Grandpa was a skin diver: 20 Directives for a Wet-Cat Granddaughter
Grandpa knew how to sink himself. At the height of the Depression, in the Long Island Sound, he grew up eeling, clamming, fishing with a rod. He and his dad and uncle would haul in whatever was edible for the family, whatever they knew would sell to upscale restaurants in New York City. The sea provided. After he returned from the war to Southern California, where he and Grandma had met, married, and settled, he turned his body into a blade.
Grandpa would pack up Grandma and our mom and Aunt Gigi in the rounded body of their green 1952 Chevy and head to La Jolla Cove in San Diego, Grandpa’s giant mahogany surfboard, brought home from Honolulu strapped to the roof. Mom and Aunt Gigi and Grandma would wade and splash in the thin shoreline while Grandpa would haul out that massive reddish-brown long board, the color of old blood.
“I always thought it was at least 15 feet long,” Mom said.
It might have been. I’ve seen the pictures. With its pointed nose, it was double the length of Grandpa and then some.
He’d rest a jute catch bag on top. A diver’s mask and fins would dangle from his fingers, a tire iron tucked into his palm.
Grandpa would sink himself in the dark water by the 75-million-year-old sandstone sea cliffs where it got deep fast. His breathed-up lungs stood in for a tank. When he swam, his crawl was smooth and easy. He looked like a running stitch. No splash.
“Did he have a wetsuit?” I asked Mom.
“No,” she said emphatically. “Just thin trunks, sweetheart.”
I forgot to ask about weight belts.
“Did he ever try to teach you or Gigi?”
“I’m sure he would if I’d asked him.” She paused. “His swimming. To this day, I think about it. . . . He had those long arms and he’d just move. He could go forever. I wish I was like that.”
With the exceptions of Grandpa and Grandma, we are a family of wet cats, preferring to float around or doggie paddle or skim the surface. Even in our most practiced water times, we maintain a look of the near-drowned.
Later, when Grandpa wasn’t diving much, or when the seasons turned and it was too cold for it, he would take the family to Point Loma on a negative tide. He’d wait for the water to get low low. Then he’d wade out into that icy water, sometimes chest deep, and poke around the rocks, hoping against moray eels.
The reason for all of his hunts in the Pacific’s silty silver water was the camouflaged and striated, dull shell of a low mollusk with a red hue.
Abalone have been celebrated and consumed throughout the world perhaps since the beginning of time. Long before Grandpa came to California, the Kumeyaay [Koom-yai]—who are indigenous to the area now called La Jolla Cove—ate them too, turning their remains into abalone shell fish hooks. Who could resist such delicious gastropods?
Abalone shells might be prized for their pretty insides—coveted sunset pinks and aquamarine blues—but young abalone shells are incredibly weak. Octopus prey on juvenile abalone, as do crabs, lobsters, starfish, and snails. It is said that abalone in shallow water risk being smashed by storm-tossed rocks.
Ninety percent of abalone deaths occur in this juvenile phase. Though it’s difficult to imagine, this rate is typical for survivorship of marine organisms that produce millions of larvae in the water column.
It’s probably a good thing, then, that shells of abalone that succeed at reaching adulthood are exceptionally strong. Adult abalone often live up to between 35 and 54 years. Their shells are their protectors: they are made up of microscopic tiles of calcium carbonate, the same compound that makes marble and limestone. Those tiles interlock as tiny bricks. A clingy protein binds them together. It is said that when an adult abalone is struck, the tiles slide apart to prevent shattering. The protein stretches, absorbing the blow.
Our grandpa wasn’t a violent man, but he grew up eating from the sea. He knew how to club the head of a fish on the hull of his aluminum skiff. He knew how to hook what was biting.
Grandpa’s father, named Albert, was a German Irish American fisherman from Queens. Grandpa’s mother, named Elizabeth, was a German immigrant who came to New York from Romania. Her father pulled her out of school once she finished the sixth grade to work in a dress-shield factory. A precursor to chemical antiperspirants, dress shields involved pieces of rubber sewn into cotton fabric and worn in underarms to protect women from sweating through their dresses.
“That was when you only had one dress, and it couldn’t be washed,” Mom said.
