My most treasured possession was a pearlescent nautilus shell purchased from a gypsy market stand on the island of Murter in the former Yugoslavia. I was twelve years old, it was 1988, and it was a perfect souvenir. While visiting family in the area, my parents decided to rent an apartment on the coast for a few weeks. The beaches were great, and in the evenings we feasted on fresh seafood at the many local restaurants. The town, full of tourists like us, came alive at night. Souvenirs of all sorts were for sale - belts, purses, shells, jewelry - you name it, they had it. The nautilus shell had spoken to me from our first night in town. It was pretty big, about eight inches across and six inches tall. I passed by the souvenir stand numerous times, and it caught my eye repeatedly, but I didn't walk over to it until I was sure I needed it. Or, rather, that it needed me. It was beautiful. I remember paying for it with my money, my dad carefully pulling my cash out of the special section of his wallet where he safeguarded my beloved yet meager funds. I carried it back to the apartment like it was a newborn baby. My cousins marveled at it, and it quickly became the focal point of our vacation bedroom.
The time came to fly back home, and the shell had to be packed. I was paranoid the whole way home that it would end up in pieces. Miraculously, only a tiny shard chipped off in transit, and the shell took its rightful perch on the center of my dresser, cushioned gently underneath by a handmade doily. I've honestly never loved an object so much. I'd come home from school and put the shell up to my ear, close my eyes and replay the summer in my mind. I tried to recreate the pearlescent tones with my crayons on white paper, to no avail. I was Gollum and it was my Precious.
That shell fascinated me. Mysterious and beautiful from the dark of the blue sea, it came from a place I could only read about in encyclopedias. Aside from its exotic origins, it served as a home and protective casing for a relatively unattractive, vulnerable creature. The dichotomy resonated with me. My family was like that. From the outside, picture perfect beauty. From the inside, a bizarre creature reigned. My mother was, is and always shall be a malignant narcissist. Her abnormal behavior created a horrible space for me to grow up. Rage, anger, hostility, manipulation, emotional abuse, physical abuse, jealousy, spite, and a cold absence of empathy highlighted my childhood. She also gaslit me and lied to my father, her eternal enabler, about the abuse. I remember not wanting to go home at the end of the school day. I'd drag my feet the two blocks to our house and walk in on eggshells not knowing what would set her off. It was always something and that something changed from day to day. What I understood by the age of twelve was that she didn't like me and she could and would terrorize me. She verbally reminded me of her power constantly, threatening me while jabbing me between the ribs with a perfectly manicured fingernail or knocking me on the head with one of her larger cocktail rings. The abuse was equally dispersed, but my younger sister reaped the few benefits of being her favorite. I used to contemplate their relationship, wondering how I could tilt things in my favor, how to make her love me the way she seemed to love my sister.
Vacations were a respite from the abuse. When my family took off to visit relatives in Yugoslavia, my mother had to change her outward behavior. She had to impress everyone with her amazing self, amazing family, amazing marriage, and amazing children. But, when staying with relatives, she couldn't resort to the abuse because she'd look bad. Narcissists can't have chinks in their armor! She had to pretend to be a decent human being and I got to have a pretend nice mom for six whole weeks! Enough of my father's female relatives sensed the imbalance in our family dynamic and nurtured me and loved me in all the ways I wasn't loved by my mom. Those women saved my life. When I looked at that shell so many weeks and months after our vacation, I felt the love from those women and the magic of that summer within it. Perhaps that's why I was so attached to it. It symbolized the small amount of freedom from my daily terror. Needless to say, my mother took notice of my shell obsession.
Several months after our vacation, in typical after school behavior, mom ordered me to do something for her. No matter the activity - fetching potatoes from the basement, changing my brother's diaper, cleaning my room - there was always, always, always a problem with my speed/tone/delivery methods/effectiveness that warranted either a slew of insults, physical abuse, or both. For some reason this day she was raging hard and became unhinged very quickly at something minor. Overreaction was her art form. She chased me into my bedroom, screaming at me. She had already slapped me, I distinctly remember hot tears and holding the left side of my face while cowering, not knowing where the next hit was going to land. Instead, she looked to her right towards my dresser and there, in all its gleaming beauty, was the nautilus shell. She looked back at me and picked up the shell with both hands. I screamed and tried to take it from her, but she held it up way above her head and slammed it onto the floor with all her might. It shattered into a million little pieces. As I fell over into a heap of wails and tears, she calmly left the room. Hyperventilating and shaking, I protectively crouched over the shell shards trying to will them back into their beautiful form. I cried for so hard and for so long my face was still swollen at dinner hours later.
As a result of that encounter, I have never again had an emotional attachment to any physical object. My mom eventually broke other things of mine after that, but it never got to me like it did that day with the shell. That was my emotional line in the sand. My internal "fuck you, I wont feel the shit that you spew." I suppose it was self-preservation, a way to survive the seemingly unendurable and constant tension and terror. Seal my deepest inner spaces away, separate myself from her. It took decades, but I have moved on from that nautilus shell. I have healed in ways I used to think would not be possible. I've stopped looking for maternal approval that will never come.
I comb beaches with my son and collect shells. I store them in pretty glass containers. I don't worry about anyone breaking them.