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July 25, 2013

     My Dutch grandfather was an astronomer and a paleontologist–interests I inherited which should not have gotten me in trouble.  As evidence of these passions Granddad owned a six- foot-long rotating telescope he had built himself. Grinding the lens alone had taken more than a year. But the most fascinating thing Granddad possessed was something he’d found on earth, not in the heavens; a 275-million-year-old fossilized tree fern. This smooth oval rock was the size of your hands pressed palm-to-palm. It had been split in two to reveal the fern itself preserved on one half–and its delicately-veined impression on the other—like a nut in a shell.

     Granddad showed me this marvel before my feet could touch the floor from a kitchen chair. I didn’t know then that I would not see him again.  An 18-year-old girl, driving too fast in a new sports car, struck and killed him on the side of the road as he walked home from his weekly bowling game. I thought that like the telescope, the fossil had been lost in the ensuing years, but on a recent visit to my sister’s farm I discovered this treasure sitting on a dark shelf in a guest cabin.  I hadn’t seen the fossil in 40 years and I was astounded that my sister had in her sole possession the coolest thing Granddad ever owned.

     So I took it.

     I didn’t steal it, exactly.   I left a note on the shelf in its place—like a kidnapper might— “I have Granddad’s fossil.” I wasn’t sure what it all meant or what I intended. How important could it be to her on a crowded shelf in a cabin she rarely used? I would keep it on my desk. Granddad would smile down on my appreciating heart. I knew I should negotiate rightful ownership but when does your big sister ever stop being your superior? She has super powers. She can hurt me in ways that leave no evidence. Besides, I was deeply suspicious of how she had come to have the fossil. I figured it would be years before she even knew the rock was missing. It was in fact, 13 months and two days.

     My sister claims Granddad gave her the fossil when I was six and she was 11. I maintain that may have been how she interpreted events but not his intent. Still, the minute I took the thing, I lost all credibility. Ashamed of my behavior I promptly mailed it back.  But it wasn’t me who returned the rock. It was six-year-old me who returned it along with a private vow I’d never be openly affectionate to this particular sister again. I’d be present like the December sun providing light without warmth. Then I’d find my own fossil which would prove, of course, that I was the child of my fossil-finding, star-studying Granddad’s heart.


     Here at Calvert Cliffs, south of Annapolis, the water is rich in 10-to-20-million-year-old remnants of a prehistoric Chesapeake. The water is so clear that time-worn shell fragments are quite visible where they lay like a ribbon along the shore. Children in shorts and hoodies use sieves to search the shallows for Miocene treasure. My husband is intently digging a hole in the wet sand (precisely following park ranger instructions) while I am drawn down the slope of sand and into the water.

     Behind us, 100-foot high cliffs that were once the sea floor shoulder the bay. I look down and see a fleur de lis shape against the shards which I scoop up before it is luffed away. It’s a 17- million-year-old fossilized shark’s tooth. I hold it up and wave to my husband who is digging his hole to China and coming up empty handed. A moment later, I spot a 20-million-year-old scallop shell imprinted in a chunk of mug iron beneath the waves like I was born to do this.

     At home, I put my treasures on my desk. I don’t know what my sister and I will do about Granddad’s fossil. Right now we are sharing it—it stays with me one year then goes to my sister’s for a year, like a child whose parents have been awarded joint custody. This was not my idea and feels foolish.

      Whether or not I inherited the stone or the telescope, I know I inherited the impulse to search for fleeting beauty and evidence of things that no longer exist. I thank my Grandfather for this legacy and when I do, hurt and vows to maintain distance disappear like a streak across the heavens, leaving no evidence for future generations to find.

Write about stealing something. What was it? Why was it so important? Were you caught? Did you confess? Was it an object or a relationship? How are you different now from when you committed this theft?

Or write a response to this line from the story above: “She can hurt me in ways that leave no evidence.”  Or write about something you inherited. Was it something you wanted? (The beach house) Or something you’d rather do without (Your mother’s anxiety, your uncle’s hairline, a committee chairmanship, an aging dog.)

You can do this: it’s just a page or so. Write badly. It’s okay. That’s where all good writing starts. For writing guidance and inspiration see:




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  1. Luanne permalink

    What a wonderful story! I love it–the grandfather, the “relic,” the love, the memories.

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