In that dress-shield factory, while cutting a cardboard box they used for mailing, Great Grandma Elizabeth lost the tip of her pointer finger on her left hand. Her dad, bent on returning to the old country a rich man, kept the twelve dollars the factory man gave Elizabeth and refused her the surgery to repair her digit.
Five or six years later, when Elizabeth’s father had amassed enough money, Elizabeth eloped with Albert when she was just 18 years old to avoid having to return to Europe with her father. Seven-and-a-half months later, she gave birth to an eight-pound “preemie” who would become our grandpa.
Albert was a drinker, and he was violent. Grandpa protected his mom. He likely absorbed blows.
When Grandpa graduated high school the valedictorian of his class back in Long Island, a recruiter from Brown came to the house and said he was looking for quality, top-notch students who would benefit from college but didn’t have the money to attend. This recruiter wanted to offer Grandpa admission and a full ride. Grandpa’s mom turned the man away.
Albert had wanted to pull Grandpa out of school when he finished the sixth grade, but Elizabeth had insisted he stay in school. She knew she couldn’t fend off Albert any longer. They needed Grandpa to work. They needed the money. Already in his senior year, Grandpa was hauling in catches from the Sound with his dad and uncle. He was working the night shift at what was then called the local “insane hospital” too. The family couldn’t make it if he went away to school.
It wasn’t until Mom was born and old enough for Grandpa’s mom to tell her about it that Grandpa learned how he’d been admitted, how he could have gone to school for free.
“I was so excited to tell him,” Mom said, “because my mom was college educated and it was clear to me Dad had always felt like he hadn’t been good enough.”
“How did he react?” I asked.
“Very muted,” she said. “I just wanted him to know. He was good as anybody and better than a whole lot more.”
Grandpa went on to work at the telephone company. Grandpa, who might have had a job like its own harvest.
“I’m so proud of you girls,” he told each of my sisters and me before we flew from our hometown nests in Pasadena to university in San Diego, Atlanta, and—for me—New York.
Abalone don’t move very far during their lives. Juveniles graze on rocks for algae. As they grow, they rely more on drift.
Though he was born and raised in New York, Grandpa didn’t stay there. World War II brought him to the West Coast where he was stationed as a marine and, on one fortuitous day, he stood on the side of the road with his buddy hoping for a ride to some place to spend his day off.
A woman pulled over and said, “Here. Hold this duck.” She handed a duckling to him.
She was a navy nurse en route to see her family in San Diego, the duckling one of her nurse friends had gotten as a present for Easter. She was probably taking the duck to her older sister Virginia, who had a small family farm.
As she started to drive, she explained, the duck wasn’t staying put in her lap. She was grateful to have some company to help her.
“Going to the local bar?” she asked. “I don’t think they’re open, seeing as how it’s Sunday.”
Grandpa said he didn’t drink. He and his buddy were a couple of guys from New York. What was there to do around these parts?
In this moment in the story, I imagine Grandpa worrying that the little duck might poop on his trousers. I imagine the duck settling its little yellow body in the warmth of Grandpa’s broad and gentled fisherman’s hands.
The woman looked at Grandpa squarely, remembering her brief stay in Honolulu, where she’d been working as a nurse in a maternity ward just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Everyone had been so nice to her there, when she’d been the out-of-towner.
“Have you ever picked an orange?” she asked, with what might have been a glint in her eye.
And so she took the two men home to her family’s house for dinner. At the end of the night, she gave Grandpa her number.
This woman is my grandma. She used to love to tell this story.
Mature abalone have an easier time surviving than their younger counterparts, but they are not without predators. Cabezon fish, whose name means stubborn or big-headed in Spanish, can dislodge them and swallow them whole. Bat rays can crush mature abalone with their jaws. The sea otter is the deadliest abalone predator, capable of consuming all available abalone for miles.
With the explosion of British desire for otter pelts in the 1700 and 1800s, the otter population plummeted off coastal California, which in turn led to anemone—another favorite prey of otters—reproducing unchecked. These anemone decimated the kelp forests around which abalone fed and made their homes. Abalone feed on giant kelp, bull kelp, feather boa kelp, and elk kelp. With the kelp suffering, abalone suffered too.
