A few weeks ago, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to Spillville, a tiny town near Decorah. I’d just finished reading Patricia Hampl’s wonderful book by the same name, about the summer when the Czech composer Anton Dvorak and his family visited and lived in the upstairs rooms of the house that is now the Bily Brothers Museum. The museum is a hoot, downstairs crammed with wooden clocks carved by two bachelor brothers, upstairs strewn with Dvorak’s organs (the instruments, I mean), books, and all kinds of unrelated knickknacks the townspeople must have found important.
One display that drew me was a collection of rocks, labeled with their origin and names. My parents taught me early how to tell an ordinary piece of granite from the holy grail – a beautiful banded agate. We hunted them on countless lakeshores, and even though I preferred sand beaches where I could bake in the sun, I grew to appreciate those rocky shores for the treasures they might yield. The day I found my first agate was something special; I felt like I’d hit the jackpot panning for gold.
Here’s the thing about agates: their beauty is hidden inside. Unless they’re broken or polished, it’s hard to tell what lies within. But I learned the telltale signs. My parents invested in a rock tumbler, a noisy, busy thing that worked away in the basement, wearing down the dull edges to reveal perfectly smooth, gleaming gems. Mom displayed them in a candy dish, which she was careful to put up when little kids came to visit; she was afraid they would mistake them for treats and break their teeth on them, or worse.
My dad even made some of them into jewelry. I just checked my old jewelry box, and I’m happy to report I still have some of the necklaces he fashioned. He found a huge agate once, a good one-pounder, one end of which he sliced off and polished. It sits on my living room end table today. My kids used to love to take it apart and put it back together. How in the world, they wondered, did he know what was inside this ordinary rock?
Agates weren’t the only kind we collected. In fact, just the other day, my husband told me that he’d found a big basket full of rocks in the garage, and did I have any plans for them? Instantly defensive, I replied that they were to stay right there until I figured out a place for them. They came from my parents’ house, where they were just part of what we called the rock garden. If I’d had the time and the wherewithal, I could have started my own Dickeyville Grotto with all the rocks from that place. But I was selective, and took only the best geodes, and other specimens imprinted with fossils.
One day my father came home with two gigantic rocks which he installed in the front yard, one on either side of the driveway. I have no idea where they came from, or whether he consulted my mother about this addition. Or why on earth a man would choose to plant something like that in the yard, seeing as how he would have to mow around them. My mother’s response was to ring them with marigolds.
I didn’t try to pass on this quirky habit to my own kids, though I’m sure I picked up a few rocks in our walks through the countryside. My son was overly fond of heaving rocks, the bigger the better, into bodies of water, but then, who isn’t? (That same boy is about to transfer to Iowa State to major in geology.) My dad could skip a stone like nobody’s business, and to this day, I find myself wanting keep any rock I spy with a nice flat side because I know how well it will skip. It’s a great way to impress your children.
This all may sound overly precious, a family who collected rocks, who had a sign in their cabin in Minnesota that read, “Old Rock Hounds Never Die, They Just Slowly Petrify.” How corny can you get? But what did other families do with their time? What it gave us was a purpose, something to keep our eyes out for even when we didn’t realize we were looking. We could be out fishing, or hiking through a state park on our way to a picnic with Grandma and Grandpa, when one of us would suddenly stop, bend down, and pick one up to inspect more closely. If you wanted to see what it would look like polished, and there was no water around, what would you do? You licked it, of course. Worked like a charm.
Years later, my kids and I moved to Dubuque and, instead of a rock garden, heaped mounds of marble chips around the bushes on the side of the house. They kept the weeds down, and lasted a lot longer than mulch. It worked fine, until one day I got tired of them and decided to pick them all up – probably enlisting my kids in this fun, tedious project – and deposit them in the alley, which was, after all, covered in gravel. A little more wouldn’t hurt, even if it was a markedly different color.
Later that week, my daughter was in the back yard when she overhead two little boys in the alley. One was saying to the other, “These are SECRET rocks.” Oh, my. We’d made some magic. So don’t tell me they’re just rocks. They are the very stuff of the earth, after all, the thing we all stand upon.