Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rocks in my Heart

There are many quirks that made my mother the gem she was, a multifaceted bit of brilliance. Though she was trained as a bacteriologist (in the days before virology and even microbiology were even being contemplated) one of her passions were rocks. I'm not talking the shiny polished bits found in gift shops along Route 66, but Rocks. Rocks, stones, pebbles, minerals: raw bits of compressed earth, in glorious shapes, hues, and textures.

When I was 4 (fifty-mumbly-mumble years ago) the family moved to Palo Alto so my father could be part of a project at Stanford University. My parents loaded up our baby blue Country Sedan station wagon and drove from Silver Spring, Maryland, out to the west coast. I still have vivid memories, and a ton of stories about that trip. My father learned to slow his driving speed as we drove past cuts the newly built highway had made into the land. The geographical layers were exposed, creating a classroom where my mother taught us to distinguish geologic columns (or what I called "rock layers" at the time. If the slice into the earth was particularly stunning, the old blue wagon pulled to the side so a certain rock enthusiast could explore. One time, as we scrampled over the shale and sedimentary rocks, my father gave a rather embarrassed explanation to a highway patrol trooper who thought we were a vehicle in distress. I don't know what my dad said, but I heard a roar of laughter from the super-sized trooper. He slapped my dad on the back, and said, "Gotta to keep 'em happy. It pays."

That trip was a rock hunter's heaven -- caverns, the Badlands, southwest, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Rockies, . It was also the beginning of my mother's love affair with the Grand Canyon. Her rock collection grew that summer, with bits of earth and rock she collected as we travelled. It set the pattern for later trips, when the souvenirs brought home were minerals and stones.

She never stopped collecting. Her children, friends, and even friends of her children brought her rocks, sand, and bits of dirt from all over the world.  There was the hunk of obsidian that got pulled up in a fishing boat net off the Pacific coast, sand from Goa, geodes from caves in the midwest, pebbles from the top of a hill in India. It was an astounding array of bits of the Earth's crust. And it travelled around the country as she moved from Maryland, to Missouri, to South Carolina. On that steamy August day, when her moving van arrived here in Charleston, the movers lugged her boxes up the 15 stairs to our front porch. She hadn't labeled contents, just rooms on the boxes, because between her books, and her amateur geologist stash, she was afraid that they'd charge her more for the move. I stood on the porch, offering iced tea and cold water to the perspiring men. One fellow huffed up the steps, face bright red, cords on his neck straining. He grinned at us and laughed. "Whatcha got in here, lady? Rocks?" As a matter of fact...

Bumma and I talked about what to do with her rocks when she moved on. She always meant to label them all, but didn't get around to it, though could tell me where each one was from and what it was. I should have written it down, but didn't. We used to joke that maybe we should leave them all in a heap in the back yard, to confound future geologists. What she wanted, though, was, when we were ready to part with them, that the collection go where it might spark a love of rocks in someone else. She wanted people to be able to learn through those wondrous bits of earth.

Ruthe's rocks are all now in boxes, except for a few chosen by family members to keep as memories. Next week the collection moves to a new home, at Ashley Hall, a private school, where my parents sent me to high school when we relocated to Charleston. My mother once commented how different Ashley Hall was from her public school back in Brooklyn in the 20's. She wondered what her world might have been like if her education had taken her to such a place, if she'd had the opportunity to enrich her mind in that environment when she was a girl.

It makes me smile to think that my mother, after all these years, will indeed be going to Ashley Hall, to be a part of learning.


  1. Your mom was quite a gal, Ashley Hall or no Ashley Hall!

  2. What a wonderful story...and gift! I wish I had known Bumma loved rocks. As a rock lover myself I would have loved to trade rock stories with her.

    I'm sure Ashley Hall will appreciate the gift.

  3. What a great legacy for Ashley Hall.
    Some budding rock hound will be really enthused by that collection.

  4. In this way, also, is her memory made eternal. :o)

  5. Parts of this story remind me of the Lucy and Desi movie, The Long, Long Trailer. Have you ever seen it? Lucy collects rocks everywhere they go, and getting over the Rockies becomes quite an adventure!

    Is that a rock that looks like an Oreo cookie? Do you happen to know what it is?

    Ashley Hall will be enriched by this gift; I can almost imagine the students poring over their research to determine what each one is and where it came from!

  6. My father did severe back damage collecting a small boulder my mother found by the roadside when they were stopped because of a flat tire in West Virginia back in 1966. (She'd been collecting for over a decade by then.) She maintained there was a mark on it that looked like a bird's footprint, which was either a fossil print or a hieroglyph. He maintained it was the pain in his arse. I'm not sure what happened to that rock, but know it made it from West Virginia to James Island SC, to St Louis Missouri. I can't recall that she moved it here to Charleston , but javaczuk thinks she did. It's either in the Smith Street back yard or here at the lake, ready to confound archaeologists. The "oreo cookie" rock is a Ammonites fossil, which were around somewhere between 400 million and 64 years ago. Pals of the dinosaurs, so to speak. This one is one I found while backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains.

    Both my mother and Lucy were red heads, though my mother's was courtesy of Lady Clairol.

    1. I don't think Lucy's was natural either ;-). I used to be a redhead, all natural, and naturally brownish-gray now!