Meanwhile, in the 1850s through the mid-1900s Chinese and Japanese immigrants arriving to the US started hunting abalone. White Americans like my grandpa developed an increasingly ravenous taste for them too.
During World War II, American soldiers were shipped abalone in cans. On the California coast, abalone sandwiches were a common menu item.
Today, with otters on the protected list, and even with abalone on the hunting restriction list, abalone remain at odds with rebounding marine animal and human predators alike.
In basic training on the East Coast, Grandpa was a tail gunner, which means he was supposed to be the person who sat, rear-facing, firing guns at planes that were firing guns at him in the sky. The story goes that he would puke each time the plane dove, so he never saw action. At his station in the South Pacific, they moved him into communications, where he kept track of pilots and facilitated connections between different posts.
“This is for the best, of course,” Mom said. “The life expectancy of a tail gunner was a few hours in combat.”
While he was away at war, Grandma waited for Grandpa in California. They were newlyweds, two shells just joined and already torn apart when he got called away. Grandma drove him to where he had to report for duty. She followed his bus as far as she could, weeping at the wheel.
Some sixty years later, in December 2003, when Grandpa died, Grandma consoled the rest of us by telling us this story: “Here I was, having just found the man the Lord had made just for me, and he was already leaving. I just couldn’t—” she mimed crying hard. “That’s why I’m not crying now,” she said. “I got a whole lifetime with your grandfather when he came home. I’ve cried all my tears for him already.”
Abalone are a type of gastropod, which are rare among animals due to their success in all three major habitats: ocean, fresh water, and land.
How is it that a boy raised in Long Island learned to skin dive so well? None of us thought to ask Grandpa when he was alive. Maybe he learned when he was stationed in the Solomon Islands. Maybe it was when he took leave in Honolulu. Maybe he learned in San Diego.
Grandpa, who taught you to skin dive? Who taught you to gather these single-shelled animals with gentle hands before they sensed danger, before they suctioned down on rocks so tight no prying could release them? Who taught you to stick them on the skin of your thighs so you could gather more than one during a single breath?
“We’d always laugh because he looked so ridiculous,” Mom said, conjuring a memory of him walking out of the water, covered in shells. “He’d be lumpy with all those abalone stuck to him under his shorts, so we’d laugh. But of course we ate the abalone, and we loved it.”
To my knowledge, I only met our Grandpa’s mother, Elizabeth, once. I was little—maybe three or four—and I don’t remember if she baulked at the brownness of her half-Indian great-grandkids or our dad, her brown grandson-in-law. I don’t remember if I noticed the shortened pointer finger on her left hand. I only remember two things: 1) she sat on a cushioned recliner, knitting or crocheting something, and smiled at me nicely when I came over for her to get a better look, and 2) when Grandpa cut me a bite of an abalone steak he’d made—it was sweet and a little rigid, something with a pleasurable resistance that I sank my crooked incisors into—and I said yum and I want more of that, she’d laughed and laughed, perhaps because we are an eating family
Some gastropods are edible, like conch, conical limpets, predatory heavy pointed spiral whelks, and of course abalone. As marine gastropod mollusks, abalone are marine snails. The spiral common to snails is flattened in the abalone shell.
Several different kinds of gastropods may also be used in the preparation of escargot.
When I asked Mom for the story about the time she got caught eating snails in the backyard, she said, “I’d tear up the house right behind Mom when she tried to clean up, so she would put me outside in the yard. This one time, when she went to let me back in, she found me with snails smeared all over my face. She said I just gouged them out with my fingers.”
“Did you get spanked?” I asked.
“No! She scolded me, I’m sure, but there’s no point pounding on a baby that’s that small. They don’t understand it.”
To snail is “to move, act, or go slowly or lazily.” In this lesson, a child caught eating snails might snail in her understanding.
Conch and abalone, with their tough meat, are often tenderized before human consumption.
Abalone’s bodies are encased in a mantle, a word that conjures loose cloaks or shawls draped across shy shoulders.
The foot of an abalone contains tentacles that extend beyond the shell wall of the living animal. These tentacles appear frilly or scalloped, like the hem of a dress.
The secretion from the mantle is what gives the inside of the abalone’s famed shell its colors.
