Vera’s Rocks

My great-grandmother Vera Hilton collected rocks. She lived near Topaz Mountain in central Utah, a site that gave the WWII Japanese-American detention camp its name, and would pick up rocks she found interesting. She had a rock tumbler. In the 1970s, when she was in her 80s, Vera went to Europe, to see one of her children then stationed in Germany with the US military, and she picked up rocks from places she visited.

When my grandmother, Vera’s oldest daughter, died last year, I took this collection, a 50+ year-old shirt cardboard with rocks taped to it from her house. It was in a plastic bag, but stored flat. I had no idea what to do with it, except to keep it.

For a year, I’ve had it undisturbed, waiting, as I tried to figure out how to stabilize and restore it. I took it out yesterday for the first time. Some rocks need re-placing. Some need placing. Some may have no place. There’s all the tape, of course, and the stains from it, which call for attention. I’ve researched conservation and cellophane tape, but now that I’ve sat with it, I’m not comfortable with just ditching or replacing the tape. Vera taped these rocks to a piece of cardboard and wrote captions for them. When that tape gave out, she put more tape on. Including a double-sided tape strip on the card underneath it, the rock from Dachau appears to have been taped three times.

Which, there is a rock from Dachau. What is going on with these rocks? There’s a row that looks like they went through the tumbler; a few geologically oriented samples, including three epidotes from various locales and a pencil eraser-size ruby crystal from the Filers, who ran a Mineral of the Month Club for science teachers out of Yucaipa, California. Then there are the rocks from Europe: Stockholm, Paris, Rome (Colosseum), Rothenburg, Nuremburg, and Dachau.

I think the epidote tag goes with this rock? I think the tag is just inadvertently stuck to the dimebag, which is torn and has a different label, “prism,” on the other side.

Based on tape residue and size, I think I re-placed the loose rocks correctly on this grid, but maybe not? There are some rocks that don’t seem to correspond to anything; do they go somewhere? Is there a hint of what they are that might hint at where they’re from, and where they go? Does this tell you, a geologist or mineral collector, or a student of souvenir practices, anything? HMU!

I’ve come to not expect deep meaning to result from saving or restoring this assemblage, but I’m nonetheless intrigued by what it is, and how it came together. I met my great-grandmother several times as a child. Having this thing she made, that she worked on for several years, apparently, and that my grandmother kept intact for decades, is an interesting experience precisely because it is so unprecious. We have quilts she stitched by hand which embody a similar amount of her time and attention, and yet this is the antithesis of an heirloom. For the moment, at least, I’m going to keep it around.