The secret language of sand dollars

This is a column originally printed in the Fernandina Beach News-Leader from the 10-year run of my Cup of Joe column. Out of the hundreds I wrote, this is by far and away one of my favorites. I wrote it for my granddaughter six years ago when she was four. Now she’s ten, going on eleven and old enough to read it herself.

I took my little granddaughter Lora Leigh on a walk along the beach on Bird Island in Nassau Sound the other day to look for shells.

“Look, Papa,” she cried, letting go of my hand and stooping to pick up a sand dollar bleached as white as Sea Island cotton. “Mommy loves sand dollars.”

The two of us admired her sand dollar for a bit, talking about their beauty and how delicate they are.

“Let’s be very quiet and see if we can find some more,” I said.

“Why do we need to be quiet, Papa?” she asked, peering intently at me.“

“Because if we’re very quiet and walk softly we might be able to hear the sand dollars talking to each other and maybe we can sneak up on them,” I said.

“Papaaa!” she squealed. “You’re being silly! Sand dollars can’t talk!”

“Sure they do, sweetie,” I answered, stooping to look into her widening blue eyes. “All creatures talk to each other. But we have to listen very closely to hear them sometimes.”

“But how will we hear them?” she asked me. “They’re so tiny. How do they talk?”

“They whisper in tiny little voices that are as soft and pretty and delicate as they are,” I told her, lowering my voice to a whisper. “If we’re very quiet and listen very carefully and don’t do or even think about anything else, why, I bet we’ll hear them if there are any close by.”

“Ohhhh,” my normally boisterous granddaughter whispered back. “Then let’s be real quiet and listen.”

And so we did. We squatted side by side at the edge of a small, shallow tide pool and listened for the magical whispering of sand dollars. Presently, the breeze made ripples on the surface of the tide pool and the ripples lapping against the wet sand edges of it made a delicate tinkling sound like that of ants marching with tiny bells on their feet, the sound a sand dollar makes when it whispers.

“Lora Leigh,” I whispered in her ear, touching her lightly on her arm. Listen very carefully. Do you hear that pretty little sound?”

“I do!” she whispered, her eyes growing wider in astonishment. “I hear it Papa! Is that a sand dollar whispering? Where is it? What’s it saying?”

“Well, it’s probably telling the other sand dollars to be quiet and hide because people are nearby,” I said quietly. “I think they’re somewhere very close. Let’s look and see if we can find them. I’m sure we will if we look real hard and keep listening.”

Much to my astonishment, perhaps by serendipity, perhaps by fate, two steps later, we found it. It was smaller and even more delicate than the first one – not much bigger than a quarter.

“Wow!” Lora Leigh cried. “Papa, we found it! Sand dollars really do whisper! How did you know that, Papa? Did your mommy tell you?”

“No, sweetie,” I said. “A little angel told me one day when I was about your age and walking on the beach. I never told anyone else.”

“But why, Papa?” she asked.

“Because I didn’t think anyone else would believe me but I knew that one day you would and so you’re the first person I ever told my secret to,” I said.

“I believe you, Papa,” she said, taking my hand again.

And then we walked back down the beach toward the rest of the family, stepping softly and listening for the whispers of more sand dollars together.

Some may frown and say I told my innocent and trusting granddaughter a lie. But one day, when she is old like me, she will take her own granddaughter or grandson by the hand and walk with them along a quiet, deserted stretch of beach at low tide and teach another trusting and innocent child about the magical whispering of sand dollars and their delicate, secret language that only a rare few of us can learn to hear.

And when that day comes, Papa will smile and lean down from heaven and softly blow his breath upon the surface of a warm shallow tide pool and make its ripples sound like the marching of ants with tiny bells on their feet, which is exactly what the whispers of sand dollars sounds like to those of us lucky enough to hear them. And that child will be filled with wonder, too.

So, what is the whispering of sand dollars?

It’s the singing of angels, my precious Lora Leigh, the singing of angels.