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My Year of Buying Nothing

That time of mermaids tears and passing years

By Lee Simpson

There are high water marks in every collector’s life. Ironically, this period of low tides is that time for me, for I am a collector of sea glass.

I met my paternal grandparents only once: they lived in England and we in Canada when international travel was for the wealthy. Strolling a beach in Bournemouth, England one summer day, Nana Katy bent to retrieve a glossy pebble. Slipping it into my 4-year-old palm, she told me of “mermaids’ tears.” Neptune, authoritarian god of the seas, forbade willful mermaids from exercising their power to change nature’s course without his permission. One sea-maid, however, adored from afar the ship’s captain who traversed her watery territory. When his vessel faltered in a wintry sea, her beloved was left clinging for life to the wheel. Our wayward mermaid then calmed the waves, permitting him to save his ship. Neptune was furious and banished the sobbing mermaid to the depths. And to this day, so the tale goes, her tears wash up on the shores of the world as sea glass.

I save my bits of legend in multi-coloured layers inside a high glass jar — a parting gift from my brother-in-law, Michael. He kept his matchbook collection in it. He gave it to me with instructions to fill it to the brim with my glass bits before I even thought of dying. He especially told me to include a blue layer. Sea glass comes in various hues: from brown, green and clear (think beer bottles) to indigo and aquamarine. Shards of red, “black” and orange are the rarest. I have a mere handful and bequeath the quest to my grandchildren.

It is Easter Monday as I write this – the laundry on the line a reminder of the weekend’s feasts. There flaps my aunt’s pink linen tablecloth and a tea-towel stained yellow with the turmeric my daughter and I used to dye eggs. I hung these early so we could head for the beach with the dogs before the extraordinarily low tide came sweeping back. The yield of smoothly sand-polished glass is best then. The nuggets of crystalline colour would otherwise remain hidden.

On this day, the unthinkable happened: my husband, our grandson and I found three blue bits. As with all collectors, identifying the provenance is part of the charm. The shade is reminiscent of German white wine and the jars of eucalyptus scented face cream my mother used.

I have other collections, of course, but acquisition is out of bounds in this Year of Buying Nothing. Jade ware, antique hankies, first editions are all beyond my reach and will remain so. In fact, I have started to give them away.

That singular English summer way back when, my grandfather took me round his tiny garden and tutored my nose. Every rose varietal has a different scent. This particular lesson, some faded photos and the mermaid`s tale are all that remain to me of my grandparents. But those memories fostered a lifetime of pleasure for me and mine. How blessed I am that it was something of themselves they offered and not merely something they purchased.


Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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