“There’s all the difference in the world between treasure and money.”
- Roderick Townley, The Great Good Thing
My favorite of the concepts my family raised us with is the idea of treasure. I used it in a post title the other day cavalierly and only later realized that how unique and loaded a word it is to me. The initial definition would be almost identical to a dictionary’s, if I’m honest, but there’s a rich history behind that word’s use in my family.
I don’t know exactly how or when this word entered clan lexicon in the capacity we use it, but to our tribe it has a very specific yet not easily explained translation. It’s complicated because to us, treasure can be anything you value. Anything at all. Often it’s associated with travel or adventure, something picked up in an exotic locale, but it can just as easily be something bland that still manages to inspire the bearer to see the extraordinary.
Throughout my childhood the term applied equally to a dried seahorse purchased on a Venetian canal, a handful of pretty pebbles, the wooden dinosaur skeleton models my father would purchase and then assemble with me after returning from long trips, a Turkish wedding belt woven from goat fur that (as I recall, which to be fair could be a totally warped memory) was given to me by a shop owner in Turkey for no reason at all, a particularly straight stick (useful for walking, poking, and play fighting in the backyard), a piece of partially knapped flint discarded by some ancient people and found by me in a dried up riverbed hunting on a Texas ranch that belonged to a friend of my dad’s, the small sweater my mother made for my teddy bear when her fur began rubbing off from too much love, some coins that became obsolete when the Euro was adopted, and so on. Treasure was everywhere growing up.
There were and are some rules. It can’t be kitsch, or stuff for stuff’s sake – it has to be meaningful and important for more than just taking up shelf space. A little statuette of Michelangelo’s David sold in a tourist trap in Italy is memorabilia; a reproduction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus bought from a slightly seedy looking street salesman literally off of a dusty Florentine cobblestone way is treasure.
It doesn’t have to be impulse, you can have an idea of what you’re looking for when you go on the hunt. When I went to Milan for the first time I knew I wanted to get a pair of shoes. Since it’s one of the great fashion capitals, it seemed appropriate. I still have them years later, and I also have a pair of flats I got in Paris as well. There’s nothing like walking around in something you bought on the Champs-Élysée when you’re having a bad day.
Treasure doesn’t have to be for you. Some of my most valued finds are things that I had no intention of keeping for myself. There is something unimaginably thrilling about finding the perfect gift for something, looking at an obscure object and knowing another person so well that you can see what its value would be in their eyes. I sent my high school mentor, a Middle Ages buff, a medieval coin found in a small English shop. I recently discovered a pullover for a friend that will make the most hilarious Christmas present – more I cannot say, she may be reading! Treasure is not so selfish as to be exclusive to oneself.
Freshman year of university when my family was living in Belgium, I returned to school with boxes of hand crafted and personally selected chocolates for my friends from some of Brussels’ finest chocolatiers. One of my friends was from Hershey, Pennsylvania and gave me a giant Hershey Kiss in exchange. On this recent trip to London I found a small booth in Borough Market selling small bottles of truffle oil so I paid £7 for a small bit of extra deliciousness the next time I feel like impressing someone in the kitchen. I also came back with several boxes of Twinings tea (unattainable where we live), and a chic blazer. Treasure doesn’t have to be permanent.
My ideas of treasure have evolved somewhat since my secret box (originally a gift from Morocco from my father and treasure itself) hid the things I valued away – key from the grandfather I’ve barely known my whole life, a bookmark given to me by my mother, a cheap necklace. Now my tastes run more like my parents and I look for things that remind me of places I’ve been or memories I want to protect. We’re not and have never really been a picture taking family, we collect our memories in stories instead and hang the reminders of our adventures on walls. Prints, Balinese baskets artfully arranged, wooden screens from the Orient used as wall decor, bowls purchased in the Levant, a couple of items inherited from ancestors.
But writing this and thinking back, I think I’ve figured out why the concept of treasure was (and continues to be) so important to me. My parents love interesting things and they’ve passed the love of them on to the four of us. Our house is crammed to bursting with the Asian antiques my mother gathers that remind her of her childhood in Japan, the rugs my father collected on his many trips to the Middle East, the more colorful the better (there’s a Tibetan prayer rug that’s over a century old that graces our floor and always leaves me half Indian Jones “It belongs in a museum!” baffled, and half shamefully proud that we walk over it everyday). And I think because things have value to them, not in the vulgar way possessions do to some people, they recognized and shared the value we kids found in much less impressive things.
There is wisdom, and I think greatness, in parents who will look at an excited child’s fistful of rocks and breathe a solemn pronouncement that they are worth just as much as the carpet that used to make up a wall in a Kazakh’s tent. My mother’s exclamations over bird feathers then are just as excited as ones over antique shop finds now, and my father still smiles the same smile that crinkles his eyes only slightly more these days when one of us opens our hands at him to show our latest token and he says in a slow and important voice, “Ah! Treasure!”
The value of value is, ultimately I think, one of the most important lessons they’ve taught me.