A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can hold more than his belly can
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m darned if I can see how the heck he can

That’s Mama reciting a poem she always says she copied from Ogden somebody. She says she changed it four years ago when she got me.

After oatmeal with brown sugar and butter, Mama and I are lying on a blanket on the beach. Behind us is the house. Wood on the outside and inside, brown just like the color in my crayon box. Brown wood floor inside and also outside on the porch with red chairs on it. Brown roof, high in the middle and low on the sides. Mama says it’s just a little house with only one bedroom plus the back porch that’s my bedroom. She sewed yellow curtains for the kitchen and blue curtains for the living room. She’s always rubbing oil all over window sills and walls to keep the sea air from hurting the wood. Or she’s sewing or washing dishes. Or we’re sitting in the big chair in the living room reading a book. I know how to read. Just like I know how to speak.

I’m still thinking about the word, “Ogden.” I like the way it sounds when you say it aloud. So I say it, loud, “Ogden!,” so anybody could hear it. If anybody was around.

Right over there, I see two of those pelican guys. They’re over there near the water lugging their huge, heavy beaks around and acting like they’re talking about what they had for breakfast. But I don’t think they can talk with something like that stuck on their faces. The beaks are yellow right up next to wonderful glowing white feathers. Mama says their beaks have pouches. After a pelican catches a fish, she says, he can carry it around in his pouch. That’s weird! But it’s good, ’cause pelicans have no hands.

Pelicans are in the morning. At night, there’s the smaller not-pelicans. Mama calls them crabs. I call them ogdens. I really like that word.

Before bedtime is when the ogdens are on the beach, so I’m in my seersucker pajamas with the pants rolled up to my knees. Mama and I are strolling along, the two of us hand-in-hand. That’s ’cause we have hands. It feels good to hold hands.

We’re right next to what I learned to call the swash zone. It’s where little bitty waves come up and just barely ripple over your toes. The ocean is on the side of our left hands. Two ogdens are coming toward us with the ocean on the side of their right …. Well, pelicans don’t have hands, and ogdens don’t have hands, either. Instead, they have these huge heavy claws they hold out in front of them. Sometimes, they snap those claws. “Snap, snap!” But that’s not all. They walk sideways!

Mama warns me again about those claws. One of them could crush my toe, she says. We get close to their sideways-ness, so close I can see their brown-blackness even with the sun going down. We step politely to our right to go around them, and they step politely to their right to go around us. And then they’re gone.

Pelicans, crabs … and clams. Coquina clams are about half an inch long. They live in shells the color of Mama’s beautiful pearls. I don’t want to think about beautiful, though. ’Cause Coquina is sometimes what we have for dinner.

Here’s Mama’s Coquina soup recipe:
Take the big stainless-steel bucket and walk past the sea grass — it’s taller than me — and the sand dunes — kick your way through them and the soft sand sifts upward to sniggle your nose. Go down to the swash zone. Wait a minute till the great flat wave recedes. Then, when you can see little wiggly holes in the sand, scoop up a swatch of it, not too deep, just a few inches below the shifting surface. Six or eight swatches should do it since there are so many little wiggly holes. Lug the bucket, maybe a third full, back to the kitchen, set it on the stove, and turn the fire on high. Add lots of cut-up potatoes and some carrots, green pepper, celery, onion, parsley — whatever’s in the fridge. In a few minutes, the Coquinas, without the shells, and the vegetables rise to the top of the bucket. Dinner is ready.

The table is set with the yellow and orange bowls and spoons and the napkins Aunt Nora embroidered. The soup bucket is on the table near Mama, set on a white towel. The bread Mama and I kneaded this morning and the butter from Uncle Joe’s cow is next to the soup. Mama is careful when she dishes up the soup not to get the ladle too deep, so we don’t get the shells and sand in our bowls.

Uncle Joe’s cow and Uncle Joe live a morning walk away. Out the front door — remember to close the blue curtains over the glass in the door. Go under the white arbor. Turn left. You can’t miss it. It’s the only building you can see from our house.

Uncle Joe comes over to watch me when Mama goes to the grocery store in town. The grocery store is a long way away, so he and I have plenty of time together. Usually, we sit on a bench at the side of the house and feed the birds. They’re very little blue birds. I hear them every morning if I go into Mama’s bedroom.

I sit still and quiet on the bench for a long time, and sometimes one of the birds will fly over for a bite of bread. They trust Uncle Joe more than they trust me. When he holds out a breadcrumb, two of them come and sit on his hand. When Mama comes back from the grocery store, she sometimes invites Uncle Joe for dinner.

After dinner and our walk on the beach, it’s bedtime. It’s my choice what I want to take to bed with me. My favorites are Widdle Dowey and Triggle. But my most favorite is Mama’s seashell. The seashell is almost as big as my head. I can put it against my right ear and hear the ocean. Mama kisses my left cheek and goes to pour herself another cup of coffee, Then, I put the shell on my nightstand and listen to the real ocean.
Shush. Sssss. Shush. Sssss.

* * *
I can never return to my little house on that warm and peaceful stretch of beach. The house, the beach, especially the pelicans, but the ogdens, too, and the Coquinas, even Uncle Joe … they exist now only in my memory.

Seventy-four years ago, when I was 5, the federal government came in, tore down my entire neighborhood, and constructed a guided missile operations site that would eventually become a rocket launching site. My house, no longer the launching pad of my life, is now the site of one of the launch pads at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I yearn to go back once again to my home. But like the last line of the poem, as Ogden Nash actually wrote it: I’m damned if I can see how the hell I can.

Katharine Valentino labored at menial jobs before acquiring a journalism degree at age 42. Then, for 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs before retiring to Oregon. She now takes walks with Silly Lilly Dog; writes on the Medium platform, and edits writing for clients who become friends.