David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]


In addition to an impressive sunburn and bug bites covering just over 140% of my body, I picked up a seashell of the genus, “no idea” and the species “I didn’t even know seashells had a species” on the beach at Cayo Costa. Actually, my kids found it. The shell was light brown. Twenty years later, it is an even more unattractive, faded, bleached, dirty, off-white color. Talk to anybody who has spent 20 years on my back porch sitting out in the sun and the rain. Let’s see how good they look.

Cayo Costa—I was hoping you would ask—is a barrier island near Sanibel, an hour by ferry from the not-so-thriving metropolis of Pine Island, Florida. Should a previously undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript be unearthed, the premier will not be on Pine Island. (Motto: Nuh huh, we are too a city!)

As best I can tell, the only thing that happens on Pine Island is that parents take four duffel bags, three coolers, two tents, and boxes filled with more carbs than Mama Cass consumed on a Friday night out of their cars and schlep them a scant 200 yards from the Pine Island parking lot to the ferry. At said embarkation point, I noticed a similarity among parent-child communications.

Parent Carrying Two Backpacks, One Cooler, Three Tents and a Ton of Snack Food: I told you three times to pick up that cooler or we’re going home right now!

Child Observing Lizards: we just drove four hours to get here. I don’t think we are going home.

Gear-Laden Parent: you are out of the will.

But eventually all the camping gear gets loaded on to the ferry and the intrepid parent, his children, half a dozen of his children’s closest friends, and enough food for a quinceanera get on the ferry. A similar conversation about carrying the gear ensues when unloading the ferry, when moving the gear onto the tractor— did I mention that there are no roads or cars on the island?—when unloading the gear from the tractor, and when carrying the gear from the tractor to the campsite. Napoleon conquered Europe with less gear. The only advantage here is that there are no cries of “are we there yet?” because there is truly no there here. Cayo Costa 1999 and Cayo Costa 1899 match exactly. The other bane of family trips, “can I go to the bathroom?” merits a resounding “sure,” because in an unfortunate sense, there are bathrooms everywhere. No roads, no electricity, no  homes, no stores, and, given the lack of funding for the parks department, no actual bathrooms.

And nothing to do. Unequivocally, gloriously, emphatically nothing to do. Nothing in every direction. Miles of sandy nothing. In the days before smart phones, there is a beach, some walking trails through the pines, and a deck of cards. There may be a ragged copy of Harry Potter in one of the duffel bags. At some point somebody should probably go collect some more firewood. The coolers have been secured from ravenous raccoons. Otherwise, there is no agenda. There is nothing to do and—were there anything that required doing—there would be no reason to do it any time soon.

So the children trundle off under the pines to look for more lizards. Dad takes a much deserved “I-got-up-at-oh-dark-hundred-and-drove-forever nap.” There will be time to burn the chicken and potatoes later. Now is the time for the children to explore and to be thankful: thankful that their dad while packing endless gear, forgot to bring his guitar.

And grateful that none of the other two dozen people on Cayo Costa is a nutritionist because whether or not s’mores effectively represent the three food groups—the chocolate food group, the flat objects food group, the sticky food group—is an open question. The eight children do seem to have boundless, sugar-fused energy, but the beach goes on farther than they can walk and the kids can run and splash and frolic and collect shells until they return to the campsite to scavenge for stale marshmallows.

Speaking of those shells, most of them are long gone two decades after the last Cayo Costa excursion. The lightening whelk shells have been lost, the calico scallop shells have been stepped on, the Junonia shells have disappeared.

And speaking of long gone, the children seem to have grown up and left home. We still see them, but it’s not the same. Conversation involves phrases including “job” and “graduate school.” Word on the street is that the kids have their own homes and their own 20-something lives. I have a house and a life too. And on my desk I have a faded, nondescript cockle shell.

Ask me if I would take a million dollars for it.

Long ago it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you

suggested Simon and Garfunkel. “The days are long, but the years fly” is my takeaway. Those magical starlit nights, the breeze whispering through the pines, the waves caressing the beach, will not come again. I defy any parent of a grown child to remember the time Susie got all As on her report card. I defy any parent of a grown child to forget having read Harry Potter out loud by the campfire as children faded into sleep under a cloudless sky on a barrier island off the coast of Florida.

Dedicated to my dad, Richard Altshuler, January 9,1924 – February 27, 2018

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7 thoughts on “Shell-Ter

  1. Eileen B

    My children did all the planning, packing, driving and schlepping last April when I first visited Cayo Costa. There were no mosquitoes as it got chilly at night. There was a store, clean bathrooms, a few cabins and kayak rental available but the beach and the sky were what we loved most. Because we are who we are, the food was incredible. Talia fed us huge quantities of steak, grilled veggies, eggs, bacon, salad, fancy Zaks bread, with sweet butter, assorted cheeses….you get the idea. We brought cousins, friends and housemates for the best trip ever! We even brought a little bit of Bob to scatter in the ocean.
    Louis regaled us with the tale of the time he and his friends camped out there and forgot their tent poles. They slept right out on the beach where lo and behold a giant sea turtle dragged herself up on the sand, dug a nest and deposited her eggs a few yards from where they lay amazed.
    Yes, I think of Cayo Costa as well, but without the shell.

  2. John Calia

    So very sorry for your loss, David. I didn’t know your Dad; however, I lost my very own WWII veteran father a few years ago and have experienced the loss. While you know that it’s coming, one can never be totally prepared. My best to you and your family.

  3. Martin

    With this essay you have entered a new, wider, higher space of writing. Beyond gratuitous, though meritorious, advice, you speak from a full heart. A fitting tribute not just to your Dad but to yourself as a loving Dad. You carried it through and you carried it off. Congratulations on your achievement and your memories. The Simon and Garfunkel quotation was most apt. A good song from another time.

    1. Cynthia

      Martin said it well. Beautiful essay and a fitting memorial to your father. He clearly was a remarkable father, having been yours.

  4. Michael

    Maybe your best column ever. It made me cry.
    Our 23-year-old daughter just moved to Tel Aviv permanently in January. At least we talk frequently and visit a few times a year. We just took our son to dinner with his girlfriend to celebrate his 30th birthday, just a few weeks after watching ancient video of his first.
    The years do fly by…

  5. James McGhee II, Alexander Montessori School

    David, I was just at a meeting of School Heads in which we discussed the levels of anxiety of parents and children. I endorsed your blog as a resource. Thank you for reminding us to keep perspective! My Dad never hassled us about grades, but he did direct us and work alongside us doing manual labor around the house and at our place of business… he watched football with us on TV, he taught us how to sail & ride horses, he played harmonica to us and sang songs, and as we got older, he discussed politics and history with us. All memories I cherish. I have tried to follow his example, of enjoying BEING with my offspring… Simple conversations while hanging out in the kitchen with my son or daughter are golden moments! Yes, too soon children are “on their own” and then time with them seems to be even more precious. I am happy for you that you had a Dad whose memory you cherish and share. Thank you for sharing your story with us!

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Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]