Today, abalone shells have found themselves turned into buttons, inlaid in furniture and musical instruments, and jewelry. Manipulating abalone shells takes some skill, though, and some risk. Breathing in dust can trigger allergic skin reactions and asthma attacks when the shells are broken down and released into the air.
“Inside, those abalone shells are just gorgeous,” Mom said. “Dad would get the big ones that were legal size, which had to be over five inches, and the insides of the shells are just exquisitely beautiful. It just killed him. He had to figure out something to do with them.
“Finally when the epoxy glue came out,” Mom continued, “Dad discovered he could preserve the pretty color of the shells. We all loved how pretty they were. He wanted a way to save that beauty.”
Eventually, Grandpa took to pouring the epoxy into moulds—like for gelatin, but higher quality. Pouring them into wooden moulds was the way he had the most success. So, it was in this way, after breaking down the shells, that Grandpa would inlay pieces like mosaics into a coffee table where Grandma would play solitaire long after he was gone. He made pieces to hang on the wall.
I have one of Grandpa’s pieces in the shape of what might be a maple leaf. In this mould, Pacific abalone is inlaid in the symbol of a New York tree. The underwater luster of the shell pieces preserve in epoxy two places he loved so much.
I look up at this piece today and wonder how it is that I never thought, when he was alive, of Grandpa as an artist.
The abalone’s dish-like shell is characterized by a single row of open respiratory pores. These holes become filled in, one by one, as the animal grows. The last few holes remain open as waste outlets.
I also have two of Grandpa’s unbroken shells that have traveled with me from Los Angeles to New York to Honolulu to New York again and finally back to Honolulu, where I live today. They hang amid the steamy water of our bathroom on the ground floor of the house we rent in the back of oftentimes rainy and muggy Pālolo Valley. I like the look of them, like two satellite dishes, transmitting messages from here to the spirit realm, wherever that might be, wherever Grandma and Grandpa now are.
When my partner hammered a single nail in wall to hang each shell beside the toilet, we did not know that we were using what was the animal’s waste outlet to hang the shells above our, ahem, waste outlet.
Abalone take a long time to grow. They might take twelve years to reach seven inches, growing about an inch per year for the first few years and then much slower after that. Once a red abalone reaches eight inches, it might take another thirteen years to grow another inch.
The largest red abalone in the world was gathered in 1993 in Humbolt County and measured 12.3 inches.
If my math is right, that means that that abalone was upwards of sixty-four years old, which means it could have first started growing in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, when ninety percent of the other young abalone in the water column around that destined-to-be-record-setting abalone perished, and our young grandpa was just twelve years old, likely in the sixth grade, and his father, Albert, was trying to pull him out of school.
The abalone shells I have are seven and seven-and-a-half inches, respectively. They might have taken a dozen years, each, to get this big. They might have taken more.
Today, La Jolla Cove is an ecological reserve. No fishing is allowed. Neither is the collecting of invertebrates or seashells. Some kind of idyllic afterlife might feature Grandpa still ghost-diving for abalone there along with the many divers before him. Living humans are forbidden from the fold.
Western science considers abalone primitive animals, even though their hearts rest on their left side, like yours or mine. Blood flows through their arteries, sinuses, and veins.
Abalone shells have a small, slightly elevated spire and two to three whorls. The last whorl, also known as the body whorl, is called an auriform, which means “shaped like a human ear,” giving rise to the common name for abalone, “ear shell.” Abalone also belong to the genus haliotis, which means “sea ear,” which begs the question, of course, what are abalone listening for?
Grandpa grew up fishing from a sound. Fishing in sound. Fishing for sound. Who was speaking? Who was listening for whom?
In Les W. Field’s Abalone Stories: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California, a Pomo elder named Florence tells a story about how abalone was the first creature to live in the ocean. This first abalone was neither male nor female but could nevertheless produce offspring. This abalone is said to still be living today. The death of that first abalone would mean all other abalone had died. This, Florence said, “would be like the end of the world.”
Grandpa stopped diving when he ruptured his eardrum. He knew something was wrong when he tasted seawater even though his mouth was closed. What was going on? He couldn’t tell which way was up, and he was down deep. He had to follow his bubbles to find the surface.
