Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sticks and Stones (Reprised)

By Kim

This post originally appeared on December 11th, 2009.

Anyone entering my dining room will not see a table but a family shrine. The walls are covered with paintings, etchings and sketches by my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens. The hutch holds not dishes but century old photographs, books inscribed to ancestors (including one from Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King), an antique sewing box, and even a bracelet Carl had given to his wife Madonna.

Scattered among these items are sticks, stones, a small jar of sand, and a pinecone or two. Yes, my husband laughs, but he humors my habit of littering every shelf in our house with rocks because they are, after all, the cheapest souvenirs I could possibly collect.

There was a time that I bought T-shirts and trinkets from everywhere I went, and I still will if I happen to be in a city with a Hard Rock Café. In the past few years, however, my travels have been research for The Oak Lovers and the places I go aren’t exactly packed with tourists.
This was certainly the case on that rainy September afternoon back in 2004 when my cousin Chris and I visited the old covered bridge in West Montrose, Ontario. It was just one stop my friends Mike and Wendy made on our short driving tour of the Mennonite villages of Waterloo County. I snapped some photos and we were about to go when Chris pointed out that the bridge had been there since our great-grandfather’s time. Carl’s home town of Kitchener (then Berlin) wasn’t far away and Chris wondered if Carl would have been to West Montrose. Remembering a short story Carl wrote about canoeing that very stretch of the Grand River, I told Chris I was certain he had. At the very least he went under the bridge. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I felt a strange compulsion. I ambled down to the river’s edge. The bank was muddy and I saw no stone that would easily be obtained; this only made me want one more. “If anyone sees a small rock on the bank, let me know,” I said.

Had I known Wendy as I do now, I may not have been shocked to see her wade out into muck without bothering to ask why I may want one. With a triumphant cry, she pulled a nondescript round stone out of the murky depths of the river itself.

“This one was certainly here when he was,” she said, plopping it into my hand. From that moment on, I have considered Wendy my best friend. (The stone now sits on my hutch.)

The next day the four of us went to the village of Elora. Using my great-grandmother’s memoir as a guide, we located the place where Carl must have fallen from a cliff into the Elora Gorge as a boy. After climbing down into the gorge itself, I took pictures and slipped a couple of rocks straight from the river into my pocket. Mike found a small piece of driftwood and handed it to me. “You might want this, too. Perhaps he knew the tree it came from. It’s lighter than rocks in any case.”
I could have bought a T-shirt in the village that day had I really looked for one, but I knew it would have been made in Vietnam or Bangladesh. I would have worn and washed it until it became faded and torn. The rocks, on the other hand, had been molded by the power of the Grand River, had been there since long before there was a Canada, let alone a Carl Ahrens. When I hold one, history and memory collide.

While I’m in Dallas now, I can open a jar and touch sand taken from the beach beside where the Ahrens summer cottage once stood. Perhaps as my grandmother skipped from the house down to Georgian Bay for a swim with her father, one of them stepped on those very grains.

Many writers create character sketches before they begin a novel, photographs of how their characters look, lists of likes and dislikes, images of clothing individuals wear or name of the perfume they use. For me, though, the shrine in my dining room is a character sketch on constant display. I can wear Madonna’s bracelet or fit my fingers into the grooves on Carl’s paintbrush or open one of the books to see poems they marked with favorite passages underlined. Now, thanks to all my sticks and stones, I can also touch the places they have been, and a part of me can physically be there, watching the scenes play out.


  1. Beautiful post, Kim. I also collect stones, although I confess I store them all together so I'm not sure if they're from California or Greece or somewhere else. Of course, my great-grandparents likely didn't pass by any of them.

  2. Thanks, Joan! What I generally do is write the location on the stone itself. Then I put a coat of clear nail polish over the whole stone to make it shiny and appear wet. That transforms it from a simple rock into a decorative item. I always bring home small ones, of course.

  3. Wow, Kim! Thank you for such kind words! I consider you to be my best friend as well (after Mike, of course!!) You brought back some good memories with your blog. In fact, just yesterday I was thinking about your rock collection and wondering how you display it, and this morning I get to see it in the picture! What coincidental timing! I'll let you know why later! Keep up the great writing!

    WENDY - rockhound from the north!

  4. Hey Wendy,

    Well, it would be impossible to compete with Mike who is, after all, your soul mate and quite possibly the nicest man on the planet. :-)

    I still can't believe our whole friendship started with that post I made on a Roycroft website about Carl's pottery back in, what, 1999 or 2000? Without you and Mike I would not have been able to do half the research I have done, and I may never have been to Georgian Bay, the place that inspires me most. I would never have seen Killarney or Algonquin, or been able to bring my daughter, Sasha, with me to the places that mean so much to me. (She still wants to move to Midland and live next door from you - please send her pictures of the snow!)

    As for the my rock collection, right now the stones are spread out, littering just about every horizontal surface in the dining and living rooms. 90% of them are from one shore or the other of Georgian Bay, though the reservation, Roycroft and Santa Barbara are also represented. I will have to come up with a better plan soon and at least put some of them together. The Craigleith fossils do take up quite a bit of space!

  5. Kathy Hickok14 December, 2009

    Hi Kim. I always enjoy your postings. I too am nostalgic about artifacts from the past; you probably remember I always take my classes to the Victorian Farm House museum on campus if I can in any way justify it from the reading assignments. My parents died a few years ago, and my home is full of their things. It made me sad at first, but now it makes me happy. Keep in touch. Kathy Hickok

  6. Jeanette Ahrens14 December, 2009

    Hi Kim,
    Thanks for the great post and another glimpse into your world. In one way or another, it seems most of your activity, travel, and daily life involves your grandfather as much as your contemporary, living family members. I confess, I also collect rocks and stones as souvenirs of the places I travel and keep many sentimental tokens of my ancestors. But they are more a memory of my own life and adventures than tangible link to the past. I am awed by your grasp of the past and your ability to make it come alive for the reader to see it as you do. You seem to be able to seamlessly spin the past into the present. A passionate blend of the organic present and the ethereal past. It's obvious from these blogs that you have a real gift and rare talent. I'm looking so forward to your book.

  7. Hi Jeanette,

    Even as a child I had a fascination for Carl's paintings, but I can't say that I spent much time contemplating my ancestors until I was an adult. I have only been living and breathing this story for the past five years. In that time, yes, pretty much all my travel is research related. Over the summer I started looking into Madonna's family and ended up joining the DAR from that. Right now in my "spare" time I am transcribing about fifty original letters written to her grandmother back in the 1840's. It is safe to say I spend about half my time in another century at the moment.

    Thank you for the compliments about my writing. I look forward to being able to provide you with the completed book. I'm getting there - one whole scene written today!

  8. Hi Kim. I like the tip about putting clear nail polish on rocks to make them a decorative item. How do you dust around all of that memorabilia? Must be a little time consuming, but it is definitely worth it and it is the best way to immerse your senses (i.e. visual, tactile, olfactory, etc.) into that century. Looks like you have created your own time machine! Can't wait to find out more. I am truly fascinated.

    I will e-mail you soon.

  9. Elsie Saar30 April, 2010

    I like reading your blog, it keeps me updated with your life. I, too, have many stones and some rocks from our trip out west. They are labeled in baggies. I must do something with them, thought about a shadow box. Then, I have lots of thoughts, little production. ;-) hugs, Elsie


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