A family employs an unusual technique for coping with grief.
- Posted on Oct 7, 2009
"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?
We resumed our search the next weekend. Team Ria gathered at a restaurant called, of all things, Captain Kidd’s. We’d learned from the locals that the restaurant had once been owned by an organizer of the treasure hunt. Aha! Was the doubloon hidden on Captain Kidd’s property?
Regina tore ahead to a larger-than-life statue of the captain himself. Pushing aside leaves, we looked to see if there was a hidden compartment. “Is that a doubloon on his boots?” Solomon asked excitedly. No, just gold-colored buckles. We joked at how silly we must look. How would we explain ourselves if the owner came out?
Laura was sure she had it figured out when she spotted a big pig statue across the bridge from Catskill Point. The clues were filled with references to St. Anthony, who, according to our research, was often accompanied by a fat pig.
But we checked it out and discovered that the statue had been a promotion for the movie Babe…and had been placed there seven years after the hunt began. “Arrgh,” we said.
Later that week we got together at Laura’s and went over the story, map and our notes. “Maybe there’s a hidden code,” someone suggested. Taking out Scrabble tiles, we rearranged the letters of the names of the story’s characters. Among the many combinations possible, one stood out: “low tide marker.” We decided to zero in on the Hudson’s shoreline at low tide.
The next few weekends were filled with trudging the shoreline of the park and even taking kayaks out on the river, searching land only accessible at low tide. The kids splashed each other and had a great time, but we still came up empty.
It’s just a silly treasure hunt, I tried to convince myself. Inside though, I ached for Ria’s presence in my life. Lord, will it always feel like this? I asked.
I came home from hunting one day to find my refrigerator on the fritz. Great, just what I need. Tony pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and fiddled with the back.
“Look what I found!” he said, holding up a postcard. On the front was a treasure map, on the back, “We already miss you guys! Can’t wait for next year. Love, Ria.” She had sent it from Cape Cod last summer.
I shook my head and smiled. “Who else would send a postcard to the people she had just vacationed with as a surprise for them to come home to?”
All of a sudden the fridge hummed back to life. Tony scratched his head and looked puzzled. “I didn’t really do anything yet,” he said. I stuck the postcard to the front of the fridge with a magnet. We had to keep looking. Ria would have wanted it.
By our next outing, only a few stray leaves still clung to the trees as our crew of 15, ages two to 62, hiked through a nature preserve just north of Catskill Point.
The sun retreated behind a steel gray cloud, as if to hide from the rain that soon began. We trudged along, tugging our hoods over our heads, and I couldn’t help but laugh. What other family does this?
The laughing spread to my brother and sister. Ahead on the trail, Regina giggled with her cousins. Hiking in the rain in search of buried treasure? We had to be nuts, as nuts as Ria.
It didn’t feel as if we were missing something. We were celebrating all the joy and optimism that was my sister. It didn’t matter if we found the doubloon. This was the way to get past the sadness: living our lives a little bit like Ria had.
Back at the car, sopping wet, I whispered a prayer of thanks.
A few days later Laura called. “Are you sitting down?” she asked.
Her husband, Michael, was walking their puppy that morning. “He felt guided to look under a big rock buried in the riverbed,” Laura said. There wasn’t any one clue, any logical explanation as to why he picked up that particular rock of the hundreds of large rocks on the edge of low tide. But when he did, the doubloon—worn and blackened by years underwater—was underneath.
Our family was awarded the jeweled crown right before Christmas. It had been kept for 17 years in an old cake box under the bed of one of the organizers of the hunt. It’s in a safe-deposit box now, though Mom keeps the box it was stored in at the top of her stairs. “It makes me smile every time I see it,” she says. Me too.
Hunters who had searched for years sent us e-mails and phoned us, from as far away as California. “How did you find the treasure?” they asked.
“We had lots of help,” I tell them. A sister nuts for pirates and treasure hunts. An encouraging postcard at the right time. A nudge toward a certain rock.
And the crown wasn’t the most precious treasure we found. We discovered Ria’s joyous spirit, alive in all of us.