I toed the curious piece of flotsam past the line of foam marking high tide. Muddy and sea-colored, larger than my sneaker, I’d almost walked right past it. Objects like this had been following me for years. I kicked it again. Harder.
It was a tired, overcast October afternoon for a long walk on the North shore of City Island, its chilly reeds and stones bracketed by long bus and subway slogs. But I'd promised my friend Jane that we’d escape the crush of the city for the day, so here we were.
"What IS that?" she called down the beach.
I replied that it was a chunk of industrial grade foam, colonized with barnacles. Jane was skeptical. “It looks pretty organic, some kind of coral maybe? And the colors are so variegated.” "Nope." I kicked it again "Trust me, I know."
Trash disguised as treasure had inhabited the house where I grew up. For as long as I could remember, the tiny powder room off the front hall had held a collection of family discards: icons of days past, treasures arranged gallery-style over the sink.
A square, white sandstone carving of a slim-legged wren was a decades-old souvenir from the Met, a relic of my father’s Egyptology obsession—an enthusiasm so prevalent that as a child I assumed he’d traveled there.
An antique ad for San Marzano tomatoes had probably been salvaged from a thrift store, but there it was lovingly framed behind archival glass. The scowling Italian housewife, her black and white portrait framed by ripe red fruits, was a nod to our family’s time in the Old Country and, later, its supposed prominence on the streets of Little Italy.
And a delicate, oblong coral formation the size of my palm, sea-colored and adorned with blossoming barnacles in dusty slate-blue, gray-pink, violet: a memory of my parents’ storied newlywed years on the Maine seashore, long before my sisters and I were born.
I'd been in awe of that little bathroom.
Its contents were sharply juxtaposed to the reality of life in rural Virginia, where a tumble of grass clippings, wood smoke, and creek mud blurred the divide between indoors and out. Our yellow, tin-roofed farmhouse, nestled against a shoulder of the Blue Ridge foothills, was full of art and music. But, for better or worse, the powder room wall became my own little museum. A place that proved my Dad’s lore about how things used to be, how special we really were. His mythology that rationalized our pale complexions, our clipped Northern vowels, our propensity toward Tolkien and liberal county supervisors as the result of art history degrees, of Italian ancestry, of the cosmopolitan good taste and social consciousness that set us apart from our rural neighbors.
Things like these gave me self-conscious affirmation, and like so many social outcasts before us, my sisters and I clung to stories of our family’s greatness like a raft in our adolescence. We absorbed these tales’ allure and none of their improbability during humid, shoeless summer days and slushy, red-clay winter mornings.
Ten years by the ocean, ten years in the mountains – this was the story of our arrival in the Blue Ridge. Of the years on Deere Isle, Maine, where my childless parents raked clams, scraped acorn barnacles from boat bottoms, worked for the local public television station. Where they formed the pact that eventually led us to Virginia: we’ll alternate, they decided—ten years by the ocean, ten years in the mountains.
By the time I was tall enough to reach up and lift that barnacle-covered shape from its copper wire on the powder room wall, their pact had been broken. We’d been living in the mountains for well over a decade. The treasure I pulled down as a teenager wasn’t coral. It was light, brittle, and its reverse revealed regular white pebbling that the barnacles had obscured. Styrofoam: a piece of trash, albeit a beautiful one, had been wired to our bathroom wall.
And years of never quite fitting in, of pretending I cared about football or getting a tan, of avoiding the Bible study trailer parked just barely beyond the edge of public school property, had all swept past. A flood had separated our family during two dark gray days of washed out bridges and the worst mudslides the Blue Ridge had seen in a century, leaving cracks in its wake. So had the accident at Dad’s cabinet shop that left him unable to stand for months, then dancing with painkillers for years.
My discovery, that day in the powder room, felt like a slap.
Once the décor may have recalled a long-ago time by the sea, where food tasted better, gardens grew more bountifully, neighbors flung open doors rather than peering sideways out of SUV windows, but that myth was getting harder to tell myself. By then my parents had already begun their inevitable spiral toward separation and divorce. And the sinking feeling that we might not be special at all, might in fact be no more than average, had started to seep into the cracks of what I’d been told. There was no plan to move back to the sea.
I kicked my way further down City Island’s narrow waterfront. This hunk of trash was big, industrial. It wasn’t precious; it wouldn’t be saved, or treasured, or used to represent this chapter in my life.
My father died six months ago, suddenly, and not in a poignant, stoic way that allowed me to ask questions, say goodbyes, or make peace with what I'd been asked to live up to for a lifetime. I hadn’t been able to ask where I was supposed to go next, the mountains or the sea. Whether coming back to New York, where his family had first built a life, was a source of pride or disappointment.
On City Island, as we encountered more hunks of heavy, wet foam, battered and crowned with barnacles from Long Island Sound, I gathered a pocketful of under-developed sea glass. Among the Bud brown and Heineken green shards, I found a milky oval bead whose worn center might once have been the Virgin on a rosary string.
We left the trash where we found it, but the glass shards and bead made it back to my Brooklyn windowsill, arranged around the rim of a strawberry pot of perpetually withering thyme and oregano.
I imagined the glass being unearthed and scrutinized by a future daughter, exploring sunken terra cotta pots in the corner of our yard with a new toy trowel. Somewhere far from New York’s shoreline. Somewhere with a view of mountains.
And I’d tell her why I’d saved them.
Jess Pastore is a professional fundraiser, writer and editor currently living in Brooklyn, where she struggles to keep her houseplants alive and plans future travel to both the mountains and the sea.