Over the years, hundreds of small found objects—lucky stones, a plastic Highlander, a Swiss army knife—have washed up at my feet. Some of them have held a special symbolic value for me and I have endowed them with a talismanic power; until they have slipped from my hands and fallen somewhere, waiting latent and unseen for the next passer-by, who in turn will slip them into his or her pocket for a spell.
The first of a succession of lucky stones was my most beloved, fished for me out of a shallow cove in the Aegean Sea by a mysterious mer-woman (see Greece in the 60s: Expatriates & Other Animals), and borne by me to India, where I carried it to exams for years afterwards; until it was lost and in due course, another took its place. Thirty years later, on another coastline, I came upon the plastic Highlander washed up on the shores of the Arabian Sea near my father’s ancestral home and bore it back to the United States with me, where it occupies pride of place on a tray of seashells and stones in our bathroom.
Andrew and I found the Swiss army knife on a hillside adjoining the Old North Bridge over the Concord River back in 1975, on the historic 200th anniversary of the American Revolution (see Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn). The People’s Bicentennial Commission, which sought to commemorate and revive the spirit of revolution that had been killed by the wealthy landowning and monied classes, held a concert and campout the night before President Gerald Ford was to arrive by helicopter on April 19th, the date of the battle that sparked the revolutionary war. (Ironically, their logo used the image on the historic Gadsden flag with the coiled rattlesnake, bearing the warning, “Don’t Tread on Me,” re-appropriated a generation later by the extreme right-wing Tea Party, which seeks to revive a very differently-remembered idea of freedom.)
I can’t remember much of the day except the large crowd, the celebratory spirit, and the 40,000 protestors surging over the Old North Bridge as the President landed. Afterwards, when the tidal wave of people had receded, we stayed behind to help with the clean-up of Buttrick Field, where Andrew picked up a knife from among the debris. It was a fisherman’s knife, with the image of a fish inlaid into the handle and an implement for filleting among its multitude of fold-out tools. We had no way of identifying its rightful owners, so we kept it to commemorate that day, and used it on many a camping trip. We may still have it hidden away at the bottom of a drawer somewhere, but I haven’t seen it for awhile now. Perhaps we accidentally left it behind on the banks of another river, and it has passed into the hands of new owners who treasure it as once we did.
The last object was actually re-found: long given up for lost, it was miraculously restored to me. We were living in Concord, in my in-laws’ cottage perched on the steeply sloping shore of White Pond, a deep and ancient body of water mentioned by Henry David Thoreau in Walden, and reputedly connected to Walden Pond by an underground spring. The pond’s water level fluctuated over the years, so that sometimes the water lapped up under our boardwalk and at other times receded so that there was quite a wide strip of sandy beach. One year, after a swim in the pond, I discovered that I had lost my favorite necklace, a long steely-metallic chain hung with cascades of tiny sequin-like discs that I used to wear looped twice or three times around my neck. After looking everywhere for it, I concluded sadly that I must have dropped it in the water, where it would have sunk irretrievably into the primeval mud that lined the bottom, sixty feet deep in places. Years went by and although I looked for a replacement, I never found another necklace like that one. Then, late one summer, when the water was at a lower ebb than others, I was sitting idly on the boardwalk, dangling my legs over the edge, when I saw something glinting in the sunlight through a crack in one of its loose old planks. Prying up the board, I reached carefully in, thinking perhaps to pick out a jagged piece of broken glass. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found my beloved necklace, a little tarnished, but still amazingly intact after so many years! It had not been lost after all, but had been lying in the shallows under the boardwalk all along, where I must have walked over it a thousand times.
Perhaps I do know why these found objects mean so much to me. Each of them holds within it the luminous spirit of its time and place, and of the people with whom I associate it. My family, having moved so frequently and so far across three continents, has had to leave almost everything and everyone behind every time. Carried in on invisible currents to rest at my feet, these little things, the flotsam and jetsam of my life, are all the more precious to me because I know that they are likely to be swept away as unexpectedly as they came. But while I have them, I hold them close to my heart.