When my daughter was five or six I packed the car and drove to the lake. For some quality time. But the traffic was bad and it was sweltering hot. I had to lug bottles of water, a bag of fishy-smelling beach toys, a lunch cooler, and a lawn chair across the parking lot and down the stairs to the beach. I stopped to take a breath and take in the scenery.
Broken flips flops, water engorged diapers, plastic bags, and pieces of glass littered the shore from the weekend. My daughter took off barefoot to scare a gaggle of seagulls. I screeched for her to be careful, I imagined her cutting her foot and getting an infection, but only managed to scatter the seagulls before she got to them.
I cleared a space for the blanket and set up my lawn chair, trying to avoid a pile of smashed potato chips left by the last occupants. Almost immediately we were surrounded by a horde of children wanting to borrow our beach toys. I could not keep track of them and my daughter, who had wandered ankle-deep into the water only to run back when a frothy wave unfurled and threw itself at her. I didn’t even bother to sit down. What was I thinking! This place was a death trap. Not far from us was a decomposing fish with flies buzzing around its dead jelly eyes. In a minute my daughter came running back, “Look Mommy,” she shouted excitedly. In her hand she clenched a plastic tampon applicator, a shiny foil condom wrapper, and tabs from beer cans. “Treasures!” she exclaimed.
It took every last frayed nerve not to slap the items back into the sand.
This past week my daughter came home from a semester abroad in London and traveling solo through Spain. Just like that day on the beach, I envisioned every last thing that could go wrong—and did, a little bit. She had her phone stolen on the train, she got caught in the rain, she missed her flight home, but despite all the bad stuff that happened she made it back with treasures: a button found outside a West End theater, a picture a friend had scribbled on the back of a napkin, a postcard from Madrid, a seashell found on the beach at Malaga, the fragment of a map folded and refolded in the rain outside a castle.
I might not be done freaking out—there is ALWAYS something to worry about—yet I’d like to learn to distill treasures from trash, memories like smooth sea glass from the nitty gritty, the shitty beach. Hold them close, keep them in the back of my mind for later.