I imagine Grandpa calm, despite this potential drowning.
“Was he in a lot of pain when he came out of the water?” I asked.
“I’m sure he was, but he didn’t let on,” Mom said.
The ear, nose, and throat doctor couldn’t see Grandpa’s eardrum because of all the abnormal bone growths he found in Grandpa’s ear. These calcifications, found on the ears of surfers who frequent very cold water, had to be removed.
“This was not my dad’s favorite surgery,” Mom said.
You could say I grew up without a sea ear, or, rather, the ability to dive. A childhood of ear infections with tubes and surgeries required me to swim with my head above water and with big wax plugs in my ears so I would not flood my brain with chlorine or ocean or even bath water. In my adulthood, long after the tubes exited my body and their remaining holes closed shut, the habit of keeping my head above water has proven hard to break.
I’ve devoted years to fighting my wet-cat nature, but I don’t think I’ll ever be good at diving below the surface.I never touched the blood-colored surfboard. I’ve not held a living abalone that I remember, though I swear I can feel it there, suctioned on my palm. I stand here among odd facts and secondhand stories cobbled together with no workman’s grace. This page stops ankle deep in biting water.
Today, living in Honolulu, I move, perhaps, amid Grandpa’s memories of these same waters where he may or may not have learned to skin dive, and where Grandma learned the importance of caring for one another, including those who were far away from home.
Once, I paddled out on my long board to a break I had foolishly entered even though I was not familiar with it. I dove too late under a wave that was about to crash on me and had to ditch my nine-footer—small for you, Grandpa. I felt the crashing wave race forward with my board in the whitewash as I was dragged behind it like a doll. I cringed, hoping that we were not heading for collision with the exposed rock I’d paddled out past.
As I braced my human body for impact, sunk as I was in that fast-moving water, I listened for you, Grandpa. I, your youngest granddaughter, who you used to call your fishing buddy, did not know how to turn myself into a blade. But I thought about your underwater grace and how smoothly all of the stories say you moved. I watched the surface above me and remembered not to fight.
This momentary presence of mind, with my mouth full of ocean water, did not turn me into you, Grandpa. But, it may be the closest I’ll come.
Branch, John. “Prized but Perilous Catch.” 25 July 2014. New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/sports/in-hunt-for-red-abalone-divers-face-risks-and-poachers-face-the-law.html. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Invertebrates of Interest: Abalone.” 2019, https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/Invertebrates/Abalone#29972976-how-fast-do-abalone-grow. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
Field, Les W. Abalone Stories: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California. Duke UP, 2008.
FISHTECH. “Facts about Abalone.” N.d., http://www.fishtech.com/facts.html. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
“Kumeyaay History.” 18 Sept. 2019, http://www.kumeyaay.info/history/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
Neumann, Anna. “An In-Depth Look at Abalone: Part I.” 23 Dec. 2014, Reef Check, https://reefcheck.org/reef-news/an-in-depth-look-at-abalone-part-i. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
——. “An In-Depth Look at Abalone: Part II–A Brief History on Abalone Fisheries and Regulations.” 26 Feb. 2015, Reef Check, https://reefcheck.org/reef-news/an-in-depth-look-at-abalone-part-ii-a-brief-history-on-abalone-fisheries-and-regulations. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
OB Rag. “Remember When There Was Plenty of Abalone Along the San Diego Coast? Why Did They Disappear? Here’s One Project That’s Trying to Bring Them Back.” 19 July 2018, https://obrag.org/2018/07/remember-when-there-was-plenty-of-abalone-along-the-san-diego-coast-why-did-they-disappear-heres-one-project-thats-trying-to-bring-them-back/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
“Snail.” Merrium-Webster. N.d., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/snail. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.
Anjoli Roy is a creative writer and high school English teacher in Honolulu. A VONA fellow and a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she earned a BA in individualized study from NYU and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her book-length manuscript has been a finalist for the 2040 Books James Alan McPherson Award and the Autumn House Nonfiction Contest and was shortlisted for C&R Book’s 2019 Awards for CNF/Memoir. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Asian American Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Entropy, Hippocampus, Longreads, and others. www.anjoliroy.com