As children, my brother and I learned to turn our focus downward. In the sky there were uncertainties, and our father’s explanations did not satisfy. Like the endless squares of a magician’s handkerchief, each question we asked yielded another and another. How big is the universe? What are black holes? How can stars be dead? The answers, if there were answers to be found, involved complex equations with numbers unfathomably large and implications beyond our understanding.
If the sky was filled with difficult questions, then the ground brimmed with the knowable. We learned to dig deep, get our fingernails dirty, uncovering secrets just beneath the surface. Children of iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, we learned to love the smell of minerals rising from the earth after a heavy rain, the scent of rust and worms.
On summer vacations, we were schooled in excavation. We climbed the faces of mountains with our father. We dug, chiseled, split shale in two thin sheets, searching for trilobites, their spines like thorns. It was in reference to these fossilized creatures that I heard my father, for the first and only time, use the word “cute.” He taught us how to open rocks without crumbling them. We worked, surrounding ourselves with growing piles of empty stones like shucked oyster shells. When a rock yielded image, we didn’t think about the age of the trilobite, though we should have been humbled by its hundreds of millions of years trapped in stone. Instead we felt the satisfaction of discovery, as if we had found the last Easter egg or a four-leaf clover. We showed our father each find and waited for his assessment, hoping for approval. He held our hands as we descended the mountain or hiked deeper into the quarry pits. He licked dust from the rocks to see the specimen more clearly and, I think, to make us laugh.
When we were old enough to run the neighborhood alone, we waded through the creek behind our house, using branches to poke back rocks and see what was beneath them. Once we uncovered the carcass of a dog, washed from its shallow grave by that summer’s heavy rains. Our father followed us back to the body, which he carried home in a garbage bag.
What he taught us about the dog had little to do with life and death, which were surely beyond our understanding, and more to do with preservation. Now I wonder if they aren’t the same thing. He boiled the bones in a lobster pot to cook away the sinew. My mother was furious and disgusted, but my brother and I were thrilled. A dead dog on the stove and our father, whom we had never seen cook before, stirring. When the bones were clean, he painted them with sealant and strung them together. The skeleton still hangs from the ceiling of my parents’ guest room.
Like my father, my son is always searching. He finds pennies in sidewalk cracks, teeth wedged in sand, snakes hissing under backyard rocks. At five years old he already has a collection of shells categorized by type, a collection of leaves in varying states of decay, a collection of pine cones, sticks, sea glass. Last time my father visited, he brought a box filled with discarded mineral specimens. “Awesome,” my son repeated as my father handed him granite, mica, feldspar, quartz. Now these, along with his other treasures, are labeled and stored beneath his bed, just as my father’s treasures line the shelves of my parents’ house, fill drawers and trays, crowd the coffee table, and spill from jars.
This fall my son discovered a dead bird in the yard. I hurried to shield him from the sight, worried he’d be afraid, but he was examining the corpse with a stick, trying to determine whether it was a swallow or a chickadee. He looked up for birds to compare it to, and he wanted to bring it home.
My son does not confine his searching to the ground, as for so many years I did. He is obsessed with the planets beyond our solar system and with aquatic creatures that thrive in darkness, creating their own light. We read about fading galaxies and about the miles and miles beneath the ocean, deeper than I have ever dug, beyond what anyone can touch or see. My son sees no limits to understanding. He invents terms for what we can’t find in books. His questions don’t wait for answers because in asking them he gets what he needs. And when he faces uncertainty, as inevitably he will, I’ll tell him, just as my father tried to tell me, Keep looking.
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