Jul 11, 2013, 07:40AM

The Story of the Red Plate

And picking up the pieces.

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I am a sea glass hunter. I’m not sure when I went from being “someone who picks up sea glass while walking on the beach” to an official hunter, but I am pretty certain that it was last summer. I rented a cottage on Tilghman Island to write a novel, and a local waterman gave me a tip about a good sea glass-hunting beach. So at low tide, for my break each day from writing, I looked for sea glass. Otherwise (and more charmingly) known as “Mermaid’s Tears,” sea glass is formed when glassware, dishware and other glass items from many years ago are tumbled through waves and sand over time to become smooth gem-like pieces in varying colors and patterns.

At the time I earned “hunter” status, my life was kind of falling apart. My husband and I were separated after 20-plus years of marriage. I was broke, depressed, and exhausted from health issues and raising four kids. I had never written a novel before, so I was stressed about that. Sea glass hunting was very therapeutic for me. When I couldn’t control picking up the pieces of my life, I could figure out when low tide was visiting the sea glass beach. I could control searching for perfect, chunky pieces best tumbled by the literal sands of time, the more worn, the better. I could clean them, sort them by color, and place them in a neat row of antique milk bottles.

Early on, I found a patterned piece of a red dish (known “in the field” as sea pottery or sea china). The next day, I found another piece of the same pattern.  Remarkably, I found a matching red patterned dish in the cottage I was renting, and placed the pieces one by one on their matching background. There were never two pieces on the beach in a day, only one. As though the Chesapeake Bay was giving gifts and would portion them out as she chose. The lesson: patience.

While sea glass hunting, I have trespassed in dangerous places, sliced open my hand, and gotten stung by a jellyfish in the ladyparts, all in the name of finding the next cool piece of tumbled glass in a rare color. On a good day, a marble or a whole bottle.

“Why don’t you go put some more pictures of broken glass on your Instagram?” my brother mocks me. (I mock him back about him Instagramming some more pictures of his damn dog).

I go to the beach and I pick up the piece of the red patterned dish. I figured out that the “dish” was probably service for 12 at some point, thrown off the end of the nearby pier that was once, the waterman told me, used as a trash dump. I have teacup pieces and handles, different-sized patterns from different-sized plates in the service. Sometimes, if I haven’t been to the beach in four days, I’ll find four pieces. Despite the fact that others hunt the beach, I always seem to find my daily allotment of the dishware; a pattern called Crown Ducal Albion; it is red transferware from the 1940s. Whenever I see an antique shop, I look for a complete plate. One day I’d love to make a mosaic of the pieces I have and frame it or make a tabletop.

It’s always good to remember the lesson sea glass has taught me: even when the pieces are all scattered to hell, they can be picked up, one at a time, and put back together.


-Mary McCarthy (@marymac) blogs at pajamasandcoffee.com.


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