It looked like a tennis ball.
That was my first instinct anyway. After initially catching a glimpse of something round breaking through the dry dirt at the base of my maple tree, I was reasonably sure I would soon be digging out a buried dog toy of some sort. What I found was more intriguing.
Rather than some chewable trinket left underground by some cartoonish canine years in the past, I found something with both an animal's shape and a human's touch.
It was a large hermit crab shell. I had the color right. It had been painted the same fluorescent hue as a tennis-ball — that color which magically slips in right between green and yellow. It was about the size of a tennis ball too, and over the major mass of the shell someone had also painted some bursts of color. Inside, I found only dirt. I was thankful there were no crab bits to clean out of the buried shell.
Holding the shell in the palm of my hand conjured up memories of my own pet funeral services. My young grade school self, refusing to allow my first gold fish to be disposed of in the usual plumbing-based manner, insisted he (now that I think about it, I'm not so sure my fish was even a male) be buried under the tree in my parents' backyard. I used an empty check box as a casket — not kidding.
Though the crab's shell was something different than my memory, I also felt it was very much the same when reduced to its core. That shell was hand painted. There was purpose in it, if not by the owner's own hand then through purchase. Yet, when the time came, obviously someone was unwilling to simply consider it garbage and toss it out on the curb.
It was special.
This was a vessel I was holding — a vessel of someone else's memories. And despite the fact that I still don't know just what those memories might be, I couldn't throw it away either. Perhaps it was because it struck a harmony with my own memories so strongly, or perhaps it was because I could clearly sense the significance it held for someone in the past, but either way it spoke to a commonality between strangers.
So, I gently cleaned off what I could with the garden hose and took it inside to soak off the rest of the dirt before gently scrubbing away the last remnants of its backyard burial out of the nooks and crannies.
Right now, it's sitting safely out of reach of my two-year-old daughter, but perhaps when she reaches the age at which children plead for a pet, she'll want a hermit crab. Obviously, her little friend would have to grow into the tennis-ball sized shell, but if and when it does, our history will be intwined with a stranger's. And when the crab dies (though a quick internet search says they live 20-30 years with proper care — yikes) and it's time to teach my little one a bit about the realities of death, maybe we'll have a little funeral and bury that shell right where I found it, recognizing what was ours was once someone else's and may be so again.