Some of my strongest memories from childhood occurred nearly every day on the school playground.
And, no, those memories had nothing to do with swings, or slides, or jungle gyms.
They were all about rocks.
At the old Fairfield Elementary building (now since demolished), the playground surface was covered with a layer of pebbles, and separating one jungle gym from the next were wooden planks.
So, everyday at recess, I would balance on those planks like they were tightropes, and I would scan the many pebbles for the prettiest, most interesting ones.
I can remember getting a lecture from my mom whenever she’d wash my coats. “Sarah!” she’d say. “Clean these rocks out of your pockets!”
Looking back, I guess you could say my recesses were a bit Charlie Brown-like:
“What did you do at recess?”
“I climbed on the monkey bars!”
“I slid down the slide!”
“I played basketball!”
Me: “I got rocks.”
Though, in all honesty, I would not have done anything differently. I loved my rocks, and I had boxes upon boxes where I would organize them by size and color.
Those rocks were my first real collection, but since that time I have had many, many more. In fact, if I didn’t collect things, I don’t think I could call myself an Allen.
Everyone in my family collects something. For my mom, it’s rolling pins and Pez dispensers. For my brother, it’s posters and action figures. And for my dad … well, I’ve often joked that my dad collects collections.
Our living room is like a miniature museum. We have shelves filled with my dad’s many curios. He collects comic books, Coca Cola trays, records, sports cards, and vintage lunch boxes.
Collecting is a lot like being an adventurer. Searching for that next, perfect item is the closest most people will come to living like Indiana Jones.
After all, looking through musty boxes at a flea market or yard sale is the day-to-day equivalent of diving into a forgotten tomb. Conventions and specialty stores are the modern versions of strange, exotic marketplaces.
Though, to be honest, collecting is less like Indiana Jones and more like Lewis and Clark — it’s a team effort.
Because in our family, a collection rarely stays unique to one person. For example, my dad decided to collect lunch boxes so he and Mom could have that hobby together. My mom loved the idea, recently describing lunch boxes as “little pieces of nostalgia and art.”
And when it comes to comic books, that’s something my dad, brother, and I all love. Though, whenever we’re on the hunt, all three of us look for something different. I tend to concentrate on Marvel — Iron Man, Spiderman, and Thor. For my dad, it’s all about DC — Batman, Superman, and Justice League. My brother likes both Marvel and DC, but he focuses on the newer issues.
Yet whenever the three of us are at a comic book store, we seldom look only for our own. It’s common for one of us to be going through a box, when we hear, “Seth, weren’t you looking for the next Green Arrow book?” Or “Sarah, this Thor has Loki on the cover? Do you want to see it?”
And that’s even true of the collections we don’t share. I can’t count how many times someone has pointed out a rolling pin to Mom or a Coca Cola tray to Dad.
So yes, collecting is like some sort of strange adventure. You never know what you’ll find hidden in the back of a store or underneath some boxes. And you’ll never find nearly as much without someone beside you.
Nowadays, I don’t collect rocks as much. I focus on comic books and pop culture memorabilia. I also collect records and coins. But whenever I think about collecting, my first thought — every time — is of that little girl, wandering a playground, looking for one special pebble to stand out against the mass of gray sprawling beneath her feet.
Because, ultimately, that’s what collecting is about — searching for that one thing that is special to one person.
The German critic Walter Benjamin once said, “O bliss of the collector! … Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who comes alive in them.”
After all, the things that sit on our shelves and adorn our walls tell more about the collector than he or she will probably ever know. The things we choose to fill our houses — and, more importantly, the stories we make as we search for them — mean far more than just collections or hobbies. They make us who we are, and at the same time they reflect the people we become.
“I believe that everyone collects,” entrepreneur Lynda Resnick once said. “I think collecting is in our blood as humans.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.