My Aunt Ruby thought we'd enjoy swimming at the beach in Sarasota, Florida. She lived on Treasure Island, which was about an hour north of Sarasota. It wasn't that Treasure Island didn't have great beaches. They did, and my aunt and uncle lived two blocks from them. They owned a motel with four kitchenette units, which made it easy to stay with them for a couple of weeks every now and then. The units curled around their two-bedroom bungalow, so we just walked across the gravel courtyard under a huge oak tree to our private room.
Aunt Ruby was not one to sit around, so she always had a few plans for us. I'm not sure if my mother followed along so easily because she was used to doing it since she was the youngest, because she genuinely enjoyed whatever my aunt planned, or because she just didn't want to cause trouble. I'm guessing my mother welcomed the chance to have someone else make the plans, do the driving, and take the responsibility since she had more responsibility than she probably wanted at home in Texas. It was 1983, the summer after eighth grade. My grandmother, who had been living with us since before I was born, had barely survived a stroke a few months earlier, and my parents were on the path toward divorce within a year even though I had no idea what problems existed between them at the time.
So when my aunt told us we were going to the Ringling Museum the day after our arrival, no one questioned the idea. She also told us to make sure we had out swimsuits. I had no problem getting back in the car even if I'd just spent two twelve-hour days in one. The entire drive down, I just stared at the water. I knew the Gulf of Mexico wasn't an ocean, but it sure looked like one to me. At the time, it was the only body of water I'd ever seen stretch past the horizon, and I just stared and stared and the white caps of waves breaking and fading and popping up all over the place.
After a few hours of gazing at classical art and touring manicured gardens, we stopped at a sandwich shop for lunch and went straight to the beach. I ate a little but cared more about the water.
"You can walk out pretty far here. The land is pretty flat for a while." Aunt Ruby walked to the back of the car to unlock the trunk for our folding chairs and beach towels. "You can change over there." She pointed to a clump of concrete blocks that contained the two bathrooms.
I rushed into my suit and jogged back to my aunt and mother within minutes. "We left the back door unlocked." My mother was digging in her bag for sunblock. "Put your clothes in there and make sure to hide your wallet. Lock it and come back here. I want to get enough sunscreen on you."
"Okay." I turned and ran. This was taking too long. Maybe we'd been there only five minutes, but it was an entire minutes. Hundreds of seconds. Back to the car, back to my mother, back to her so she could slather me with the gooey liquid. That tangy scent still makes me think of Florida even today and even though I used it daily growing up in Texas.
"Okay, go." My mother slapped me on the back of the head and laughed. It was good to hear her laugh. My aunt, who was spreading out towels on the sand stood up and turned to my slowly disappearing body. "When you get out a few feet, grab some handfuls and sand and let it fall through your fingers. You'll probably find some shark's teeth."
Shark's teeth? Whatever. The waves were crashing toward me, and I wanted to be in them. I jumped over them. I dove under them. The salt was strong. I had to keep my lips clenched, but I could already feel my face and neck drying out fast beneath the sun shining right on me and bouncing off the water. Jumping and diving and standing over and over again. Who knows how long it took to tire me out, but I moved closer to the shore and sat down. Aunt Ruby was right. The land was so flat, I could sit down quite a bit away from the shoreline.
I stuck my hands in the sand and felt little stones. Grabbing handfuls, I saw that the stones were little black triangles. Looking closer, seeing two gently serrated edges and one smooth side, I realized Aunt Ruby was right. These were teeth. With each handful, I pulled out a few more. It wasn't long until I had too many to hold, so I stood up and ran back to the beach.
"Look! Teeth!" I held them out to my mother and aunt. My mother bent over to look, but Aunt Ruby stayed still. "I told you. They lose teeth throughout their life. You can always find some around here." I found out at the county library on our return home that sharks lose thousands of teeth during their lifetime. New ones begin to grow in the back of their mouths and then slowly push forward. Old ones fall out of the front and get replaced by the new ones from the back. This happens every few months or, in some species, days.
"Put them here." My mother held out the empty wrapper from her sandwich. "Go get more."
I went back out as far as I could while still being able to sit on my knees and grab handfuls of sand. They were just as easy to find as before. The sandwich wrapper was full of dozens of little black teeth. After we'd returned to my aunt's in Treasure Island, Aunt Ruby gave me an old pill bottle. I soaked the label off and put the teeth inside. They filled about three-fourths of it.
I found that bottle in a box recently, boxes we shoved in closets when we moved and that I planned to go through this summer. Aunt Ruby died of a brain tumor just a few years after that trip, and my mother died three years ago. The pill bottle almost full of shark's teeth now sits on top of a bookshelf in my office here at home. I don't know if it will stay there, but I'll be keeping it out in the open here for a good long while.