Friday, March 10, 2006

The Significance of Stones

Years and years ago, at my grandmother's grave, my aunt and her husband put three oval river rocks, each the size of a small fist, on her marker stone. My uncle told me then that it was a Jewish custom, to let the dead know that you think of them. The third rock was for one of my other uncles, who lived far away and couldn't be there that day. It struck me then as being quite profound - one little rock holds love and loss and memories and grief. To look at that little row, you'd probably not realize how much it meant.

Through the years, I've spent a fair bit of time there. It's a beautiful spot - wooded and quiet, with carefully tended flowers. I've whiled away many summer afternoons, spending time with Grams and a good book. Now, more than fifteen years later, a single small rock remains on her stone to let her know that someone's thinking of her. I wonder where the other two have gone. Maybe a bored child, not really clear on the significance of where he or she was, wandered by and spotted the little row. Those rocks were the perfect size to pick up and play with, rolling them around in your hand, and slipping them into a pocket. I know, I've done it too.

I'll almost certainly never know where Grams' rocks went, but the idea sprouted in me then and flourishes to this day. Scattered throughout my little home, and stored in boxes in my parents' garage, I have quite the collection of stones, rocks, shells, etc - little bits of nature that I brought back to remember where I've been.

Anyone else would look at them and see just a bowl of rocks but to me, they are so much more. The small pinkish one is my last walk on a California beach with my now-ex boyfriend - the one that I thought might be the one. The perfectly flat brown one is from the lake where we vacationed every summer of my childhood. The little bit of gravel with the perfect tiny shell is from a walk with my best friend, right before she married and the wonderfully round green speckled one took me 45 minutes to discover on a beach on Puget Sound, visiting with my very aunt and uncle.

It's not just rocks - nestled among my pebbles are shells as well - like the odd looking white mollusk from a teenaged adventure on the shores of Lake Erie. There's a tiny, perfect pinecone from a trail along the Skyline Drive in the Smoky Mountains. Nearly everywhere I've been, I've collected some little bit to bring back with me.

Several years ago, a friend and I went to an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art entitled 'Treasures of the Vatican.' For the first time ever, some of the most prized items from the Papal vaults were on tour. One of the most heavily protected was a small box of rocks. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous - did they really need to have this little thing behind heavier glass than the solid gold, jewel encrusted cross with some saint's finger bone in it? Then I learned that, to prove how faithful you were, you had to venture forth on pilgrimages AND you had to bring back a receipt. So all of the faithful went on journeys to holy places and shrines and then they chipped off a bit for their shrine box. So many did this that a lot of the holiest of the shrines and holy places no longer exist. The little box of rocks was some ancient pilgrim's souvenir box and it was so important to the Church because it was all that was left from hundreds of years of people visiting and then taking a chunk home with them.

So I suppose I should rethink my collections. I've managed to convince myself that it's different. I haven't ever chipped a piece off of something else, but I guess that if enough people go seeking stones on the beach, Arizona will end up with waterfront property. Then I'd visit, and hunt down a pebble to bring home with me...

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