We both walk slowly along, eyes on the ground. My wife looks for sea glass at low tide, bending over frequently to pick up a piece and pocket it. I do too because she likes to. She picks up all she finds, filling her pocket and whatever container she brought with her to overflowing. I’m more selective. Down the beach another woman does the same thing, just the three of us on a cool, sunny, September afternoon.
Sea glass and older, ceramic fragments are ubiquitous on old city beaches near our South Portland neighborhood. We found a small beach recently on what had been working waterfront. Rather than smooth sand, small stones dominated, interspersed with large ones sticking up here and there. Scattered about were remnants of piers long abandoned. People didn’t sunbathe there. Few swam either. Some would come to let their dogs run and swim. Others like ourselves came to see what presented itself after the tide.
Houses a block or two back are old too, modest and built close together. A few still have lobster traps stacked around and not many are neglected anymore. Buyers fix them up now, especially along the harbor edge - people who like to look at the water rather than work in it. There’s a Coast Guard Station, a restaurant, clusters of condominiums, single-family homes here and there, and a yacht club slowly taking over an old boatyard.
It occurred to me that ugliness could, over time, turn to beauty. Sea glass is like that. When I asked the other woman on the beach to show me her collection, she said, “Every piece has a story.” I imagined people in the long ago smashing empty liquor bottles in anger, or out of carelessness, laziness, drunkenness or some combination, and I could almost hear the tinkling. They left dangerous shards to cut whatever person or animal might pass by before waves and sand and time dulled sharp edges. I imagined the waterfront as it used to be with small shipyards building wooden vessels. The decrepit remains of some still stood nearby with old ways disappearing into the water over which new boats used to slip in until they too rotted away. In my mind’s eye I saw fishing boats under sail and men returning with their catch, or without one, empty. I saw sad, broken men leaving their broken bottles behind and staggering home to scatter emotional debris over spouses and children.
Alcoholism is like that, leaving emotional and spiritual detritus - often for generations. It, too, manifests in many colors, sizes and shapes and can cut deeply, drawing blood. Wounds fester, or they can heal, dulling pain, leaving scars - even turning beautiful sometimes, like the glass, like the pieces my wife and I collect.
In a church meeting room up the street people wounded by alcoholism in loved ones gathered
and talked the following morning. I was one. Some were in pain. Others had also been wounded, but after many waves of grief their pain was sanded down and had lost sharpness. They had become like vintage pieces of glass diffusing light in their subtle, pleasingly-serene manner. Newcomers living with active alcoholics, in whom pain was acute, marveled at the serenity they sensed in the old-timers. They saw that others had felt distress like theirs and transcended it. Drawing hope, they bathed in their reflected light to soothe their wounds and find healing.
My ancestors were all Irish immigrants among whom alcoholism was too common. Great-grandfather John Fitzgerald was one. He came over to St. John, New Brunswick in the late 1800s and, like many other Irish-off-the-boat, he walked down to Boston, stopping here and there to work. He sang and played a piano and he was a charmer, they say. I never knew him as he died of the drink in his early forties. Did he stay for a time along Portland harbor and contribute to the sea glass to be found there? I don’t know, but he married Kate Carney and started a family near the docks in Boston. My grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, was his first-born in 1894. Then, unbeknownst to them, he started another family in New York City - going back and forth between the two for as long as he could before his charm wore off. Mary Fitzgerald Haggerty lived with us a while when I was a boy and I sensed her pain. Only now do I understand what some of its likely causes were.
These things I pondered as we walked slowly along, eyes on the ground.