My Mother, Millie Patton Tissot, 1930-2003

So there I was unpacking boxes from like the 20th move of my life. Growing up in a Navy family I was used to the drill but had forgotten the surprises. This move was different as my wife and I had moved from Washington State where we lived for 16 years; the longest I had ever lived in one place. When I was living with my parents we moved precisely ever 2.5 years. What I had not recalled was that unpacking was a trip down memory lane. In every newly opened box there was the possibility of finding an old photo, or a long-lost shell, or as in this case, a forgotten book. In the second day of re-shelving our extensive book collection one book caught my interest. As I opened it a letter fell out from my mother written in 1991, ironically as she herself was unpacking after a recent move. Although I may have read the letter before, it was forgotten, so it felt like a new letter to me.

Since my mother died in 2003 not many days go by that I don’t think of her. Because my father was a naval aviator he was away in Vietnam when my brother and I were growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s and my mother largely raised us alone. We were fortunate, she was an amazing woman: loving, passionate, smart and a great sense of humor. And despite (or because of) a lifetime of illnesses she developed a deep but simple wisdom that continues to guide me through life. I guess her lessons weren’t over. As I began to read I felt like I had received a letter from heaven:

May 8, 1991

Brian —

A late little birthday gift for you. I found this when I unpacked books and thought you’d like to have it. I have gotten a great deal of joy & peace from the ocean.  As a child I remember standing on the beach of Santa Cruz & running as fast as I could into the waves with the joy only a child can have. I love the ever-changing colors of the sea and the peace of seeing waves break upon the shore. The wonderful smell of ocean air and the tiny treasures we can find on the beach. In the hard moments I have found peace in remembering the ocean. You are lucky to have made the ocean such a part of your life. I know it will always be a source of comfort & peace. Love, Mom

I knew my Mom was sending me a message after all these years so I opened the book and began to read. It was if my mother knew what I needed to hear at precisely this moment in my life. Here is my favorite poem:


Seascapes: Inspiration & Meaning drawn from the Serenity of the Sea

The sea has cast up so many treasures for us.
The beach is dotted with shells of every description…
…furled and latticed by nature’s artistry…
…sculpted and turned, bleached to a dazzling white
or shimmering with a pearly sheen.

At first we want then all…
we run to catch each one…
…but soon realize that these are only shells…
empty houses left by creatures of the sea…
…and we lay all but the most beautiful aside
and carry one or two away with us.

Just as one cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach,
so one cannot collect all the moments of wonder…
…all the songs of joy…
…all the times of triumph that are a part of life.

But we can clasp the ones that come to us…
…close to our hearts…
where they will remain forever.

6 responses to “Gifts from the Sea: A Letter from my Mother”

  1. Very nice Brian. I believe your interpretation is very accurate. Millie was an amazing and very generous woman who cared deeply for her family. We all benefitted from having her in our lives and we all miss her.

  2. Brian, I really enjoyed reading this. I just lost my Mom this year and miss her everyday. We were both lucky to have wonderful moms.

  3. I knew your mother many years ago when I lived in San Diego. My husband was also a naval aviator. Millie and I both had a hearing problem. Once, Millie was out of town and asked me to take her place at a north island dinner party. I did, was dinner partner of gene Tissot. Don’t recall his rank at the time.

  4. Brian, have you seen pictures on CNN of an ugly something called a Black Sea devil? It looks horrible. As a marine biologist, you may be familiar with it. Charlotte McDaniel.

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