The Conch Shell

Told through the voice of a resilient 5-year-old, a middle-class white family 
in the segregated South strives for stability 
despite the mother’s confinement in an iron lung.

Caroline Sposto

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


In 1954, a bow with a dozen real arrows was a perfect gift for a 10-year-old boy on his birthday. Five-year-old Wanda Martin trailed her two older brothers across Mrs. Bolivar’s yard toward the patch of woods beyond the vacant lot where the newest east Memphis houses were going up.

“Wait up for Sis,” Denny called out to his younger brother Drew. Neither boy wanted Wanda along, but they knew if they sent her home, she’d go crying to the housekeeper, Lydia, and they’d catch hell.

“Come on, Wanda!” Denny shouted, beckoning her by swinging his arm from the shoulder like a windmill to convey urgency. The little girl had stopped to look at the unfinished shell of a house, fascinated by its size and emptiness. She wondered who might live in it and what color they might paint it.

Denny and Drew stopped to let their tousled baby sister scramble to catch up with them. As usual, she was wearing her Davy Crockett hat, its coonskin tail tangled in her curly, brown hair. Denny took her grimy, dimpled hand and they trudged to a clearing beyond the sycamore trees. “Wanna be William Tell?” he asked slyly.

Drew laughed.

“Who’s that?” Wanda asked.

“They shot an apple off his head with an arrow,” Drew said.

“We don’t got an apple,” she replied.

The boys ended up shooting arrows toward the sky to see whose could go highest. Wanda begged for a turn, which they reluctantly tried to give her, but she wasn’t strong enough to draw the bowstring. A strong west breeze had been blowing all afternoon and when the quiver was empty, they combed the area, but could only turn up seven of the arrows in the dense weeds. It was going on suppertime. They would have to resume their search on the following day.

When the Martin children returned to the shortcut and spotted their neighbor, Mrs. Boliver, their mouths dropped open. She was on her hands and knees, working on her flowerbed with no inkling that five arrows had fallen from the sky and plunged into the lawn around her. Hearts pounding, the children quickly and quietly gathered their arrows and began to sneak away when Mrs. Bolivar called out to them.

“Not so fast, kids!”

They stopped in an agony of dread—making silent bargains with Jesus—as Mrs. Boliver grunted her way to her feet, soiled bra straps dangling down her freckled, jiggling upper arms. She then cut a bunch of blossoming crimson azalea branches. “Take these to your mama,” she said. “I know how she loves them.” …That was it.

The moment the children reached the front porch steps, they heard a familiar Brahms piano concerto wafting through the screen door from the phonograph inside. Their mama had been a piano teacher before she got sick, went to the hospital and came home in an iron lung. For the past two years, she had been confined to the groaning, shell-like cylinder in what used to be the dining room.

Mrs. Martin was a few years shy of 40. She had the same agitated, dimpled face as Wanda. She smiled when she heard the screen door open and saw her children enter the house through the mirror mounted above her head. Denny showed her the azaleas while Drew ran to ask Lydia for a vase.


That night, an early season firefly found its way into Wanda’s bedroom. She lay awake watching its tiny lantern appear and disappear in the blackness near close to the ceiling like tiny flashes of yellow-green lightning until the mechanical rhythm of her mama’s lung on the other side of the wall lulled her to sleep.


Sunday breakfasts never tasted good. Lydia wasn’t there and Mr. Martin couldn’t cook. Nobody brushed Wanda’s hair or properly tied the bow in the back of her dress. After a plate of pancakes that were scorched on the outside and raw in the middle, and overcooked scrambled eggs with bits of shell in them, it was time for the three children to leave for church. Mr. Martin had to stay home to take care of his wife.

Once outside, Wanda put on her Davy Crockett hat. Her brothers objected, but she refused to take it off. “You’re not my boss,” she told them.

“Go ahead, Wanda,” Denny said, “look as goofy as you want, but don’t blame us if you get in trouble with Miss Kathleen.”

