December on Topsail Island.
Surprisingly, it's not all that different from December in Illinois. At least, not temperature-wise.
"Do you realize it's warmer in Galva than here in North Carolina?"
Her tone at this not-uncommon revelation during our recent November/December Carolina swing might best be described as aggrieved, because, hey, we're in the South, below the Mason-Dixon Line and smack dab in the middle of the land of cotton, collards and lard-based biscuits. But thanks to a sustained mild-weather pattern in the middle of America that now sees parts of the midwest setting all-time no-snow records, hometown friends report summery conditions that include top-down convertible rides and heroic holes-in-one. Meanwhile the Weather Channel now names Winter Storms because, I guess, they're becoming as rare as hurricanes.
There is one difference, though.
Kind of a big one.
Bigger, in fact, than Mill Creek, the Edwards River, Fitch Creek, the lake at Johnson-Sauk Park and even the Windmont Lagoon.
It's called the Atlantic Ocean.
While I'm fairly sure she probably wouldn't have let me perch part-time in these beachside digs of ours without the added attraction of nearby grandkids, ocean access for a pair of landlocked midwesterners like us is quite an amazing thing. It's mostly quiet on the beach these days, with falling water temperatures chasing all but the most determined surfers out of the waves. But the restless waters of late fall and early winter now provide new bounty for those of us who still walk the shore in search of treasure.
There's a lot to find. A lot to see, too.
Just a couple of miles up the shore, there's a beach renourishment plan underway to replace some of the sand lost when Hurricane Irene bounced off our beach last summer. It's actually a win-win process, whereby a floating dredge sucks sand out the the New River Inlet, which helps keep that important waterway navigable for the shrimpers and other fishermen who work our waters. The massive dredging vessel has the power to transfer an amazing 25,000 cubic yards of sand back onto the shore every day, where it will naturally widen the beach, help rebuild protective dunes and form offshore sandbars that provide an added barrier when storms come a' calling.
Though the Superstorm called Sandy mostly missed the southern North Carolina coast, its winds were enough to stir up water and waves and uncover a unique piece of island history, when a chunk of the sailing ship William H. Sumner was uncovered on the beach a few miles south of us. A section of the three-masted schooner, whose young captain died under suspicious circumstances after running the ship aground in 1919, was discovered protruding from the sand earlier this fall, the first sighting of the artifact in over a decade.
We've enjoyed offshore sightings of dolphins, seabirds and stout-hearted sailors, while folks further down the shore were treated to a rare view of a migrating humpback whale in November. One of my all-time favorite finds occurred a couple of weeks ago when we encountered a visiting family down the beach a piece who were excitedly digging away at an unexpected treasure--an entire car door, probably circa 1950s based on its large size and vintage pushbutton handle. The treasure hunters were startled to learn that the stretch of beach they were digging on was once a well-traveled main beach road before the double-whammy of Hurricanes Fran and Bertha in 1996 changed the entire shape and infrastructure of our sandy barrier island.
But the best of all waited for a sunny day, when it was just me and my grandsons on the beach. We were playing a game that could be called "grandpa, the gas truck." For those of you who think this sounds remarkably apt, let me explain that the rules state that the little boys run ahead of me on the beach, then wait for me to catch up so that I can "gas them up." I'm especially good at this game, as it gives me an opportunity to show off my slow-walking skills, which are of olympic caliber. I was meandering along when I saw something half buried in the sand under the gently lapping waves.. It took me a second to compute just what I was seeing, whereupon I bent and gently scooped it from the water.
It was a sand dollar, the skeleton of a sea creature related to sea stars and urchins.
Whole, round and perfectly intact.
It's pretty darned unusual to find one that hasn't been cracked or broken apart by waves and water on its long trip to the shore. It is, I think, a nice reminder of how complex and fragile, yet tough and enduring that life can be. It's also a special symbol of these December days.
According to tradition, the five holes on the outer edge of the sand dollar commemorate the five wounds of Christ, while at the center on one side blooms the Easter lily, and at the lily's heart the star of Bethlehem. The Christmas poinsettia is etched on the other side, making another reminder of Christ's birth. The sand dollar contains five small v-shaped jaws that the animal used to feed with when it was alive. According to legend, if you break the center, those five white "doves" will be released to spread good will and peace.
I looked at the small, beautiful, delicate thing in my hand and thought for a minute. I thought about this Christmas season and our custom of sending and giving special messages and gifts to those that we love.
I had to smile.
Maybe, just maybe, someone had just sent one to me.