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The Family That Shells Together, Stays Together

Thankful their house isn't full of river water, one family happily heads to the beach to gather its hurricane spoils.

When the forecast calls for a big storm offshore, the surfers head for the waves and the shell collectors, like me, wait in anticipation of what those big waves will bring. This week my crew and I headed out to one of the free beaches in Sea Bright to do a little post-hurricane shelling, the best kind. You never know what you will find washed up on our beaches, a giant oyster or an industrial insulated glove for handling solvents. Either way, it's an adventure.

As parents we all like to see our kids follow in our footsteps. Make or join , whatever it is that makes your family legacy come alive. For me, it's beachcombing. Weird as that is, nothing makes me happier than to see my kids bent over the sand, oohing and ahhing over a particular shell and calling it by its rightful name.

There are other reasons I go to the beach - to wash away the stress of life and the bickering of children. When the clear, fresh, salt air hits my nose I can feel it force health and sanity back into my chest. The kids, non-surgically removed from their remotes and devices, skitter across the sand like terns, with that lightness and freedom that comes from being practically naked in the sunshine. Here at the beach, everyone is well behaved. Including mommy, who has been as fierce as those nasty sea gulls I saw fighting over a dead clam.

After a quick dip in the tide pool, we head up the beach to see what Irene has left us among the hunks of dock and broken reeds that mark the sand. Thankfully, the medical waste that once made New Jersey beaches infamous, has been replaced by more inoxious detritus, like shoes and styrofoam, and coconuts.

I think every time my three kids and I have gone for a beach walk, we've come home with a coconut for them to hack up later in the backyard, with sharp rocks like they are in Lord of the Flies. With Irene's big show over the weekend I thought for sure we'd come home with more than one.

Instead the high tide line was littered with sea urchins and starfish, too many to count. Before long we had more than our hands could hold and we were looking for discarded bags to fill.

Despite the leisurely look of it all, beach combing is not for the faint of heart. Purell packers would be hard pressed to watch us as we sift through the dead sea creatures carried high up on the beach by the storm surge. It's part science lesson, part freak show, part aesthetic experience as we find perfectly intact (and perfectly dead) crabs of all species, some smaller than my thumb. We find giant spider crab claws almost as long as my five-year-olds arm and even a claw from a Florida stone crab.

The kids move slowly along the winding strip of ripe mussel shells looking for scallops and sea stars. I keep my eye out for that little trap door a snail uses to shut itself to the ocean. It's a beautiful swirled and translucent amber piece shaped like a wave. I manage to find a couple beauties, along with sand dollars, tiny pieces of driftwood and crazy things like bone of a bird's beak or a duck's bill. 

I'm like a teenager in the mall where everything is free. I can't stop picking up urchins. With their needles dried and matted, they look like figures in the Play-Doh barber shop. Some have their creepy little teeth still intact on the underside, but I take them anyway. I rationalize my take with the hope (or delusion, maybe) of creating artwork again.

Skye scores a green net bag which she stuffs with starfish and broken surf clams. Duncan searches for the perfect moon snail - no holes and no mussels or critters inside.

After a while the girls tire out and go to play in the tide pool. By the way, salt water and abrasive sand are an excellent way to wash off the germs, in my professional opinion.

Duncan gives me a shining moment of parental pride when he announces he will keep going until he finds a whelk. He combs a quarter mile more and returns with a beautiful white one of the knobbed variety.

Sometimes little bits of trash or lost knicknacks end up in our bags, just because they're interesting. Nyla thought she had scored big with a giant pink lady slipper. It turned out to be half of a battered and pitted raquetball.

Of all our treasures, my favorite, is the squishy Santa that Duncan found. With his colorful suit washed away by the sand and salt, he is pink and semi-nude and resembles Patrick Star. We have some laughs over Santa and Duncan decides to leave him behind for another beach goer to enjoy.

About the time our bags of loot reached critical mass, the tide was back up filling in the deep grooves in the sand. My fear of my older two being swept away in the still rough surf kept us from hanging around any longer. Which is a really good thing. As we approached the stairs over the seawall a woman came running down yelling, "They're towing the truck!"

We had parked, along with about 30 other cars, in the lot of The Quay restaurant, which is closed and for sale. We all took our chances with the tow away zone. I just made it down the stairs on Ocean Ave. as the Sea Bright Towing truck pulled into the lot to tow the last two cars, one of which was mine.    

One woman in the lot called out to the tow guy, "Sir, where is your heart?!" The rest of us just stood there helpless as he silently hooked up a maroon SUV with vanity plates, the unsuspecting owner somewhere in the crowd on the beach. It left me with a sick combination of empathy for the stranded family and gratefulness that it had not been me.

The experience mirrors my feelings toward this hurricane. While others dragged their sopping wall-to-wall carpeting and river and sewage soaked furniture to the curb, .

That we were spared damage to life and property, and never even lost our food to a power outage, has left me room to wax poetic about the "adventure" of living through a hurricane. More than my Irene beach treasures and , I will hold that idea close, and take nothing for granted.

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