Sure enough, the moment Wanda entered the Sunday school classroom the pretty, young teacher glowered at her and took her aside. “Take that off,” Miss Kathleen said. “Girls don’t wear Davy Crockett hats. And turn around. Let me tie you a proper bow.”

Another child’s mama came in to drop off a tray of cookies. She gave Miss Kathleen a knowing look and said, “Bless her heart.”

“Pitiful,” Miss Kathleen replied. “Her brothers brought her here in a Davy Crockett hat.”

The woman shook her head, “That’s what happens when a little girl lives in a house full of boys without a mama.”

“I have a mama,” Wanda mumbled, wishing she were brave enough to yell it.

“Then why don’t your mama ever come to church?” another little girl asked.

Before Wanda had a chance to say anything, the cookie mom jerked the little girl away by the arm and shushed her.


That evening during supper Wanda picked at her plate of undercooked noodles and bland ground beef.

“Daddy, why doesn’t Lydia come to our house on Sundays?” she asked.

“Because people aren’t supposed to work on Sundays, Peanut.”

“The preacher works on Sundays and so does Miss Kathleen.”

“That’s different. Anyhow, Peanut, Lydia’s at her own house.”

“Where’s Lydia’s house?”

“In Orange Mound.”

“Is Orange Mound far?”

“Kind of.”

“Well then, Lydia ought to buy herself one of them new houses they’re building near us.”

Mr. Martin laughed and Wanda felt her face get hot. She didn’t like it when she made jokes, but didn’t know what they were.

“Peanut, people can’t just live anywhere they want,” he said. “Now finish your supper.”


The next day, Wanda woke up while her brothers were leaving for school. Lydia was in the kitchen. She looked pretty in the crisp green gingham apron that brought out her clear, tawny complexion and the amber flecks in her eyes. She saw Wanda in the doorway and said, “Child, look at your knees. You got to stop playing like a boy and getting all those scabs. You’re a young lady.”
Wanda smiled. Lydia’s scolding made her feel safe. She leaned against the electric range and watched the housekeeper deftly crack an egg into the sizzling cast iron skillet.

“Where’s Daddy?”

“He went to the office an hour ago, sleepy face. Have you spoken to your mama yet today?”

Wanda shook her head.

“Well, eat your breakfast, and then go on in and give your mama a kiss.”

Wanda swallowed the last bites on her way out of the kitchen. “Morning, Mama,” she said.

It always took a moment for her mama to answer. Her sentences came in bits and pieces because the machine orchestrated her every breath. It occurred to Wanda to mention what happened in Sunday school, but she thought better of it. It was one of those mornings when Wanda and her mama had to think up things to say to each other, but they talked awhile just the same.

“I’m going to bake sugar cookies later,” Lydia announced, coming through the room with an armload of freshly folded linens. She then added, “If you’re good all morning, you can help me, and I might just have a surprise for you.” Upon that news, Wanda kissed her mama’s cheek and hurried off after the maid.


Lydia unfolded a small, new apron of the same gingham as her own. “I made this for you last night,” she said, tying it around Wanda’s waist. It had a big, rick-rack-trimmed pocket shaped like a heart.
Wanda sometimes wondered if Lydia might be her real mama. They both had big, round eyes and curly brown hair.

That afternoon, Wanda wore her apron down the block to her friend Amy’s house. The two girls played with paper dolls until Amy’s mama had to go to the beauty shop.

“Ask your mama if you can come to my house to play,” Wanda said to her friend.

“She’ll say ‘No,’” Amy replied. “She’s afraid I might catch polio from your mama.”

The two girls looked to up see Amy’s mama in the bedroom doorway. “Shush, Amy!” her mama said, in a tone that made Wanda worry her friend might get a scolding the minute she was out of earshot.


At home, Mrs. Martin was listening to a record. The boys were back from school and the house smelled like pot roast. Wanda kissed her mama’s cheek and then looked for Lydia. She was in the laundry room.

“Watcha doin’, Miss Lydia?” Wanda asked.

