The Sea Glass Conference




            “Order, order please,” I called to the attendees, but I knew they were much too distracted to listen. They were too busy orally exchanging colors, shapes, and best sites for collecting, as amateurs will do, each blissfully unaware of the necessity of protecting such special knowledge from other searchers. 

 I must remind you, Dear Reader, as I reminded myself that day, that for many participants, these semi-social interactions are precisely what they come to conferences for. One cannot expect neophytes to appreciate the much more important in-depth sorts of lectures, listings, and discussions that you and I, and our ilk expect of a conference; which are, in point of fact, the reason that we attend at all.  And we must open our arms to these new members, whose fees pay the cost of the conference, and help support our chapter, mustn’t we?  So I let them chatter on a bit more.  I surreptitiously took a peek at my makeup, to assure myself that nothing was running, since it was quite warm in the hall. I briefly considered removing the jacket of my cream linen suit, but decided against such informality. A tone must be set.

            “Gentlemen,” I said then, in an even louder voice, “ladies, quiet please.”  I gave the signal to my assistant, who was quick to dim the lights and bring down the screen. Up came the first slide, on which it said, in brightly colored letters, “Where did it all come from?” Once everyone had been allowed enough time to read them, the words washed off the screen in an artful animation of waves, and the picture of a sailing ship of the 1920s took their place.  

            “The answer to this all important question can be stated in a single word,” I told them,  “Ballast.  Ballast for the ships coming across the broad blue ocean. A captain filled his hold with enormous quantities of broken glass, pottery and china, what he considered to be trash, to balance the weight of his cargo and keep his ship afloat.   Approaching safe haven, he dumped said broken glass and crockery into the water so that the ship could enter the shallow harbor and deliver its goods.”  

            Dear Reader, I know this is a bit of the most basic sea glass history, which collectors with any kind of experience already know, but it was fascinating to the newbies, and therefore, must be illustrated. I sighed. I knew that Alistair, the president of our little club, and all the other serious collectors had skipped this presentation and were out in the lobby somewhere, preparing to teach a workshop, or chatting and drinking the hotel’s mediocre coffee, the smell of which reached my nostrils. Whilst I knew it was important to encourage new members, I was eager to polish off this early portion of the conference and move on to the time when I could be alone with my peers.  Then we could discuss the finer points and more esoteric parts of what some denigrated by calling our “hobby,” but which I and many others see as our true calling, e.g., collecting Sea Glass and also shards of delicately painted, and ocean rounded china.

            Workshops, however, came next after my opening presentation. So many workshops were offered that day.  Here are just a few examples:

            1.The History of Sea Glass Collection

            2.The Life of Mary MacDougal, who, while she can hardly have been the first person to bend down and pick up a shard from a beach, was the first in known history to begin to categorize the pieces, and name the beaches, and had written the first definitive tome on the subject, 

            3.The Ethics of Sea Glass Collecting, a Panel Discussion, which tackled such thorny issues as,  “Is it good sportsmanship to use a tool to scoop up ones findings for examination? Might one even scoop up everything, to be examined in detail, and sorted later? Or was it the truth, as some (I among them,) believed, that it was only real collecting if one actually bent over and picked up the pieces one by one with one’s own bare hands, looked at them on the spot, cleaned them off in the ocean, looked at them again and decided if they were worth keeping?”    

            4.Tools for Collecting and Organizing Sea Glass, for those who believed tool use was ethical. 

            5. Art Forms Using Sea Glass, including jewelry, sculpture and so on. Here I must interject that in my opinion, the true collector has no need for application, collecting is all! 

And many, many more.

            But I was merely anticipating the workshop’s end, suppertime and the gathering of the inner circle of collectors together at the head table, as I had the honor to be included within this exclusive group.  Leading us this day would be Alistair Wilson who has been called without exaggeration, The Guru of Sea Glass. What he does not know on the subject is, I would venture to say, not worth knowing.  

