This is a slight exaggeration, but it’s the way I will start this story sometime, years from now, if I am fortunate enough to have children or grandchildren who permit me to tell roaming tales of my youth.
“Did I ever tell you about the time seashells saved your grandpa’s and my honeymoon?” I’ll prattle. And no one will believe me. “Oh, Grandma,” they’ll say.
But grandma won’t be messing around. No sir, seashells really did save our honeymoon.
People go on honeymoons for a lot of reasons: to recover after the stress of a wedding, to learn the first few steps of sharing your life with another person in seclusion, to get away from nosey inlaws. We were supposed to spend the first two weeks of wedded bliss languishing in the saltwater goodness of a Caribbean island. Instead, early in our trip, we were accosted by an untimely moped accident that involving both me and my husband, a sharp turn, a boulder, and a cement curb that graciously broke our fall (and almost our ribs).
While it could have been worse, the cuts and bruises we’d sustained made it difficult to enjoy most of the activities we’d planned to do, most of which involved salt water. To pass the time, we took to hunting… For seashells. By the time our wounds had healed enough to hit the surf, this harmless hobby had swelled into something of a fascination. Scarcely could either of us get within eyesight of the sea before we’d start stooping, trying to get a closer look at some awesome shell or other sticking out of the sand. Our last morning, we woke up early and headed to the beach—one last look for shells. Obsessive? Perhaps. But, looking back, it was the perfect way to nurse our injuries and start learning what it means to be married: without realizing it, we’d started collection together.
I come from a long line of collectors. One grandpa (who spent most of his life farming the same land as his grandpa and great-grandpa), kept up a modest collection of Indian arrowheads, most of them found while plowing his rural Wisconsin fields. Similarly, one of my grandmas was renowned for her collection of bells—metal, porcelain and glass bells procured from every landmark or monument she ever visited, all of which remained encased in a tall, glass cabinet, safe from the prying hands of playful grandchildren. This same grandma, along with my grandpa, also amassed a bunch of those state-shaped magnets every time they visited or drove through a new state; their refrigerator was a veritable US map. My other grandma was always on the lookout for driftwood—the water-smoothed twigs and branches that wash up on lakeshores—and when she became too old to travel to distant bodies of water, we’d gather some for her on our trips. Other collections to grace our grandparents’ interests included old US coins, stamps, things that were red, things that were Chinese, antique saw blades and tools.
My parents, by contrast, have not maintained any lifelong collections, and neither have any of their siblings that I know of.
To me, this signals the very different world my grandparents grew up in—they all shared in common an experience with real, endemic scarcity: the great depression. My grandparents talked about their collections in the same tones they used to recount tales of depression-era food stamps and victory gardens and shoes that needed to last all year. Their voices carry a mixture of nostalgia and modesty, an appreciation for the small, durable stuff of life.
It seems to me that collections can only be had when one appreciates scarcity. Objects get collected because they are special, and to be special they must not be able to be found everywhere. We don’t collect piles of dust or office paper—if we did, we’d be hoarders, not collectors.
As a child, I went through the typical childhood phases of collection manias: buttons and shells in kindergarten, rocks in fourth grade, baseball cards in fifth, coins in sixth and seventh. Back then, managing a collection was more than just fun, it was something of an existential exercise—there was something hugely urgent and gratifying bound up with finding as many varieties of igneous rocks as possible.
At some point, however, that sense of significance dissipated. I gradually stopped collecting objects, and all of my childhood collections have been thrown out or become obscurely mixed in with the rest of my possessions. In short, collecting stopped being the “cool” thing to do.
The honeymoon, though, made me rethinking my position on collecting.
It seems to me there is more to collecting than what meets the eye. What are we really doing when we collect? Is it not a means of comprehending the world—in all its universality—through a particular? Of viewing the immense garden of creation through a finite lens—like seashells, rocks, coins, stamps.
Standing on the ocean next to my new husband, I breathed in the wondrous enormity of it all—the wind, the waves, the endlessness of the blue horizon. And, if I am honest, it was all a bit too much to take in. I mean, to really take in.
But prying those shells from the sand and examining them made it possible to contain some of that enormity within myself. My hands, grasping this small object, held within them an artefact of water, time, decay, life, death.
Amassing more and more of these singular shells, I began to see that the spiritual roots of collecting extend still deeper than the desire to grasp, to contain. There is something rather beautiful about the act of gathering items that were once dispersed far and wide from one another. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time to gather stones, and a time to scatter them. In collecting, we are called again to that time of gathering, to the process of calling even mundane, inanimate objects out of disparateness and into unity, into assemblage, into collection.
If I were telling this story long into the future, I’d tell my grandkids about how it felt walking up and down the shores of the Caribbean, and how—just when we thought our whole trip was ruined—the shell collection I now shared with my husband slowly came to flourish. I’d tell them how we each shared techniques for uncovering fresh shells in the top layers of sand on the very edge of the tides. I’d tell them there was something thrillingly childlike about standing side-by-side in water that barely covered our feet, digging and looking and hoping about all these shells. We celebrated over one another’s finds, and at the end of each day we lay out all our shells, pouring over our favorites and recounting how we’d found them all. It has been months since our honeymoon, and we still take out our shells from time to time. I’d tell them how we figured out each other’s favorite kinds of shells, how their grandpa liked the dark, gray shells with deep ridges, but I liked the rare, cone-shaped orange shells.
And then, from the top of a dusty shelf, I’d take out a shadow box with our shells—the collection will have grown by then, from all our other trips. And we would sit there, pouring over our favorite shells, a bit of eternity enveloped in each one.