Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote Gift from the Sea, published in 1955, well before Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex which firmly set the woman’s movement  in motion. The first time I tried to read Gift from the Sea, I was ten years old. I thought the book was about seashells, but after reading a page or two, I understood it was not, but I was also not too sure what it was about. The book was my mother’s, and when I asked her to explain the book to me, she said something along the lines about me being too young. I have since learned from one of my older sisters that Gift from the Sea was one of my mother’s favorite books, alongside Gone with the Wind and The Valley of Decision. 

Actually, the book IS about seashells: five seashells, to be precise.  The whelk with its message of simplicity is essential for the women in the fifties experiencing what Lindbergh calls “the circus performed by women every day” in caring for a house, a husband, and children. The next shell Lindbergh presents to the reader is the Moon Shell with its centered mysterious single eye, resembling an island, that speaks to Lindbergh needing to relearn being alone. Every person, she explains, but most especially women, need time alone, and unless we keep this time to attend to our core, we will have little to give to our children, husband, loved ones.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh then presents to the reader the double sunrise shell as a symbol of two people listening to each other, meeting each other, and making one world between them. She notes how quickly this sublime relationship changes, “encumbered by its contact with the world”. Lindbergh goes on to talk about how so many couples feel a failure in their marriage if this original quality is lost.  She cautions that we cannot hold any relationship, be it with a husband, child, sibling, or parent,  to a single form. Relationships change. The sunrise shell reminds us to enjoy those fleeting things “actual for one time and only one place.” 

The fourth shell in her series is the oyster shell, which she understands to represent a woman in the middle years of her marriage. “It is untidy, spread out in all directions, heavily encrusted with accumulations, and in its living state, firmly embedded on rock.” Lindbergh suggests it looks like the house of a big family, pushing out one addition after another, to hold its teeming life. She warns that if a couple does not maintain its “alone time”, the couple risks being left “high and dry in an outmoded (oyster) shell, a fortress that has outlived its function.”

Lindbergh ends her observations with the argonauta. This “paper nautilus” is not a shell at all, but a cradle where the mother argonaut’s eggs are hatched, and then the young swim away, followed by the mother also leaving the shell to start another life. Lindbergh draws a connection between this image and marriage in later years.. “Both partners are lost in a common sea of the universal which absorbs and yet frees, which separates and yet unites.” She goes onto explain that in a good marriage, partners do not need to hold on tightly to each other because they move with confidence in the same pattern.  “There is no place for the possessive clutch.”

Gift from the Sea, through the symbols of five sea shells, asks the 2020 American woman, just as it did the 1955 American woman, to start at the center of things. In this way, our first discovery is of something worth extending out in each step to the very periphery of our lives. 

Both my mother and Anne Morrow Lindbergh were women of faith, women raising large families, women with successful husbands who spent the better part of each day in a man’s world. Both Lindbergh and my mother were women who knew there was so much more to be dredged from our feminine souls than the exterior trappings of life that so many succumbed to in the birth of the suburbs in the 1950’s. In the sixty years since the publication of Gift from the  Sea, so much  of this situation has changed for women, yet the dynamics of relationships remain hauntingly the same.

If my mother were here now, I would not need to ask her to explain Lindbergh’s book about shells to me. I would only need to embrace my mother, in thanksgiving for all she did explain to me not by words as much as by her actions.

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