Bill and Helen Carney have been married for more than 51 years, and they have been collecting sea glass together for about the last 15.
“It gets addicting,” Bill said.
Theirs may well be one of the most extensive sea glass collection around the country — more than 50,000 pieces and counting — and I mean “and counting” literally. Bill has counted, cataloged and inventoried every piece of glass by color, location and quality. The Carney collection is like a museum exhibit, with Bill as the docent tour guide.
For a long time it was simply a hobby that filled bowls, jars and dishes all over the Carney home, but an unexpected turn of events led them to a new purpose for their sea glass collection. Now they are hoping that their “addiction” may help the research programs at Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer.
Before I get to that, though, I’ll share a bit of Bill and Helen’s story.
Bill grew up in the 1940s in a humble, happy home on Verona Island. Nearby Fort Knox was his playground where he and his brother used to give 35-cent tours with a flashlight.
Bill remembers his mother saying, “You boys go on over to the Fort and don’t come back until you hear the 4 o’clock whistle [from the paper mill].”
While Bill was playing around the fort, Helen was growing up in Natick, Mass. In 1959 she was attending nursing school at Boston Children’s Hospital when a Mainer friend invited her home for a weekend. On an arranged blind date she met Bill, then a student at Husson College, and that was it.
Over the next year, said Helen, “I really got to know the Boston-Bangor train.” They were married in November 1960.
Since then, Bill and Helen have moved 17 times, following Bill’s 33-year career with Sears.
“As soon as I walk into a bank and the teller says, ‘Hi, Helen,’ I think it must be time to move,” Helen said, smiling. Sometimes it was hard, “but we met a lot of wonderful people everywhere.”
While living in Cape Cod, the beachcombing bug struck. In 2003 they moved to Maine, and Bill and Helen’s collecting became more and more of an avocation.
They are members of the Northeast Seaglass Society and the North American Seaglass Association, whose conferences draw more than 5,000 attendees.
On their trips back from the shore, the Carneys examine their finds and rate each piece on whether or not it “has a good hand,” a term that describes the feel of a piece in one’s fingers.
“I also like to wonder, who held this bottle when it was whole? What was in it?” said Bill.
Each piece has a story behind it, and sometimes an extensive history involving smugglers and shipwrecks.
The Carneys travel the length of Washington County and visit Campobello Island, but don’t ask for specifics — sea glass people protect their best sources.
They even took a trip to the Caribbean and collected so much glass that they had to buy a suitcase to take it home. Bill began to enumerate for me the take from each Caribbean island venue — how many blues, greens and browns, how many bottleneck tops, and so on.
“We got a total of 2,381 pieces.” He re-examined his numbers; “No, no it was 3,216.”
“Would you say he’s into numbers?” said Helen with a laugh.
Bill is a five-day-a-week early bird tennis player, but if the tide is just right, sea glass trumps tennis.
“Last week we were at Campobello Island by 8:30 a.m. We came back with 14½ pounds of glass,” he said.
A few years ago, Bill and Helen met a fellow collector who makes sea glass jewelry. Bill was interested, but it was challenging. He broke several pieces with a diamond-tip drill bit.
Then, over the last year or so, Bill found himself with more time at home with Helen.
Sadly, Helen suffered significant vision loss. She no longer can drive and must use a magnifying glass to read. But she still loves to go to the shore.
“Sometimes I can still see a glint of glass if the sun hits it just right,” she said.
Though disappointed, Helen keeps as active as she can.
“This is what I have to do. You make the best of it,” she said.
Bill has made the best of it by renewing his jewelry-making efforts, and he is succeeding beautifully.
“I go through thousands of pieces to find jewelry grade glass,” he said.
One of his sea glass bracelets caught the eye of Martha Doyon — a fellow tennis player and tournament director of the Champion the Cure tennis tourney fundraiser for cancer research. She asked Bill if he would be willing to make bracelets to raise funds and Bill readily agreed. He donates 100 percent of his time and all materials to the cause.
“This has been a bad year for me,” Helen said. “But it’s good therapy to be out walking. They say your breathing gets in rhythm with the ocean.”
Bill and Helen’s “addiction” has been nothing but a positive force in their lives, and now they hope that it might become a positive force for others.
For information about purchasing Bill’s sea glass bracelets to support cancer research, call Bill at 249-9250 or contact Martha Doyon at email@example.com. You can also read more about the project at: http://lafayettehotels.biz/giving-back/sea-glass-bracelets.
Call for stories! By popular demand, Conversations With Maine is publishing another “readers’ stories column” on Dec. 30. Send your stories of New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day traditions, memories, mishaps, in crowds or in solitude, humorous or heartwarming. Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or 20 Summer St. Hampden, ME 04444.