We walked along the Florida gulf shore sharing our views on life, our children, and our dreams for the future. We held hands at times, until the shells and driftwood became unmanageable to carry. We took in all that surrounded us; the sand, the surf, and the people who were doing what we were doing – sharing a moment in time together.
In the deepest part of our conversation, I remembering remarking to my husband, “Strangers will just open up to you, it’s really amazing. They just seem to trust you, divulging personal details of their lives to you; it’s like they’ve known you forever . . ., I’m not like that.”
That was a cool sunny day in late January 2016 on Sanibel Island, FL. The beach was littered with seaweed, driftwood, egg casings, and live shells so numerous that even the seagulls pushed themselves back from the table crying ‘uncle.’
After our six mile walk, my husband went back to the condominium to relax, and I remained on the beach to add to my growing shell collection. After an hour of shelling, I called it a morning and headed toward the condo walkway where an older woman was sitting just to the right of the sandy path. “Hello,” I said, juggling my Ziploc bag full of shells. “Did you find anything good?” she asked. I nodded, and from that point my life was enriched by hers.
Her name was Nancy Alley. She was probably in her late 60’s or so, and she was taking in all the beach had to offer that day before driving back to Massachusetts the following day.
Nancy and I easily hit it off, discussing the carnage left on the beach and how it had become a playground for ‘shellers’ and hungry birds alike. We talked about the beauty of Sanibel Island; how it integrated hotels into the landscape without them coming off like skyscrapers, and how it had been able to maintain a laid back, natural approach to living life on the gulf coast for so many years. I told her it had been 15 years since my last visit and I was thrilled to finally be back, and she told me she was a repeat offender; making multiple trips in a year to the quiet island oasis. I made mental notes of her tips for great local restaurants, unique shops, and easy access grocery stores.
From there she told me with great enthusiasm about her beloved mode of travel from Massachusetts to Florida; a 1988 wood-panel Mercury wagon – her pride and joy. I believe she said it only had 20,ooo miles on it when she picked it up ten or so years prior- ‘what a find.’ She was so proud to have it; she wasn’t practically beaming, she was beaming! I told her about my parent’s wood-panel 1970’s Buick station wagon; it had the seats in the ‘way-way back’, that faced the back window so you could see the traffic directly behind you. We laughed about how young kids loved those seats.
She told me about her husband, Lawrence Alley III, and his connection to a West Virginian glass company that was well known for its marble making back in the 1930’s and 40’s. His grandfather, Lawrence Everett Alley Sr., founded the Alley Agate Company in Pennsboro, West Virginia in 1932. He was a glass cutter, glass blower, and designed his marble-making machines.
“In January 1939 Alley Agate was described in the local paper as the largest marble manufacturer in the world. During the peak of the marble demand in the 1940’s they were running at full capacity of 2.6 million marbles a day. During one 6-month period they shipped 14 million Chinese checker marbles.” (1)
I told her how much I loved playing marbles as a kid, and how my siblings and I had little bags with drawstrings that my mother had made to carry our stash of precious marbles. I recalled heading to the school playground with bag in tow, wanting to ‘shoot’ marbles, but never wanting to give one up if we were playing for ‘keepsies’.
Nancy told me that her husband’s father worked within the glass/marble business until health issues forced him to move his family from West Virginia to Florida. “How did your husband end up in Massachusetts?” I asked. “He went to MIT in Cambridge,” she answered, and if I remember correctly, she said he had a full scholarship; smart guy!
She told me about her husband’s passion for marbles, including the books he’d published on marbles and the salesman’s sample marble case (s) he owned from back in the day. She also spoke about his love of photography that manifested into multiple books, one of Sanibel in particular. She was so proud of his accomplishments.
After an hour or so of pleasant conversation, I realized that my husband would be wondering if I had been swallowed up by a large pile of seaweed, so I bid adieu to Nancy and wished her a safe journey home, in her beloved ’88 wagon.
Somewhere in our discussion I know I told her about my children, my husband, and some of the goings on in our lives, but what I recall the most from our time together are the fascinating tidbits of her life that she shared so easily with me. I guess I was wrong in my assessment of my demeanor; maybe I spoke to quick and ‘I am like that,’ or maybe I just forgot that one thing I truly love to do is listen to my elder’s stories, just like I did with both my grandmothers.
It’s ironic how fate walks in and presents you with an opportunity; one that you never saw coming. I could have walked right by Nancy Alley that day, but I didn’t, and I don’t think she would have let me get by without a hello as well. I’m grateful for the brief time we shared because she enriched my life with hers, and that is truly something to treasure.
Check out Lawrence’s website where you can find his books for sale:
Reference and Photo credit: