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The Driftwood Queen
My life is like a stroll upon the beach, As near the ocean's edge as I can go.
The Fisher's Boy
The ocean is, was and always will be a big part of my life. My parents were ocean aficionados, and I was introduced to its beauty and serenity at an early age. I learned to swim before I walked, had a fishing pole placed in my hands at age two and was taught how to pilot a small craft by age five—thanks to my father, who allowed me to "assist" in rowing home.
My fascination with the ocean escalated as the family spent the summer on the eastern end of Long Island on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.
I was an early riser, and by age ten I was permitted to go down to the beach in the morning to collect shells on my own. Every day I would dress quickly,
grab my bucket and head for the beach. I would climb the sand dunes that hid the ocean from view and sit quietly at the top and watch the waves tumble onto the shore as I ate my breakfast roll.
One morning I noticed an older, shabbily dressed woman walking along the beach pulling, of all things, a sled. Now and then, she would stop,
pick up a piece of driftwood, examine it carefully and either discard it or place it on the sled.
I called out to her.
"Hello," I said.
She didn't acknowledge me. As only a child can, I took this as an open invitation to join the search. I looked for any driftwood that she had missed and retrieved it for her inspection. She said nothing, but seemed pleased with my company.
After a half-hour, I tapped her on the shoulder, said good-bye and started for home.
After telling my parents about my new acquaintance, my mother explained that I had met, as the town folk called her, The Driftwood Queen,
or "Queenie" for short. Dad said she was a poor soul who lived in a rundown cottage near the bay. The community left food packages on her doorstep once a week, and the church collected clothing on her behalf. No one knew her real name, and many stories had circulated about where she had come from and why she collected the driftwood. Everyone had a different slant on the story,
but the exact truth had never surfaced. She had become the town enigma, known only by her nickname.
My parents were kind and loving people and saw no problem with my association with Queenie. So each morning I would wait for her to appear and was always delighted at the smile on her face when she spotted me. I now carried an extra breakfast roll with me, and Queenie devoured it with gusto.
We scoured the beach, enjoying the cool ocean breeze and the feel of the ocean mist on our bodies. Although we still exchanged no words,
we became friends through our daily enterprise.
One morning I saw a large piece of driftwood floating close to shore and retrieved it before it could be carried out to sea. Queenie was elated.
We put the piece on her sled, which was now full, and usually that meant the end of our day together. But Queenie tugged at my sleeve and motioned for me to follow her. Before long we stood in front of a small house that had fallen into disrepair. Remembering how my father had described Queenie's home, I knew where I was.
She deposited the large piece of wood that we had found earlier next to the house, then beckoned me to follow her inside. I couldn't believe what I saw. The furniture, the cabinets, the pictures on the wall and the many exquisite-looking sculptures—all were made from driftwood.
"Queenie, did you make all these things?" I exclaimed.
She nodded her head, smiled a toothless grin and gestured for me to sit down. She left for a second. When she returned, she placed some cookies in front of me and scribbled on a large note pad. Her message said, "Hello Anne, my name is Erma. Welcome to my home."
I smiled and answered, "Hi Erma, these cookies are great,
and your house is beautiful."
She reached over and patted my hands with great affection and then began to write again. "I don't talk very well, but I want you to know that I love your company."
"Me, too, Erma."
We continued our daily quests until it was time for my family to return to the city. Summer was almost over, and school beckoned. I saw tears in my friend's eyes as I said good-bye, and I assured her that I would see her next summer. She placed a small package wrapped in newspaper in my hands and kissed me on the cheek. I ran home, not turning to wave, as I knew I would cry.
Inside the package was a seagull carved from driftwood. Today, some forty-eight years later, it still stands in my curio cabinet. Sadly, I never saw Erma again.
My parents sat me down after school one day to say a letter had arrived from the chaplain at the hospital on Long Island. Erma had been rushed to the hospital after being found lying in the snow near her home. She had lingered for several days before she succumbed to pneumonia. Before she died, she had written a letter in front of the chaplain addressed to "My best friend, Anne."
The chaplain knew my parents and of my association with Erma and had forwarded the letter to us. It said simply: "Thank you for being my friend. I love you. Take my driftwood and make others happy. Love Erma."
It took me weeks before I could talk to my parents about Erma's death. She was the first person I knew who had died. I found it hard to relate to the fact that I would never see her again. I dreamed about her, the ocean behind her smiling face, the beauty of her driftwood.
My family donated the collection to the church community center for all to see and use. I told my parents that I knew this would make Erma happy.
They agreed. Every summer, the first stop we made, upon arrival, was at this small meeting hall. I would stand and gaze in awe at the items that had come from the ocean and had been transformed into works of art by my friend. Mom and Dad said they were proud of me for the kindness I had shown toward Erma.
I knew I had received so much more than I had ever given. I had learned that,
like the ocean, love goes on forever.
¬2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Wyland. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.