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Collecting Sea Glass | The Allure of Mermaids' Tears

Collecting Sea Glass | The Allure of Mermaids’ Tears
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Those bits of sea glass ground smooth by the ocean before being scattered on the beach can touch the imagination in special ways.

sea glass
Excerpt from “’Collecting Mermaid Tears,” Yankee Magazine, August 1986.

Every now and then, walking on the beach, my wife stops, reaches down, plucks a piece of smooth glass out of the sand, and puts it in her mouth. She calls it salt glass for the tang that it leaves on her tongue. Others call it sea glass, or beach glass, or even mermaids’ tears, shed for lost sailors.

Sea glass comes in a narrow, subtle spectrum of colors. The primaries are beer-bottle-brown, Coke-bottle-aqua, and wine-bottle-green, but each piece varies slightly in hue. The buffing of the sand softens and clouds the colors, turning what was transparent into translucent. Clear glass is frosted to a milky white. It suffers a sea-change into something rich and strange.

If you’re lucky, you may find brilliant bits of Milk-of-Magnesia blue. Rarer still are yellow and red. Where do they come from? The stained-glass windows of sunken millionaires’ yachts? The taillights of gangland-victims’ cars? Rubies from the turbans of drowned maharajahs?

Sea glass is pretty to look at, jumbled together in a glass bowl on the coffee table. You can hold it up to the light and look at the sky through the foggy lens of the ocean. It feels good in your pockets, like worry beads.

For my wife, who spent her summers on this shore, the taste of salt glass gives her back a bit of her childhood. I never liked the beach much as a child; I preferred the cool dark interiors of our rented apartments and a good book.

But now I like to walk the beach with my children, our heads down, intent, snatching at every glittering shard. They cheat. “Here’s some!” they shout, holding up a chunk of quartz, a splinter of driftwood, or the fool’s gold of a jingle shell.

Then, just as the inner glow of the glass grows dull the longer it is out of the water, the attraction of the hunt fades. They wander off, splashing in the shallows, as hard to hold as a handful of sand.

A sea glass expedition used to be good for at least half an hour, but as the kids grow older, they are losing interest in the treasures at their feet. They have started to lift their heads to the horizon. The fact that this is inevitable doesn’t make it any easier. First they learn to swim, then to sail. Before you know it, they are hull-down, bound for Rio and Cape Horn.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I know it will, as surely as the waves grind the edges of broken bottles smooth and spit them up on the shore. More often than not these days, I walk the beach alone, looking for the sparkle in the sand. Hands in pockets, I rattle my beads. Every now in then I put one in my mouth and taste the bitter tears of mermaids.

Tim Clark


Tim Clark


Tim Clark has been writing for Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer's Almanac since 1975. Subjects of his many Yankee profiles have included filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Barbara Tuchman, pediatrician and political activist Dr. Benjamin Spock, and World War II General James Gavin. Tim left his job as Managing Editor in 1999 to teach English at ConVal High School in Peterborough, N.H. for 13 years, but since retiring from that demanding and rewarding profession in 2012, he has continued to contribute articles and book reviews. Tim lives in Dublin, N.H., two miles from the offices of Yankee Publishing, and serves as Town Moderator, a post previously occupied by Rob Sagendorph, the founder of Yankee Magazine.
Updated Friday, August 15th, 2014

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4 Responses to Collecting Sea Glass | The Allure of Mermaids’ Tears

  1. richard parker May 18, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    my mom who has passed on has at one time walk most beaches of new england , most of her walks consisted of shells or flat rocks and small amounts of sea glass . her commons were green , white, purple ,blues , and a few reds . she use to say the reds she could barter with . when she died all that was left were the common colors in a small jar left on a table which my youngest sister got . the flat rocks she found had to be a certain size for her crafts ,which she made mini light house with and sold at church fairs

  2. mary July 24, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    I am a lifelong seaglass searcher. not understanding putting it in your mouth though??

  3. Brenda Seely July 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm #

    I have been collecting sea glass most of my life.My daughter constantly says,” Don’t you have enough?” My
    response is, ” Never enough!” I have containers in every room of my Maine home, decorated my daughter’s wedding tables with it, and make jewelry for friends, my 6 yr old grand daughter has a sea glass garden in her MA backyard, and I cover my deceased fiancee’s grave with it when I visit him..the delights of sea glass are never ending! Best time is winter.No tourists to pick it up!

    • Nancy O'Neill July 31, 2015 at 11:19 pm #

      Hello Brenda,

      I as well have been searching for sea glass for many years. I have not been as fortunate as yourself in what sounds like an amazing collection! I search Cape Cod all summer and fall and I am lucky if I find one piece a season. Where has all the sea glass gone?
      I would love to add to my small bowl and save it for my daughter and grand children I hope one day.

      Are there other places in New England where I may search? I would go to the ends just for the joy that the ocean brings to our souls along with finding the sea glass treasures from the ocean’s playground.

      Continue searching for your delights!

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