line of the first rays of sunlight. We’d fill our plastic buckets while the seaweed Zamboni cleaned the sand of kelp left by the night’s high tide. The driver made lines in the sand as he vacuumed the shoreline clean. My father told me they made ice cream out of it. I thought he was telling a fib until I saw a sign on the Boardwalk boasting of the best Seaweed Ice Cream in San Diego County. He bought me a cone once. It tasted of mint and chip, nothing like the seawater and sand that stuck in my hair when I built sandcastles.

With our buckets full we’d trek back up the sand to the pier. We might catch my grandfather leaving for a day of fishing, his hat pulled low on his forehead and the pocket of his short-sleeved plaid work shirt bulged with a crinkly pack of cigarettes. We ran through our cottage, to the patio out back that overlooked the sandy beach below. My father had stayed behind on the beach so we could wave down to him. He looked small, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looked up from below.

One visit I finally built up the nerve to ask for what I really wanted, the dried-out body of a porcupine puffer fish. Its insides scooped out and its body engorged as if in the midst of an attack.

Then we set out to inspect our buckets for treasure. I’d line up my sand dollars in the sun to dry out, arranging them in rows of two and making them easier to count. A few of them had barnacles smaller than a dime stuck to their surface. Some would still be alive and I’d watch them open and close their tiny mouths until they froze agape.

On afternoons I’d skip down to the end of the pier to see if my grandfather had caught anything for dinner. Midway, I’d peer into the Shell Shack windows until I found myself inside, fingering tiny shells or gazing at glass vials of seahorses. Sometimes I’d have a little pocket money to make a purchase, but usually I just looked. I now realize I must have been there for hours, poring over each bin of whitewashed sand dollars or shark jaws with their rows of teeth. The owner seemed to enjoy the quiet company while he read Louis L’Amour paperbacks. 

After a few visits, he would feign some excuse: He needed to use the bathroom or take a smoke break. If I watched the store for him, I could pick out anything I wanted. I never had a customer, but I chose a puka shell necklace; the white and pink shells looked like candy around my neck. One visit I finally built up the nerve to ask for what I really wanted, the dried-out body of a porcupine puffer fish. Its insides scooped out and its body engorged as if in the midst of an attack. I gently touched each point of the spine. I imagined him the moment he was caught; the terror that triggered his little body to inflate. The sharp spines didn’t protect him from death, but it was the only way I could see this splendid creature. 

Even at the end, he was still fighting.

When my son was in kindergarten, I was asked to see his teacher after school. She told me he’d drawn a picture in class. 

They’re in kindergarten, aren’t they supposed to draw in class?

Yes, but I thought you’d like to see his picture.

The drawing was of me. I could tell because he always drew me wearing my glasses but also with long eyelashes. I stood in the center; my much-too-long arms extended to reach ninjas who surrounded me. The ninjas were dressed in black, scarves tied across their foreheads. Their mouths were drawn angry, (or were they sad?) with red stick-figure-hands.

My son had explained to the teacher that in his drawing, his mother had ripped off the fingers of all the ninjas. I now saw that they stood grimacing in pain. I’d never spoken to my son about violence. We never viewed such images on television or witnessed them on the streets. And yet, he knew: I’d fight anyone who tried to hurt him. 

With a smirk on her face, his teacher asked if she should view this as a threat.

In the museum in London, my son and I peered into a menagerie of insects. The creatures displayed in a ten-foot-high glass box danced in a gradient of both size and color. The effect was enchanting, as if these things with wings and antennae fashioned a rainbow out of themselves. My son pointed at Japanese beetles and swallow-tailed butterflies. 

If I’d known him then, we would have been friends. Best friends. I know it. But now we are not friends. I am his mother.  I shine light in dark corners.

What kind of little girl were you? 

He asked without looking at me. He might not ask if he looked into my eyes, afraid of what he might see.

I was exactly like you. Inside. Curious, loving, tenacious but I couldn’t be those things aloud.

He rested his head on my shoulder. 

I’m so sorry, mommy.

If I’d known him then, we would have been friends. Best friends. I know it. But now we are not friends. I am his mother.  I shine light in dark corners.

In the very bottom of the show-and-tell box lay the carcass of a of horseshoe crab. Its hard-outer shell was nearly black, and, if I turned it over, I could see its legs arranged in a circle around its mouth. I imagined the crab gathering food with those legs as they do, breaking it up, acting as teeth or jaws, then shoving the masticated scraps into its gaping mouth. I can’t remember from where or when it made its way into my show and tell box, but I do remember that it stunk, the way dead animals often do when they are decomposing.

Shemaiah Gonzalez
Shemaiah Gonzalez is a freelance writer who thrives on moments where storytelling, art and faith collide. Published with Loyola Press, Busted Halo, and America Magazine, among others, she is pursuing an MFA in Seattle where she lives with her husband and their two sons. Her work can be read at shemaiahgonzalez.com. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Cover image by Milan Popovic.

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