Interesting and varied are the ways people make (or don’t make) their houses into a “home.” Most everyone at least puts forth an effort of some sort. A wise man once countered, “Interesting is the person who doesn’t try at all, for he is the exception.”
My mother was a very kind and artistically creative woman. She knitted, painted and did ceramics, some of which still hold potted plants in our home. She took karate lessons and earned some belt (I forget what color).
She gardened, and tended injured creatures until they were healed, keeping many a fallen baby bird in a shoebox until it could fly away by itself. Mum played golf, and was a birthing coach to many a neighborhood mother cat in distress.
One of her favorite hobbies was making centerpieces for our dining room table. That table was never without something interesting, whether or not we happened to be eating our meal there or in the adjoining kitchen.
Her creations celebrated everything and she enjoyed collecting things to enhance her designs.
There were firecrackers on the Fourth of July, made from the cardboard tubes inside paper towel and toilet paper rolls. They were painted red and rolled in sequins and glitter, with the final touch — the fuse — fashioned from a starched length of shoestring.
Thanksgiving featured a cornucopia of real gourds that she varnished to keep from rotting after coming in from the cold. Also in the table centerpiece were sprays of wheat, branches of dry brown oak leaves and bittersweet vines, cut from the roadside.
Those lovely vines, dense with their vibrant orange berries, would, after a day or two in a warm house, split open to expose their complement of bright red berries.
I still have the white wooden Santa’s sleigh she made, with its delicate blades painted red (routinely broken by little hands, then carefully re-glued each time).
Behind Santa, overflowing from the bag over his shoulder, were wooden “Tinker Toys,” each wrapped in Christmas paper and ribbons. Hardly a Christmas went by without some little visitor sneaking to open one, disappointed to find the little presents were only squares of foam.
Strewn around the sleigh were boughs of real holly and berries cut from the bushes that Mum had planted in our yard, expressly for that purpose.
I inherited the sleigh, with all its patched-up injuries and love it most for its connection to my past. I just fill it with Christmas tree bulbs. It still looks nice, but in a quiet, reminiscent sort of way.
My own collecting instincts have quieted with age, as has my energy and the space in my house.
Quite by chance, as I was walking the beach last year on a foggy morning, a lone piece of driftwood caught my eye. There had been a storm and it had floated in with the tide.
On closer examination, I saw that it was the root of a tree, one that had come quite a distance, as there were no trees around. It had likely made many such journeys, as it was very smooth, almost silky. My passion for collecting caught me unawares.
I took it home but could not find an available space for it. Everywhere, space was usurped by plants, books, china, mementos from both my and my husband’s parents. Claiming the corner of the room where I write was an old basket that my grandfather had used when he went clamming at low tide in the Mill, Annisquam and Essex rivers.
What luck! Here was a place for the driftwood to nestle, and without taking up any extra space. While I had not considered beginning another collection, the root was too lovely to relinquish, so into the clam basket it went.
My passion for driftwood has morphed into yet another collection. I couldn’t walk away from the root, nor any other piece of wood I have found walking the beaches since. Most are smaller than my hand; only a few are “two hands.” The surfaces of most are as irresistibly smooth as the fur on a puppy’s belly.
I have three baskets full now. I try to keep my “finds” small in size. Each piece has washed ashore on a local beach, and is unique in color, texture, size and, certainly, origin. There are 49 now.
Some are dry; others remain damp for a long time, suggesting the length of time they have spent in the ocean. Some have likely washed ashore and then been sucked back out again with the pull of many tides. Some have visited many beaches before the ones here.
I love this new little passion. It works well in my space, for my curiosity and my imagination. Sometimes I wish I knew their stories. Most times, I do not. Each time I hold one, I see it differently.
I think my mother would have approved.
Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.