It was the summer of 1953: The summer I lived in a bathing suit, read Nancy Drew books in a hammock, and roasted marshmallows over an open fire with cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents in front of the Bayville bungalow my mother’s brother had built himself as a family refuge from Manhattan’s hot concrete.
On any day low tide occurred between 5 and 9 a.m., my newly retired grandfather, who originally was from Sicily, pulled on a pair of mud-encrusted basketball sneakers, set his sweat-stained baseball cap low over his brow and, shouldering a clamming rake, trudged off with one or two of his grandsons through a stretch of marsh that led to the bay.
One particular morning, my grandfather shook me awake and then gestured that I follow him quietly from the room. In the garage, he pointed to an overturned milk crate on which sat our breakfast: two crusts of Italian bread slathered with butter and a cup of sweet, milky coffee that we shared. Our communication, thanks to his poor English and my hesitancy to embarrass him with chatter he might not understand, was tacit. But when I saw him take a clamming rake from its hook on the wall, my face spoke for me: “Are you taking me, not one of the boys, with you?”
I ran back into the house, flew into my bathing suit and tied back my long hair. When I returned to the garage, I slipped my feet into a pair of dirty sneakers several sizes too large. A straw fedora, also too big, and a fishy smelling stained white T-shirt completed my outfit. Once Grandpa had shouldered his rake and picked up a large inflated inner tube into which was set a wooden basket, we were ready.
We had to move in single file through the muck of the swamp, a silent, white-haired man with long, deliberate steps and me, a skinny little girl, scurrying behind him. As the path narrowed, the tall, sharp-edged reeds whipped at my bare legs; the stinking mud sucked greedily at my loose shoes; and fiddler crabs, scampering in legions about my feet, threatened with their waving, oversized claws. Stepping aside to avoid one poised to nip my ankle, I was sucked knee deep into thick, black-green sludge. I dared not cry out, but, Grandpa, hearing the slurp, turned around, and, with a tiny smile, extended his hand. With one quick pull, he had me out and back on firm ground. Turning back to the path, he left me to contend with my itchy, muddy legs, now the target of horse flies.
Finally, we reached the water. The tide was almost dead low, perfect for clamming. But before we began, Grandpa led me into the shallow water and bent down to gently wipe the slime off my legs.
When he stood again, he set afloat the inner tube with its empty bushel basket, waded in waist deep, leaned over his rake, and applying enough pressure to keep the curved tines buried, dragged the rake over the muddy bottom. After a few minutes he pulled it up slowly, turning it so that whatever he had dislodged rested in the rake’s metal claw. Nestled among a few rocks were two small clams.
But Grandpa threw only one clam into the bushel basket. Using his pocket knife, he carefully pried open the other. Once he twisted off the upper shell and loosened the meat resting in the bottom shell, he offered it to me.
I was only 9. I had never eaten a raw clam. And I certainly did not want to eat that particular pinkish, plump mound, still sitting in the remnants of its violated home. But I also knew that I had to eat it. I knew the clam in my grandfather’s palm, the first catch of the day, was a gift for me, a gift I could not refuse.
I took the shell, brought it to my lips, and tipped the vile lump into my mouth. I gulped quickly, feeling the cold, squishy, repulsive flesh slide down my throat.
That evening I sat alongside Grandpa as the platters of clams on the half shell were passed around the table. Although coaxed, I did not eat a single clam that night, or any other night, ever. And I expect I never will, unless, of course, Grandpa offers one to me in the palm of his hand.