“Pressing your daddy’s shirts. Want to keep me company awhile?”

Wanda nodded and Lydia picked her up and set her on top of the washing machine.

“Miss Lydia, how come you never stay for dinner?”

“I have to go home and make dinner for my own family. Besides, y’all eat in your kitchen, so there’d be no place for me to sit.”

“You could have Mama’s chair,” Wanda suggested. “She doesn’t need it.”

Lydia didn’t answer.


Whenever Wanda’s father said he had to go back to his office at night, Mrs. Boliver came over. Wanda heard his car keys jingling as she lay in bed.

“Daddy?” she called out.

“Yes, Peanut,” he said, appearing in her bedroom doorway.

“Why do you have to work so much?”

“Because my boss is tough.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“Mr. McKee down at the Cotton Exchange.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a boss.”

Her father laughed and Wanda disguised her embarrassment about not knowing why she was funny.

“You’re a mess, Peanut,” he said, smiling. “Now go to sleep. Mrs. Bolivar will stay until I get back, and when you wake up in the morning, Lydia will be here.” She hugged her father’s neck as hard as she could. He smelled like spicy aftershave.


A few nights later, during supper, Mr. Martin announced he was taking them to Gulf Shores for a fishing rodeo.

“Lydia too?” Wanda asked.

“No. Lydia will come over every day like usual to take care of your mama and Mrs. Boliver will come at night.”

“Gee, Daddy,” Denny said. “It would be great if Mama could come. Don’t you think we could, I don’t know … rent a big truck or something?”

“Son, there’d be no place to plug in the lung in a truck.”

“What if we rigged up a car battery? I read an article in Popular Mechanics about how some people did that during a storm.”

“Can’t take the chance. We’ll take pictures of the trip and show her.”

Wanda was intrigued by the mention of taking pictures. She had looked through the family photo albums and the only pictures taken of her were when she was very tiny—before her mama had gotten sick.


A week later, the three children and their father were in the shiny, maroon Oldsmobile, speeding down through Mississippi. From time to time, Wanda stood up on the back seat to look for the water. “Easy, Peanut,” her father said. “We have a long way to go.”

When they finally got there, the motel was even better than she had imagined. It was near the beach and had a swimming pool. Mr. Martin told the boys they could go swimming as long as they made sure Wanda stayed in the kiddy pool. He was going for a drink in the lounge.
Forty-five minutes later, their father sat at a poolside table talking to a smiling, freckled lady with short, red hair and dangly earrings.

“Wanda,” he called, “Come and meet Miss Peggy.”

Wanda got out of the water, giving the woman a reticent look.

“Hello, Wanda,” the woman said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Miss Peggy works at the bank downtown. I ran into her in the lounge. She’s offered to help out since Lydia isn’t here.”

Something in her father’s voice made it sound like he was trying too hard. But in the days that followed, Miss Peggy turned out to be good company after all. She even let the children bury her in the sand.

“We have to get pictures for Mama,” Denny reminded their father. Mr. Martin took out the camera and lined up the children for snapshots.

“What about Miss Peggy?” Wanda asked.

“Miss Peggy is camera shy,” her father said.

“That’s right,” she said, smiling a little too broadly. “I am.”

After lunch, the boys went out into the water, while Mr. Martin, Miss Peggy and Wanda lounged on the blankets beneath the colorful umbrella. Soon, the rhythm of the waves lulled them to sleep.

Half an hour later, Wanda woke up. She dug in the sand for a while, but grew bored. The camera looked interesting, so she took a picture. Miss Peggy looked pretty and she wasn’t camera shy since she was asleep.


The fishing rodeo was great fun. A triggerfish won the boys $15 plus a new pair of wiper blades for their father’s car.

Sunday morning and time to go home came too soon. Wanda had found some seashells; all of them but one were small and had been chipped by the tide. The treasured conch shell was almost as big as the little girl’s fist. It was tan on the outside with markings that reminded her of the wings on a flannel moth.

