My Skipper used to take us clamming when the tide was low. I wasn’t an eager participant. We stirred the bottom with our clam rakes, prodding and pulling at rock and clam alike: Who knew what lurked in the opaque water that swirled around my thighs?
We stored the clams in a bucket that he hung from a piling on the Collins’ dock, and when we had enough, he’d lug them home and open them over the wash tub in the basement. He had a special knife, thin-bladed, and with one deft movement would pry the mollusk open.
The larger ones he saved for chowder– Manhattan chowder, only. He complained that New England chowder tasted too much of potatoes. And the smaller ones he served raw, with his own special sauce on the side. We would slurp them off the half-shell, then hurl the shell off the deck, where it became part of the driveway.
Funny the things you lose when a person dies. My Skipper died in 1996, eleven days before the birth of his first great-grandchild. And somehow, even with my parents living in that same house, the clamming license was one of those things that didn’t get renewed.
Two weddings, five grandchildren, eight years, and suddenly someone decides that clams might be a good idea after all. And so, last summer, we went clamming.
It wasn’t so bad as I remembered it. Perhaps giving birth three times has rendered me less squeamish than I used to be: the thought of a horseshoe crab moving laboriously over my foot just doesn’t bother me now; the sight of a jellyfish is less terrifying than it is a nuisance.
And the memory mingled with the actuality made each one difficult to discern. How long have I known the friction of that rake sliding through the sandy bottom, the sound coming to me through my ears, is it?, or in vibrations through the wooden handle resting in my palms? The rakes are ancient, rusted, their teeth curved and menacing and somehow comforting, too. I see them, in my mind’s eye, in my Skipper’s strong grasp.
He was strong a long time ago.
The bay has been kind to the clam population. We got plenty last year, and this July some of us were back at it again, pulling them from the sand and salt, hanging them in a bucket off another dock, finally bringing them home.
And then, on the fifth of July, we ate them: clam chowder, raw clams on the half-shell, and a clam bake– a new addition to our clam-repertoire. We reckon we consumed 200 clams that day. When we were finished, we hurled the shells off the deck and down onto the driveway.