Sea Glass Story: Willing My Home Improvement Project to Work

My Sea Glass Project

Sometime earlier this year—in late winter or early spring—I took a bad spill on a thin layer of ice at the bottom of our back deck steps. It was one of those cartoonish moments where you hope like heck nobody saw you: in trying to climb the steps, my feet went out from under me like they might if I slipped on a banana peel. I could hear Three Stooges-like ‘woop-woop-woop’ sound effects as my right hand reached for the nearest object, which happened to be the bottom post under the handrail. I found it, but grasped it awkwardly, in a way that made one of my fingers bend backward unnaturally and painfully, if only for a nanosecond. Didn’t matter: it was long enough to injure the proximal phalanx grievously, right where it articulates with the metacarpal—in other words, at my knobby old-ladyish looking knuckle, which swelled horribly and turned a sickening greenish-yellow for a few days. I lost a lot of mobility in the finger, and still haven’t got it back completely. (And yes, it was that finger, so bring on the middle finger ‘salute’ mockery.)

I save my ER trips for worse mishaps, the kind where I need body parts reattached, and meanwhile try to observe a never-get-sick ethos in my life, but had I decent health insurance I’d have had this one looked at; I’m pretty sure I felt something rip somewhere deep inside that joint. Almost certain. But I need my hands to ply my trade and couldn’t chance taking one of them out of commission, even for a short time. And doctor visits spawn more doctor visits. Nope, I’d put some ice on it and swallow a handful of Ibuprofen and hope for the best.

I’m still amazed to have survived no fewer than five Vermont winters without taking a single spill, except for one occasion when I skated on a frozen lake and lost my footing right at the end of a long afternoon on the ice: the reason my bum hit the ice remains a point of consternation between me and the Chef, who was there, and whose hand moments before I went down had been helping me stay, you know, up.

But I digress.

We agreed that the main problem in this case was a collection of beautiful but horribly uneven paving stones at the bottom of the steps. This is no big deal, quipped the Chef at the time: I can easily frame and pour a proper concrete landing and make that area much safer. The Chef is thoughtful like that.

But that got me thinking about a potentially ugly concrete pad, and how that simply would not do. Because I know this man, and he thinks ‘practical’ without paying too much heed to ‘elegant.’ We’ll call that a character flaw and leave it at that. The previous owner of the house—the people who flipped it, that is—cut some corners to hurry the project along and get the house all nicely staged and listed, and that is being diplomatic. We’ve been addressing those oversights piecemeal as time and budget allow. The back deck looked fabulous when we were shown the house: it had been freshly stained a pretty russet to match two of the exterior doors. One winter later, and there is almost no stain at all in the heavily trafficked areas, including on the steps themselves. This, insists the Chef, is because it was the wrong type of stain and it was applied incorrectly. We’ve resolved to replace the deck, probably next summer, with those tough and resilient composite boards that don’t need stain and can weather the abuses of long Vermont winters, including Southern ladies wielding a snow shovel without enough, shall we say, patience or finesse.

Which brings me back to the sea glass. I decided the thing to keep the pad from looking like something you’d see under a pair of trash cans in a McDonald’s parking lot would be exquisite little bits of sea glass. I am obsessed with sea glass: I love the idea that the raw material comes from nature, we transform it for our own purposes, and then it returns again to nature to morph into something altogether new. I have an idea for a shower enclosure where the walls are made entirely of sea glass and the floor has smooth, round river rocks that feel divine under your naked feet. I know they would feel divine, in fact, because I once sat in a jacuzzi with a bottom made of river rock and it indeed felt divine. Someday I’ll have my sea glass and river rock shower.

But for now, I imagined a concrete landing dotted with sea glass at the bottom of my back deck steps, the steps that lead to the door we come and go through every day. I didn’t consult with too many folks about this, and instead plowed full steam ahead with my sea glass order (the glass came to me from the Baltic Sea, all the way from Latvia). Then the Chef started mumbling some about how, with our freeze-thaw cycles up in these parts, and with concrete’s proclivity to crack, these pretty little embedded glass shards might not stay, you know, embedded. And it would be so easy to catch one on the edge of the snow shovel.

I made a little post about this on social media. Another dear friend of mine whom I met during my time living in Denver back in the ‘80s chimed in ever so gently, that the Chef might be right on this one.

All of which is to say I was more determined than ever to make this work. I walked all over our downtown neighborhood and found many other examples where people had poured concrete walkways with all kinds of things set into the cement: broken tiles, dragonflies and other artful thingummies made in terra cotta-like materials—that kind of thing.

By now the Chef knows once my mind’s made up it’s best not to object too stridently. He conceded that maybe, if we set them in deeply enough, they’d be okay. But he stopped short of guaranteeing the concrete wouldn’t crack over time. Or even that the sea glass would stay put if it were jammed in deep.

So late in the summer, after he’d done about as much work as he could this year on our new fence, he removed the heavy pavers, set them aside, and built the frame for our new pad. Here are the images I took over a period of several weeks, which was how long it took to pour the pad whilst dodging the dodgy fall weather.

That one, the one above, shows the Chef’s ingenuity: he repurposed some ugly old fencing from our property, and even a broken rake, as stand-ins for iron rebar to help reinforce the pad.

The top layer of cement was a more refined type that looks better when it dries. Here’s what we discovered: if you try to set in the glass pieces when it’s too wet, the glass simply sinks down too far and the concrete swallows it up. But if you wait a smidge too long, you can’t really push it down far enough—it’s really hard to know. We stayed home all afternoon while the cement was drying and kept checking and checking it to see when we thought the perfect moment to set in our glass had arrived. We found that because the top layer of concrete was not a uniform depth all the way around (even though the Chef worked diligently to smoothe and level it out), in some places it ‘took’ the glass much better than in other places. Still, we were pretty tickled with the finished product.

I asked Scout-the-Sea-Glass-Dog to stand in as a quarter for scale. So you can see about how large the pieces are as compared to a 60-pound Goldapeake Retriever.

Here’s the bummer. We had our first plowable snow Thursday night. The Chef gingerly shoveled the pad, taking care to avoid the sea glass. On Saturday morning when I took Scoutie outside, and when much of the snow had vanished from the roads and sidewalks and other hard surfaces, I found a single piece of sea glass on top of the concrete, right next to the spot where the day before it had been neatly embedded. Dang. So now we’re thinking and thinking about how to reinforce the glass to make it stay put. The Chef was thinking Gorilla Glue. My kiddo suggested silicone gel, like the kind that’s used to fill in cracks in cement. Or maybe epoxy. And I am thinking—whatever kind of adhesive we try, we ought to treat the concrete with a coat of clear goop (I am certain that is what it is called)—which would be simply one more way to help the glass stay put.

We have a long winter ahead of us, so time will tell. Meanwhile, in the spring, or as soon as the ground thaws sufficiently, we’ll clean up the edges a bit and we’ll take the paving stones, stashed under the deck for now, and lay them back into the ground around the new pad. Then maybe we’ll fill in the spaces with pea gravel, or something else that’s pretty. So the area will look much more finished.

Paving Stones Stashed for Winter

If you live in Brrrrmont, or in any area characterized by frozen tundra as ours is, AND you have tried and succeeded to embed pretty things in concrete, I’m all ears. Holler at me in the comments.

I’m thankful for concrete and sea glass and tawny little dogs and tall Chefs and so much more. To my American readers, have a joyous and safe Thanksgiving this week and celebrate all the people and things, big and small, that enrich your lives.

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