I can trace my collecting tendencies back to the mere age of two. One of my earliest memories was that of being “babysat” by a woman who didn’t have much interest in her job. Each day I exploded into hysterical tears as my mother rolled my stroller up to the babysitter’s door. The rest of my day consisted of having my beloved stuffed doggie wrenched from my grasp, and his ears ripped off by a gang of rambunctious and unsupervised boys. And when my mother had to work late, the traumatic days were punctuated with the shouting of the babysitter’s surly husband at the dinner table. Even at that tender age, I understood my family’s situation and the value of affordable childcare. Each night my mother patiently sewed or glued the felt ears back onto my stuffed companion. Things soon changed when my mother divorced my father and moved us back to the farm with her parents. There aren’t enough words to describe the incredible character of my grandfather. This is evidenced by the vivid memories imprinted in my mind at that tender, young age. His battle with cancer tragically ended when I was five; but not before he fueled a lifetime of curiosity, independence and humor in his adoring granddaughter.
My grandparents’ home was filled with fascinating and delicate objects dangerously displayed just within reach of my inquisitive hands. I learned to ask permission to handle the heavy glass paperweight so that I could contemplate how the colorful swirls got inside. Although my grandmother was sometimes cranky, there was no one to torment me anymore. Instead, my grandfather set about filling my days with a kind of extreme joy that I’ve rarely experienced since. He took me for rides on his horse and he let me tag along on his antique tractor as he plowed the fields. Each morning I raced out to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. After a bit of training, I was allowed to do this on my own. Perhaps this sparked my interest in finding things, as well as my fierce sense of independence; or maybe it only gave a venue for expressing a predisposed inclination. Although I can’t say which came first, I am tempted to say that collecting eggs was either the “chicken” or the “egg” when it came to my passion for finding treasures.
Magical and fantastical things began to happen in Grandpa’s presence. He was a great storyteller, and preferred to sit on the floor and entertain the children over the prospect of engaging in meaningless small talk or gossip with the other adults. First, there was the story about toy rabbits that came to life; and about how they would sometimes make their way onto the roadways. Like mysterious cartoon creatures, they only moved when no one was looking, quickly turning back into toys whenever a person came around. The genius behind this story was that a small child happily got into the car, no matter the destination, and stared intently (and quietly) out the window searching for these mythical creatures. I wasn’t to be disappointed. One warm afternoon, we were bouncing along the dusty road, on our way to town, when Grandpa slammed on the brakes. Mom and Grandma grumbled in protest as he opened the door and reached under the car. In his hand was an old rubber rabbit squeak toy, which he presented to me. “I told you we’d find one.” he said “That was close. I almost ran over it.” The rabbits were probably the childhood toys of my mother and her brother; and I don’t remember how many there were. I do believe I had acquired them all before it was over. The end of that era seemed to pain him as much as it did me; and his eyes teared up on the day he had to tell me that there would be no more magic bunnies.
We moved back into town when my mother remarried and got pregnant with my brother. It was a favorable arrangement to all parties that I was allowed to visit the farm for weeks at a time. Sunscreen was not an option during my grandfather’s life, and the years of working in the fields finally took their toll as melanoma began to eat away at his body and heart disease stole his strength. By the time I was four years old, he was confined to the living room, as he could no longer make the trek up the steep staircase to their bedroom. The pain and weakness stole away all of our games except “Keepsies”. “Keepsies”, also known as “For Keeps” was a popular game played with marbles when my grandfather was a youngster. The objective was to use a giant “shooter” marble to knock the smaller marbles, or “ducks” from a large ring drawn on the ground. A player would “knuckle down” by placing his or her knuckles on the ground and propel the shooter into the ring with the purpose of knocking ducks from the ring. The prized shooter was many times the size of standard marbles; and a great loss was suffered when it failed to make its way back out of the ring. This game was “played for keeps” meaning that the winner got to keep any marbles which crossed over the line. It was commonplace for these games to continue until one child had scored all of the marbles. An inexperienced or unfortunate player might be said to have “lost his marbles”. The saying “Toe the line” and “Ringer” can also be traced to marble games. The game called “Ringer” was invented in 1923 because “Keepsies”, being a game of chance, was considered too immoral for children to play.
Grandpa Merritt was said to have been a legendary marble player. He had a large metal coffee can filled to the top with those multi-hued spheres of glass and clay. There may have even been some made of actual marble. He taught me how to play the game; and when he was no longer able to get down on the floor, he would sit on the edge of the sofa-bed and watch for hours, as I took turns playing against myself. He taught me another lesson of responsibility by explaining the importance of getting every marble back into the can, when I was done. Even in his decline, Grandpa continued to mesmerize me with his stories. Upon one of my last visits I raced straight to the marble can and began to pry off the brittle, cracked plastic lid. Hunched over on the edge of his seat, he smiled down at me with a mischievous glint in his sunken blue eyes. “Have you ever heard of ’Magic Marbles’?” he asked. Stopped in my tracks, I listened in awe, as he spun a tale of the elusive marbles which had mystical qualities. “Sometimes, when a marble gets really, really old it turns into candy.” Astonished, I reveled in the prospect of finding marbles that had turned to candy. Suddenly the can of marbles in front of me seemed to vibrate with possibilities. I begged him for more information “How old do they have to be. What do they look like? Are there any in here?” “Oh, I don’t know…I think they’re usually white… You’ll have to look and see if you can find one.
I was halfway through the can before my grandmother came in and realized what was happening. I endured quite a lecture on the dangers of putting marbles in my mouth before Grandpa caught her eye. A moment later she left the room, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. With my grandfather’s approval I continued to risk deadly choking and germ infection in my quest for the magical candy marble. The marbles were cool and slick and clacked against my teeth as I rolled each one around on my tongue. I could feel the nicks in their surface, inflicted by many years of knocking against each other. By the time the white marble surfaced I was quite familiar with the taste of lint and grit, and was starting to doubt the legitimacy of Grandpa’s story. “Is this what they look like?” I asked with fresh hope, as I held the marble up for his inspection. “Could be. Give it a try”. And sure enough, my mouth was instantly flooded with an overwhelming sweetness. The marble changed colors as it shrank, and I proudly produced it for viewing with each new manifestation. Despite his labored breathing and papery skin I caught a momentary glimpse of the child behind my grandfather’s eyes. My long visits ended as Grandma became his nurse and could no longer manage both of us. The last time I saw him he was only a frail specter of his former self. There were no more “Magic Marbles”. Not long afterward, he died from complications of heart surgery, leaving a great void where laughter and amazement once reigned. Many years passed before anyone was able to convince me that jawbreakers were not really geriatric marbles.
As I ponder my obsession with finding hidden treasures, it becomes clear that my Grandpa Merritt was responsible for its inception. He taught me that incredible things can be found in unusual places, that nature gives us the gift of nourishment and that things are not always as they appear. For these lessons, and the joy he gave me, I am eternally grateful.
I miss you Grandpa Merritt.