Its inside was shiny and pinkish like a porcelain figurine. The shell was empty with no trace of its former occupant, but it made a sound that mimicked the rush of the ocean whenever Wanda put it up to her ear. She tucked the treasure into her heart-shaped apron pocket, unsure if she should give it to her mama or Lydia.

The drive home always seemed shorter than the drive down to the gulf. After dinner, the boys sat in the front seat with their father, while Wanda stretched out on the back seat to sleep. When she woke up, she overheard them talking.

“Daddy, did you really run into Miss Peggy by accident?” Denny asked.

“And why did you pay her hotel bill?” Drew added.

Mr. Martin hesitated and then said, “No … It wasn’t exactly an accident. Miss Peggy’s husband got hurt pretty bad fighting in Korea, and she hardly ever gets to go anywhere. She’s a nice lady and I thought she deserved a nice vacation. Besides, we needed someone to help with Wanda since we wouldn’t have Lydia. You boys are big enough to understand, but I didn’t want Wanda to go blabbing to your Mama.”

“Why shouldn’t Mama know?” Drew asked.

“Because, your mama already feels guilty about not being able to take care of you kids––especially Wanda. I don’t want her to feel any more ashamed than she already does. Your mama used to be a regular workhorse and now she’s sensitive about what she can’t do.”

Wanda had awakened a few miles back, but she remained quiet. Playing possum was a good way to learn things. Her father clicked the radio on. Perry Como was singing something about catching a falling star. It reminded her of the lone firefly. She drifted back to sleep and when she woke up again, they were at Berretta’s Drive-In.

Their father bought them ice cream sodas and made a point of reminding the children, including Wanda, they mustn’t, under any circumstances, mention Miss Peggy. The Martin children were used to getting instructions about protecting their mama from things that might upset or tire her. Keeping this little secret would be easy.


The following afternoon, Lydia joked with Wanda. “Were ya’ll the fashion plates of the gulf? There’s so much laundry I figure you changed clothes six times a day.”

Wanda put her arm next to Lydia’s to see how much darker she had gotten at the beach. She pulled her apron out of the laundry basket and made sure the shell was still there.

“What did you do? Take your apron along?”

Wanda nodded.

“Well, I’m honored it was part of the fashion parade,” she said. Then Lydia pulled part of a dead sand crab out of one of Denny’s pockets. “Boys!” she said, making a funny face.


Late that afternoon, Mrs. Bolivar stopped by to say she was going to Piggly Wiggly and ask if there were any errands she could run. Drew went into the coat closet and took the roll of film out of the camera. “Mama wants to see photos of our vacation,” he said. “Can you drop this off at Rexall’s?”


A couple of days later, the delivery boy came from Rexall Drug.

“Looks like the pictures are here,” Lydia said.

“May I see them, please?” Mrs. Martin said. “You’ll never know how much I wanted to be there.”

Lydia held the stack of pictures up and began slowly flipping through them one by one. “You can see them later, Wanda,” Lydia said. “Amy’s mama just phoned. They’re coming by to take you to the park.”

With that, the doorbell rang.


Wanda stayed at Amy’s house for supper. When she came home, there was a strange silence in the house. Lydia was gone and her brothers were in the kitchen washing the dishes. Usually they fought over the chores, but tonight, they weren’t saying a word.

Later that night, when Wanda was in bed, she overheard her parents arguing. Her father’s voice was tense and hushed; her mama’s voice was raised, and, punctuated by measured breaths from the machine, sounded ugly.

She pulled the covers over her head and shut her eyes tight. That’s not my mama anyway, she told herself. Lydia’s my real mama.


The next morning, Wanda woke up to find her father sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. He wasn’t dressed for the office and he hadn’t shaved.

“Where’s Lydia?” she asked.

“Lydia won’t be back. I let her go.”

For a long moment, Wanda stared at her father in silence, waiting for a further explanation that never came. She then reached into the gingham apron, took out the shell and went into the dining room to give it to her mama, but her mama was sleeping. SEP Logo Reverse


Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *