Hidden Treasure

A family coping with grief over the loss of a beloved sister finds hope and adventure in a pastime she favored.

By Sabra Ciancanelli, Tivoli, New York

As appeared in

"Team Ria will find the loot!” my niece Regina declared.

She brandished a compass and a journal, items from the treasure-hunting kit her mother, my sister Maria—Ria for short—had assembled as a Christmas gift. Now we were putting them to good use.

Somewhere amid the browning oak trees and rocky shores of Catskill Point Park was a golden doubloon that had lain hidden for 17 years—and we wanted to find it. We needed to.

God, we need something to keep our minds off missing Ria, I prayed, holding back tears as I watched Regina look under benches and picnic tables with my sons and my brother’s children.

Had it really been six months since Ria died, so suddenly, so utterly unexpectedly, in her sleep? I took a deep breath of the chill autumn air and touched the photograph of her that I kept in my coat pocket. How I wished she were still here with us. Ria was all about treasure hunts and family time.

A few days earlier, my sister Laura had sent me an e-mail with the subject “Want to look for treasure?” I followed the link in the e-mail to a newspaper article “Treasure Hunt Unsolved For Nearly Two Decades.”

Officials in nearby Greene County had created the treasure hunt back in 1991 to promote tourism to Catskill, New York. Although there had been plenty of interest at first, over the years the treasure had been forgotten by all but a few dedicated hunters.

The prize that Greene County had put up for finding the golden doubloon—a specially made jeweled crown valued at over ten thousand dollars—seemed like it might never be claimed.

Ria would have loved this! I thought. She loved everything about the ocean, waves, seashells…but especially pirates.

Every summer our families rented a cluster of cottages on the beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, and on our last vacation, Ria planned an elaborate treasure hunt for the kids, burying clues and making a large X in the sand with rocks and flotsam above a big treasure trunk filled with goodies.

She even threw Mom a pirate-themed birthday party complete with skull-and-crossbone hats, swashbuckling outfits and plastic swords. It was nutty…but that was Ria. Life was one big adventure, full of hidden clues and joyful surprises.

The picture in my pocket was from Mom’s party—Ria dressed like a regular Captain Hook. It seemed like her goofy ideas and energy were what brought our family together, our center of gravity.

Who else but Ria could get us all digging through sand for clues to buried treasure or wearing eye patches, laughing as we did our best pirate shouts: “Avast Matey!”

Now that she was gone, every family gathering was tinged with sadness. Her oldest daughter’s graduation, Regina’s birthday. I even dreaded Christmas, because we always spent it at Ria’s.

The treasure hunt was the first thing we’d gotten excited about in a while. We were all in: my husband, Tony, my two sons, Solomon and Henry, my brother, Paul, my sister Laura and their families. Even Mom, who had been hit the hardest by our loss.

As the kids searched, decked out in pirate swag, I thumbed through the treasure story concocted by the tourism office, which held the clues to finding the now-legendary doubloon.

Mom, Laura and I had read it earlier. “Captain Kidd and The Missing Crown” was filled with details of the infamous pirate’s travels, and about the cargo, crew and supposed lon­gitude and latitude of his stops.

I reread the ending, which said the treasure was buried “somewhere on the banks of the Hudson River.” The hand-drawn map depicted Catskill Point but lacked the usual X for buried treasure.

All day we scratched around in the dirt. Lifted up rocks. Searched behind buildings and through bushes. But every shiny glint turned out to be a crushed soda can, a penny, a gum wrapper.

“That doubloon could be anywhere,” Mom said. I nodded. In 17 years, no one had found it. Had it been washed away somehow, irretrievably lost like Ria?

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