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The Conch Shell’s Whorled Chambers

Gift from the Sea
is a proto-feminist book

Anne Morrow Lindbergh published Gift from the Sea in 1955. It was on my mother’s nightstand and, like many women of that era, she treasured the book. I was surprised to see it described as a proto-feminist book recently, and returned to read its pages. The story is of a woman approaching 50, whose life has been defined by her marriage and her children, and who is looking deep for who she is. She writes poetically of how she sees her life reflected in shells on the beach.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was one of America’s most admired women. Like most stories of heroes and heroines, hers was a far more complicated life than the public knew. She married Charles Lindbergh in 1929, two years after he was vaulted from barn-storming farm boy to international aviator hero. She was well-educated, a graduate of Smith College, and a would-be writer. Both she and Charles were naturally private people who became famous worldwide for triumphs and tragedies. Their first child was kidnapped and killed in the “crime of the century,” the trial a media circus.

Charles may have been naturally controlling, but became exceedingly so after the crime and publicity. His children reported that he would leave a restaurant with his family in the middle of dinner if someone approached him for an autograph, so diligent was he about boundaries and privacy. He advocated an isolationist stance before World War II, expressing admiration for the Nazis’ advancement in aeronautics and allowing anti-Semitic references to stand, falling precipitously from his heroic pedestal. But the themes of isolationism, privacy, rigid boundaries are consistent.

Anne raised five children, wrote fourteen books, was a pioneering aviator with her husband and had complicated second and third acts from middle age onward. Her globe-trotting husband had business relationships with Pan Am and the U.S. Air Force and was seldom home. She undoubtedly recognized he had liaisons outside his marriage. He had fraught relationships with his children.

In 2003, after Anne had died, a German family came forward to claim Lindbergh’s paternity. He had, fathered children with three European women, and maintained family relationships with them. His strict enforcement of privacy and boundaries enabled him to live a very compartmentalized life. It seems unnecessarily stressful, frankly; how did he manage it all?

Anne always credited her husband with opening the doors of the world to her. Paradoxically, he wanted to keep the doors to his rooms closed.
Most of us compartmentalize of necessity; we do not behave at work as we behave at home. As we break down barriers as to what marriage should look like, or gender roles should look like, we necessarily break down compartmentalization. Many of us who came of age years ago needed to shield information like sexual identity or nonconformist views from those who would judge us.

But that doesn’t explain the side-by-side complexity of struggling for authenticity with a partner who had many splintered selves. As women decline to be bound by rigid boundaries, those boundaries also break apart for men.

I don’t have an answer for Charles Lindbergh. The betrayal seems too difficult, too large, but he had been denounced for betrayals before. I do believe in her ability to return to one’s core self and find new ways to define the life one is inhabiting. It is the task again as we retire, or enter some new stage as an Elder.

As a child, I was told to hold a conch shell to my ear, to hear the sound of the ocean. We are told scientifically that this sound is ambient noise reflected by the whorls of the shell. That may be. Or we may hear the sound of the ocean, a mystical gift from the sea.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    Oh Sharon, I do love this essay, and your tying it together with the conch shell at the beginning and at the end. And I’m happy to have a more nuanced view of Charles Lindbergh–since his politics always blocked my willingness to see him as a complex person with many perhaps contradictory qualities. Coincidentally Jay and I were just watching an old version of The Orient Express which is focused on the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh’s child.

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