            At long last, the presentations and workshops ended, the time arrived and we were permitted to enter the conference dining room. There, on the dais, at the head table, a table only large enough to seat eight people of all the throngs that were attending the conference, at each place setting, was a label with the name of the single and only person who was permitted to sit in that spot.   And at each place setting, written on stiff cream linen paper in true black ink, with a fountain pen, was a The List; the official, and only list accepted by Alistair and the entire association as the true accounting of all possible kinds and colors of Sea Glass and China, cross referenced by color, location of beach on which it was found, and condition. 

Mounting the platform, we settled ourselves, we chosen few.  I was seated to the left of Alistair himself. He is a good looking, dapper man of a certain age, who sports his neatly trimmed grey beard with dignity. His style of dress was also dignified that day as always. He wore a light blue linen suit and a pale green printed silk shirt with a quiet tie.  

Down below the dais, people were chattering and eating and laughing. But we merely waited, quietly. We knew each other well, and had no need for silly chit-chat. Seated on my left was Francis William Buckley the third. The scion of an old English family, Francis tended to indulge himself. As a result, he often wore shirts that resembled parachutes, in both their size and their bright colors. Across from me was Isabella Alshults, dressed to the nines as usual.  Her gray hair was swept up in a very complicated do and looked as if it had been shellacked onto her small head.  She was bedecked in jewelry, as always, including, mixed in with diamonds and emeralds, earrings that dangled sea glass on wires that cunningly resembled fishing nets.   

There were three others, all long-standing collectors of high repute, and, strangely, an empty chair. I couldn’t think for the life of me of anyone who was missing.

            Without preamble, Alistair began at once to go down the list.  Those present at the head table, lacking any distractions such as laughing or eating, frowning with concentration, checked off each piece they possessed as he named them.

            “Dark blue glass, Inverness Beach, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.”

All of us raised our hands.  We had that one. 


            “Excellent,” I said, and so did Alistair.  Francis also said “excellent,” but Alistair put him in his place.  His piece was only in “Very Good” condition; it was chipped in two places. He should have known better. But, as I said, he indulged himself.  It was Alistair’s responsibility as president to make these judgments and no one questioned his decisions. I thought he was perfectly right in this case.  Others at the table only made conditional claims of “Very Good”, or even “Good.” Anything less than “Good,” was, naturally, thrown back.

            “Turquoise glass, Inverness Beach, Cape Breton Nova Scotia.”

This time only three besides Alistair himself were able to claim possession.  I was among them, to my satisfaction.  And mine was in the best condition, better even than Alistair’s.

            He continued on down The List.  The collectors, (can I call them that, really?) at the other tables were chattering on, undoubtedly about other subjects and matters besides the one at hand. But we on the dais, we stayed with the list. I spared no regret for our seriousness. I felt no envy for the gossiping dilettantes. 

             I was thrilled to have a fine example of each of the next 3 kinds of glass, which came from that same beach.  Then Alistair moved on to the other Cape Breton beaches, and so on to the beaches of the world. 

            I was quite confident of possessing an excellent example of nearly every color of glass from each locale.  But this did not mean that I was inattentive, or dismissive of the reading. I did, however, allow my mind to wander for a second to the next event to which I was looking forward.  Actually, it was not an event, or at least not an official one.  For the last three or four years, after the reading of The List, supper and the final lecture, later at night, just before bed, Alistair and I would meet in the lobby, as if by previous agreement, just the two of us, and together, we would enjoy a nightcap and discuss our Sea Glass adventures of the previous year. I must confess I looked forward to this unofficial rite quite as much as to the reading.  

Alistair and myacquaintanceship had never progressed beyond this ritual. Maintaining objectivity is so important in leadership, and I had always understood that this was the reason. Sometimes during the year between conferences, we wrote letters back and forth.  And sometimes, I believe these letters hinted at something deeper, an understanding beyond Sea Glass.  Alistair’s wife had died many years before, and they had no children. I had never married so we both knew what it was to be alone. I had given up my job in Library Administration as soon as I had the opportunity to retire and collect glass full time.  Alistair came from a moneyed family and had always been a full time collector. 

Once or twice over the years we had met for luncheon somewhere, and had a lovely talk about collecting and the joy of finding that one special piece on which you had set your heart. It was wonderful to be with someone who understood, and it had occurred to me that it might be pleasant to go collecting together some day.  But to date, this had not yet occurred.

