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Memories of a travel-souvenir spoon collector

By Shelby Vittek,

I have 38 spoons. Thirty-eight ridiculously useless spoons. You know, those tiny ornate souvenirs that can be found in touristy gift shops worldwide, collecting dust next to the novelty shot glasses, key chains and thimbles.

Mine are all made of some sort of cheap silver knockoff. Some bear an engraving on the bowl, such as the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad logo on my North Carolina spoon or the rectangular outline of the Nutmeg State on my Connecticut spoon. Then there are the fancy ones, such as my spoon from Hawaii, which has a miniature palm tree charm dangling from a hole in the end of the handle.

I recently retrieved these 38 spoons from my mother’s house, and they now sit in the corner of my apartment bedroom. I look at them and wonder what purpose they will ever serve. I won’t be feeding my future children with these tiny spoons. I won’t be setting a table with them, along with the special silverware, during some future formal dinner party. Unlike rare coins or baseball cards, they won’t gain value as they age.

I acquired my first spoon on a family vacation 11 years ago, when I was 9. I was in a gift shop surrounded by miles and miles of corn and hay fields somewhere around Boone, Iowa. The rustic shop was in the basement of an old farmhouse stuck in a 1920s time warp. I struggled to find a nifty souvenir, going back and forth between a T-shirt and a shot glass.

I knew that my best friend had a rack filled with shot glasses, and I wanted to return home with something different. I picked up a generic gray T-shirt with “Iowa” arched across it in black print.

That’s when the elderly little shopkeeper — who looked old enough to be the original owner of the farmhouse — slowly approached me and said, softly, “You don’t want that, sweetie. You’ll grow out of it in a couple of months. Don’t you want something that will make you remember Iowa forever?” Looking back on it now, the most memorable thing about Iowa was that sweet little lady thinking that Iowa was by any means worth remembering.

She persuaded me to put down the boring T-shirt and follow her over to a table full of her “favorite, special collector’s items.” There I found my first souvenir spoon. It was only a little bit longer than my pointer finger, and it featured a picture of Mamie Doud Eisenhower. I knew absolutely nothing about Mamie Doud Eisenhower, or why she qualified to represent Iowa on my spoon. Nor have I learned anything about the former first lady since I was 9, except for this fact: She was born in Boone, Iowa. Regardless, my random Mamie Doud Eisenhower purchase would kick off a series of meaningful travels.

My parents had just split up, and the most valuable assets my mother acquired from the divorce were her two daughters and a time share. Seeing her lost, sad and distraught left me feeling the need to fix her. So I came up with a magnificent distraction, an idea that would involve plenty of traveling, and plenty of opportunities to build new memories. I pitched the idea one evening over a Hamburger Helper dinner, hoping that she’d bite. “I want to visit all 50 states before I turn 18,” I said.

My mother looked up from her meal, pondered the thought for a few moments, and then, for the first time in a long time, I saw a calm smile in her eyes. “Well,” she said, “you’re already halfway to 18, so we should probably get started pretty soon.”

From then on, long weekends meant a road trip, and an extended break from school meant a long flight to a new location. Traveling the country with my sister and me was the first thing since my mother’s marriage ended that seemed to bring her happiness. Meanwhile, I bought a new spoon in each new destination. In Florida, I bought one with an awkward flamingo balancing in front of a palm tree. In New York, I purchased one with, of course, the Statue of Liberty on it. In Oregon, I picked up one with a miniature piece of myrtle wood in the handle.

My collection grew rapidly. My desk drawer finally got so full of spoons that I could no longer shut it without a crashing clatter. Then, for my 13th birthday, I received a wooden display case to show off my prized souvenirs. I hung it in my bedroom, among vivid purple walls and a vibrant patterned bedspread. It seemed incredibly out of place, more fitting for a grandmother’s den than a girl’s bedroom.

Before long, my spoon habit filled the entire case. Many spoons are now double-stacked, the least important hiding behind the more interesting. Some are duplicates, a result of the times when I couldn’t decide on just one design. That’s why there are three variations of maple-leaf-themed spoons from Canada and two from Las Vegas that feature wheels that really spin and showy decks of cards.

A pewter spoon in the shape of the Space Needle hangs beside a shiny one with the shape of Alaska dangling from the top. These came from my first cruise, which departed from Seattle and stopped in ports along the coast of Alaska, where we dog-sledded in the mountains of Juneau and flew in helicopters above piercing blue glaciers. While everyone aboard the cruise ship was after the perfect miniature totem pole souvenir in the gift shops, I was on the hunt for the prize spoon.

One row of spoons reminds me of a trip to South Dakota and Wyoming that we took when I was in middle school. On that trip, I tried to persuade my mother to pay for a text plan for our cellphones, just so I could send my cute seventh-grade crush an emoticon smiley face without having to pay 10 cents. Mom refused, and my crush never progressed any further. But I did return home with three more spoons: one from Mount Rushmore, another from the Crazy Horse Memorial and a tiny one from Devils Tower.

It’s odd how often my spoons actually misrepresent my travels. In high school, I picked up one with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on the handle, even though I’d actually spent a few weeks in Berkeley for an educational program and had seen the bridge only from afar. Then there’s the spoon I got during a vacation in Maine with my best friend and her family. We spent most of the time hiking through breathtaking parks in Bar Harbor. The spoon I bought is stamped with a giant red lobster, but we never ate a single one.

I never did travel to all 50 states. I grew up and time ran out for that goal. At a certain point, my spoon lust ended, too, though I couldn’t tell you why or when. When I moved away from home, I left the spoons hanging in my old bedroom.

Recently, I took a trip to Spain and Portugal, and I returned home with a revived excitement about traveling. After unpacking my bags, I realized that I hadn’t even looked for a spoon. Why had it never crossed my mind to buy one? Not even a Spanish bull spoon or one with a bottle of port wine on it? It felt strange not to be placing a fresh spoon onto the rack. And more importantly, why wasn’t I more upset that I’d forgotten to buy a spoon from such a special place? It was a bittersweet feeling, realizing that, somewhere along the way, I’d grown out of collecting spoons just as I would have grown out of that T-shirt from Boone, Iowa.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about my souvenirs, and I suddenly wanted them here with me in my new home. So I drove to my mother’s house in New Jersey to fetch the rack and bring it back to where I live, where it has joined my empty bottles of duty-free Spanish wine.

Now I’m not quite sure what to do with the spoons. They won’t make good homemade wind chimes to hang on my porch, and they wouldn’t be the least bit appealing as ornaments on a Christmas tree. The other day, I used one from Maryland, covered in crabs, to spoon yogurt into my mouth before rushing off to work, but it just felt wrong.

No, there’s really no point in holding on to my 38 ridiculously useless spoons. Except for all the memories they bring back whenever I look at them.

Vittek is a writer living in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.

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