We had just finished digging out the moat for our drizzle castle when she walked by. Bent over, scouring the strand line with a plastic bag in hand, a woman hunched over made her way toward us. I assumed she was collecting shells. My thoughts immediately returned to our castle, and I dipped my hand into the salt water and sand mortar that the girls drug up from the sea to make my first spire.
As the liquid sand slipped down through my fingers, the woman came closer, and muttered something underneath her breath about how we need to save the ocean. The girls looked up at me for clues in order to determine how they should react.
“Are you picking up the trash on the shore line?” I asked. She looked at me, still bent over and said something that resonated so strongly that the look on my face alone was enough to prompt my girls to pop up out of their sandy fun in order to help Anna Lisa save the sea.
“People ask me all the time why I do this, and I look at them and say, because you won’t”.
We didn’t talk much, but rather quietly picked up trash along side her for close to an hour. We listened to her musings about how happy she was to have the girls with her. She taught them all about the history of this stretch of coast, and how what used to turn up sea shells now turned up plastic, and cigarette butts, and sometimes even tooth brushes from the cruise ships that harbored not too far off in the distance.
She talked about the lessons that she had learned over the 60 years that she had been combing this same mile of sand in order to help even one creature in the sea. It was her paradise, and the thought that a ponytail holder could slowly kill a creature that was only trying to grow, was unconscionable to her.
So every day, she would begin her walk in search of a plastic bag that someone had tossed away from their lives with no concern at all for where it ended up, and she’d begin her 4 hour trek, bent over, looking for the detritus of human life.
The girls felt the immediate reward of helping her. They basked in her praises, not about them, but rather about the good that they were doing. She told them which animals they were helping when they picked up the tiny pieces of plastic, and which ones they saved when they hoisted bigger pieces of debris that would have made it back out to sea if not for their intervention.
When you have a child, you can tell that they’re smiling even if they are facing away from you. There are always hints and clues to their happiness, and for that hour, I could see the raised profile of smiling cheeks that narrowly escaped the contour of their little blond heads as I followed behind picking up trash.
“They call me the bag lady, but I don’t care, I love this place too much”, Anna Lisa said as we neared the jetty where the majority of the trash was deposited by the four wheelers that scrape the surface of the sand for us tourists.
We were nearly finished, when she looked at the girls and said that she wanted them to come back to her cabana in order to pick out their favorite shells. Back before she cleaned the mouth of the ocean for all of us, she would collect the finest shells that the sea would offer up.
The girls were so excited, what a great souvenir for them. I think I was actually more excited than they were. I always tell them to help people, and to not expect anything in return, but to rather enjoy the act in and of itself. And they did. They did what other people wouldn’t do. They warmed the heart of a stranger. They helped a fraction of a percent of creatures that they’ll never see, and they thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it.
When we walked into the cabana and saw 60 years worth of the most beautiful shells, and sponges, and coral, and sea fans that Anna Lisa had collected, they were amazed, and excited to pick out their favorites. Maddy held a 2-pound chunk of Coral all the way home, flight and all.
They both learned first hand, that the real reward was the act, in and of itself, of kindness toward a stranger. Now the memories of that day will sit on the windowsill as a reminder of the time they helped an old woman save the ocean.