 There was still that one empty chair at our head table and I wondered whom it was for. Every person with serious ambitions in the world of sea glass was already seated.  And what person who made claim to being a serious collector, would be late and miss the beginning of The List?  I received my answer to that question in short order.

            A young person, a young woman actually, wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt, for God’s sake, entered the room.  As she made her way in unhurried fashion towards the dais, she stopped several times to speak to the people she was passing and to ask them friendly questions, as if we had not already begun, indeed, were not well into, the most important event of the day.  When she finally reached the head table and interrupted Alistair who had not noticed her arrival and was starting china patterns, she apologized to the whole party for being late and took her seat in the empty chair, thereby disrupting us further.  I fully expected Alistair to upbraid her, both for her lateness and for interrupting the reading, and possibly also for her informal style of dress, but he did not. In fact, he smiled at this rude young person.

            The young woman smiled back, showing white, unnaturally even teeth. She was tanned from the beach.  Her long, blond, shiny hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she was fit and trim.  I’m not saying, you see, that she wasn’t a pleasant enough looking young person. Her place card said Virginia Waterston, so that must be her name.

            Alistair resumed the list. Her neighbor helped Ms Waterston catch up by telling her, in a loud whisper what we had covered already. I found this quite distracting. As we proceeded, it became apparent that Ms Waterston seemed to possess every pattern of china from every beach that was mentioned, (as did I, I am glad to say.) As a matter of fact, when we had finished the list in its entirety, although Alistair and myself were the only collectors who possessed an example of each kind of glass and china from its respective beach, Ms Waterston was lacking only purple glass, from Chimney Corners Beach in Cape Breton, a very difficult piece to find indeed. None of the other collectors were close to possessing such a complete array, nor were their examples in as fine a condition as were hers.

              We had asked the waiters to hold off serving our dinner until the serious work of the evening was complete.  Now I could enjoy my lightly broiled whitefish and asparagus with the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.  I noticed that Ms Waterston had chosen the lasagna dinner.  Well, she was young and slim; there was no need as yet to concern herself about fat or cholesterol. Time would teach her those lessons.  Alistair and I enjoyed our fresh fish very much indeed. 

            Now that the serious work was done we could chat about where we had gone searching and what had befallen us along the way.  “Virginia” mentioned that she had found some of her best materials along the coast of Mexico, while traveling in the company of a “young fellow,” who loved the beach, but was not a collector of beach glass. She mentioned that this “young fellow” liked to walk along with her on the beach even though he did not stop to collect glass. Virginia added, with an insincere chuckle that she sometimes thought her friend had ahold of the right end of the stick.  It was the walking on the beach with the hot sun and the cool wind off the water, barefoot on the crusty sand that cracked in a pleasing way when you stepped on it that was the real pleasure, she said.  Collecting Sea Glass was perhaps only a pleasant excuse for the walk.  

            This was heresy. I again waited for Alistair to denounce him, but once again he only smiled.  That was the moment when I began to wonder.  Alistair was a giant, as I have said, in the Sea Glass community, and his decisions as to what was right and proper were considered final.  But for the first time I wondered if he might perhaps, be getting a bit old.  I wouldn’t like to say he was slipping, but perhaps his standards were doing so, as is completely understandable in one approaching 70.  Perhaps it was a good thing that his tenure as president was, by the rules of our association, coming to an end, and that someone else, a little bit younger would be taking over. I would not be completely honest if I didn’t say that I hoped, indeed, nearly assumed that I would be the next president. It stood to reason. Next to Alistair, I was the most accomplished collector. Even if no one said it we all knew this to be a fact.  I had been feeling a bit regretful on Alistair’s behalf about the upcoming change of leadership up until that moment.  But perhaps it was time after all.

            To say that I was surprised to find that the final speech of the day, which followed the meal and was attended to in varying degrees whilst we were drinking our coffee and some of us were indulging in desert, was to be given by Ms. Waterston, is an understatement.  How had she so quickly, and without my noticing, reached a level of seniority that would make her giving the Keynote Address at our conference even a possibility?  And after her numerous Faux Pas, and in her inappropriate dress, what was Alistair thinking to let him get up and represent us all?  It was definitely time for a change of leadership.

