A Sandpiper to Bring You Joy

Ekaterina Chernetsova (Papchinskaya)
Photo Credit: Ekaterina Chernetsova (Papchinskaya) via CC Flickr

There are some stories that are worth repeating..today’s story is one of them.

A year or so ago, I posted a story that I had come across simply called, “The Sandpiper.” Unbeknownst to me, the story that I published was one that had been copied and re-written by another person who wrongly took credit for it. Fortunately for me, the daughter of the real author, Mary Serman Hilbert, contacted me and told me the following…

“This story was written by my mother Mary Sherman Hilbert back in in 1978 and is copyrighted in the  US Library of Congress. It was published in Readers Digest in 1980. The story has been reprinted in over ten languages and made into two plays.

There are many plagiarized versions on the internet, including the one that has an MR. Peterson instead of Mrs. P. (Ruth Peterson) as the central woman, as you have posted here. Please read Snopes assessment here for accurate clarification of the story’s background: https://www.snopes.com/glurge/sandpiper.asp

My mother passed away New Years Day 2010 at the age of eighty-seven.

~ Leigh Hilbert, December 11th, 2017

Most people who have posted my mom’s story have had good intentions and had no way to know if it had been altered along the internet pathways.

There are a few correct versions online. I will post here the original version and you can maybe repost it.”

So, without further ado, here is the original, beautiful story of the Sandpiper…..

A Sandpiper to Give You Joy

by Mary Serman Hilbert

Several years ago, a neighbor related to me an experience that happened to her one winter on a beach in Washington State. The incident stuck in my mind and I took note of what she said. Later, at a writers’ conference, the conversation came back to me and I felt I had to set it down. Here is her story, as haunting to me now as when I first heard it:

She was six years old when I first met her on the beach near where I live. I drive to this beach, a distance of three or four miles, whenever the world begins to close in on me.

She was building a sand castle or something and looked up, her eyes as blue as the sea.

“Hello,” she said. I answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.

“I’m building,” she said.

“I see that. What is it?” I asked, not caring.

“Oh, I don’t know. I just like the feel of the sand.”

That sounds good, I thought and slipped off my shoes. A sandpiper glided by. “That’s a joy,” the child said.

“It’s what?”

“It’s a joy. My mama says sandpipers come to bring us joy.”

The bird went glissading down the beach. “Good-bye, joy,” I muttered to myself,

“hello, pain,” and turned to walk on. I was depressed; my life seemed completely out of balance.

“What’s your name?” She wouldn’t give up.

“Ruth,” I answered, “I’m Ruth Peterson.”

“Mine’s Windy.” It sounded like Windy. “And I’m six.” “Hi, Windy.”

She giggled. “You’re funny,” she said. In spite of my gloom I laughed too and walked on.

Her musical giggle followed me. “Come again, Mrs. P,” she called. “We’ll have another happy day.”

The days and weeks that followed belonged to others: a group of unruly Boy Scouts, PTA meetings, an ailing mother.

The sun was shining one morning as I took my hands out of the dishwater. “I need a sandpiper,” I said to myself, gathering up my coat.

The ever-changing balm of the seashore awaited me. The breeze was chilly, but I strode along, trying to recapture the serenity I needed. I had forgotten the child and was startled when she appeared.

“Hello, Mrs. P,” she said. “Do you want to play?”

“What did you have in mind?” I asked, with a twinge of annoyance.

“I don’t know. You say.”

“How about charades?” I asked sarcastically.

The tinkling laughter burst forth again. “I don’t know what that is.”

“Then let’s just walk.” Looking at her, I noticed the delicate fairness of her face. “Where do you live?” I asked.

“Over there.” She pointed toward a row of summer cottages. Strange, I thought, in winter.

“Where do you go to school?”

“I don’t go to school. Mommy says we’re on vacation.”

She chattered “little-girl” talk as we strolled up the beach, but my mind was on other things. When I left for home, Windy said it had been a happy day. Feeling surprisingly better, I smiled at her and agreed.

Three weeks later, I rushed to my beach in a state of near panic. I was in no mood even to greet Windy. I thought I saw her mother on the porch and felt like demanding that she keep her child at home.

“Look, if you don’t mind,” I said crossly when Windy caught up with me, “I’d rather be alone today.” She seemed unusually pale and out of breath.

“Why?” She asked.

I turned on her and shouted, “Because my mother died!” – and thought, my God, why was I saying this to a little child?

“Oh, she said quietly, “then this is a bad day.”

“Yes, and yesterday and the day before that and – oh, go away!”

“Did it hurt?”

“Did what hurt?” I was exasperated with her, with myself.

“When she died?”

“Of course it hurt!” I snapped, misunderstanding, wrapped up in myself. I strode off.

A month or so after that, when I next went to the beach, she wasn’t there. Feeling guilty, ashamed and admitting to myself I missed her, I went up to the cottage after my walk and knocked at the door. A drawn-looking young woman with honey-colored hair opened the door.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m Ruth Peterson. I missed your little girl today and wondered where she was.”

“Oh yes, Mrs. Peterson, please come in.”

“Wendy talked of you so much. I’m afraid I allowed her to bother you. If she was a nuisance, please accept my apologies.”

“Not at all – she’s a delightful child,” I said, suddenly realizing that I meant it. “Where is she?”

“Wendy died last week, Mrs. Peterson. She had leukemia. Maybe she didn’t tell you.”

Struck dumb, I groped for a chair. My breath caught.

She loved this beach; so when she asked to come, we couldn’t say no. She seemed so much better here and had a lot of what she called happy days. But the last few weeks she declined rapidly ” Her voice faltered. “She left something for you, if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I look?”

I nodded stupidly, my mind racing for something, anything, to say to this lovely young woman.

She handed me a smeared envelope, with MRS. P printed in bold, childish letters.

Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues – a yellow beach, a blue sea, a brown bird. Underneath was carefully printed:

A SANDPIPER TO BRING YOU JOY

Tears welled up in my eyes and a heart that had almost forgotten how to love opened wide. I took Wendy’s mother in my arms. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, “I’m so sorry,” I muttered over and over, and we wept together.

The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in my study. Six words – one for each year of her life – that speak to me of inner harmony, courage, undemanding love. A gift from a child with sea-blue eyes and hair the color of sand – who taught me the gift of love.

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