            She spoke at length in an unpleasant, informal tone. She continually implied with her self-deprecating quips and asides that Sea Glass collecting was just a pleasant pastime, no more, certainly nothing serious or important.  I had to get up and leave in the middle, her speech upset me so severely.  I noticed as I left, however, that it did not upset most of our members.  They didn’t even notice how she was denigrating what we held dearest.  They found her tasteless jokes funny and her tone engaging.

            Perhaps, Dear Reader, you will not be surprised to hear, (I was, but then I had not seen the events laid out in front of me on the page, as you have,) that when I came down to the lounge that evening, to meet Alistair and have our usual private talk, seated in the lounge by Alistair’s side, was Virginia.  She was cozied right up to him, actually sitting on the footstool of Alistair’s chair, metaphorically sitting at his feet, as it were. Alistair was smiling down at her; letting his eyes linger on that young body, and that unwrinkled skin.  The old fool was completely taken in by this sea glass dilettante, this amateur with pretensions, this faker, this impostor who had probably bought all her glass on line.  

            I stood back out of sight and watched the woman in action.  Yes, she was a pro all right.  With an oily smile, and a false laugh, she doted on Alistair, scooping up his every precious word as if it were a purple glass marble washed by the sea until it was rendered milky and opaque and deposited on a beach for her alone to find. Every once in a while, she reached out and grasped Alistair’s hand, just for a moment, as if she could not help herself but must scoop it up immediately, before it washed back out to sea. Alistair had not even noticed my absence. 

I am sure you are way ahead of me, I was slow to pick up on the truth, I admit it. But finally, I understood.  The presidency was what she was after.  She wanted to be the next president of our club instead of me.  I watched as long as I could stand it, until she, overcome as it were with her enthusiasm, placed her hand just above Alistair’s knee. I could take no more and retired to the bar next door to think. 

            The old man was getting positively senile, that much was obvious. This Thing could not be the next president of our club, obviously. But if Alistair supported her, it would happen, she would become our own little Eva Brawn.  The members, like baby turtles swimming for the sea while birds of prey pick them off, would all vote as Alistair told them to.  Something had to be done immediately.  Our whole club, nay, our whole way of life was at risk. I walked back into the lounge and stood behind a marble pillar watching. Virginia was stealthily ogling one of the young athletes who were at the hotel for another convention, at the same time as she was gently messaging Alistair’s thigh.  In a flash, I knew what I must do.


            The next day dawned sunny and clear.  I commented to Alistair that the sky was just the color of that rare turquoise glass which could be found only on one beach in British Columbia.  Little clouds like shards of exquisite china floated merrily along.  We were at breakfast finishing our yogurt and bananas, and he was just wondering aloud what had become of Virginia, when the police came in and asked to speak to us both. 

There had been an accident, it appeared: Virginia, a midnight swim with a young gymnast, both of them pulled under by the rip tide and swept out to sea.  Nude bodies found on the beach by a young mother and her children, young mother and children in shock etc., etc.  So terribly sad. Anyone with any sense would know that it is foolish to go swimming at night, especially on an unknown beach. 

            The police asked if I had been in the lobby the previous evening, wondered, could I have even been the last one to speak to the young man?  What had been said, they wanted to know. I told them that the nice young man from the big city had expressed to me sadly that he had never once had the opportunity to swim in the ocean.  I never thought for a minute that he might actually try it, certainly not at night, or I would never have mentioned the beach conveniently nearby.  There are no lifeguards there and one cannot see the posted rip tide warning signs in the darkness.

 Yes, I said, Virginia had been with us at the time, listening. Perhaps she had provided the encouragement that the young man had so unfortunately responded to?  It was quite possible, I said. She was not a responsible person.

Dear Reader, honestly, when I told Virginia about the young gymnast who wanted to go night swimming in the ocean, I did also tell her that it was not safe, I did.  But the young are so foolish. They do not listen to sense.

“Such a waste,” as Alistair accurately pointed out. I patted his shoulder gently.  Still, life goes on.  Soon it will be time for our little club to vote for its next president.  I am hopeful about the outcome, very hopeful.