I’d like to take a moment of personal privilege in this blogpost and thank an exceptional woman for inspiring me to create Exquisite Eons™. She was the original Founding Fossil and introduced me to the wonderment of deep geological time.
I first met Marguerite Fenske when I was around seven and my father brought me to his office. I either skipped school or it may have been a teacher’s workday, because the office was fully staffed and sounding very serious with the clackety sounds of mechanical adding machines atop each of the dozen or so metal desks. But I wasn’t there to play; Maggie put me to work. My job was to tally the individual items from sales orders to ensure that the total was correct. I was a chatty co-worker, but managed to focus, without talking, on my assigned task. I enjoyed punching the buttons of the adding machine, tearing off the paper strip, checking the numbers. Nearly all of the invoices were correct, but when one didn’t match, I felt the triumph of catching an error and helping my father.
Dad was in the food service business, an enterprise that distributed wholesale goods from companies like Hunt Wesson and Heinz to restaurants, hotels, schools, and other institutions across South Florida.
Marguerite and I immediately hit it off. She had lively blue eyes, wavy platinum hair, and a wide smile. At noon, we took lunch at a place that served things like London Broil with my father. Maggie adored and respected Dad, and shared his work ethic of meeting high expectations.
By the time I was about eight, she began to send gifts home with my father for my birthday—the big holiday, in my world—as well as Halloween, Hanukkah/Christmas, and even Easter.
“I got something from Marguerite for you,” Dad would say when he came home from the office, presenting me with a large bag.
The bag brimmed with puffs of orange, magenta, cobalt blue, yellow, and green tissue paper. At first her gifts were clever trinkets, like a bamboo cricket cage from Japan, but they soon gave way to minerals, rocks, and small fossils. I carefully unwrapped the small bundles, each with a note describing the treasure. Every single one was exquisite: a geode, sparkling with crystals; a glowing ball of azurite the size of a marble; a nodule of fossilized clay, split open to reveal the imprint of a fern; a hunk of sienna-colored dinosaur bone, with its polished edge revealing the small rivulets of porous bone. By the time I entered middle school, I was a bona fide rockhound.
It was then that I took a summer class at the local science museum on how to shape and polish semiprecious stones. Maggie supplied me with the slabs—snowflake obsidian, jade, tiger eye—I needed to make my primitive cabochons. She added a metal fisherman’s tackle box, decorated with differently colored daisy stickers (it was the early ‘70s), where I kept my dop sticks and wax and works-in-progress. I also stored many of her other gifts there, like the Indian seashell wampum, strung on a silver chain, that I wore as a necklace.
We talked countless hours on the phone. I told her things I would never tell my mother. She called me puddin’. Maggie was a year older than my father, and when I teased her about that she would laugh in her husky smoker’s voice and call herself a fossil.
I loved when she reminisced about her youth in Chico, California, where her family had moved from Chicago sometime after her birth. Marguerite Leontine Olsen’s father was Norwegian, and her mother was French, and a bit glamourous. The Olsens lived on a small farm or ranch. The area back then was largely agricultural. Almond groves. Walnuts. Fruit trees. There were mountains. She had a horse named Rex. It sounded idyllic.
After decades of working, and then tending to an ailing husband, Maggie had big plans for retirement. She wanted a Serendipity Room, where she could do her creative projects. Although a skilled secretary, her spirit was that of an artist. She and her husband had already moved to the town of Davie, Florida, in western Broward County, an area spared from suburban sprawl that was literally “Western” in its sensibility (the annual rodeo remains a popular attraction). I didn’t realize it then, but Davie was very much like Chico, and maybe she was a little homesick.
Maggie did return to Chico, where she still had family. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Chico had roots in the California Gold Rush. Maggie gave me her own gold nugget pendant. Several years later, when I lost it, I felt like I had her down. During a trip to Alaska, after she had probably forgotten about it, I found a tourist shop that sold gold nuggets and bought its replacement—dissimilar to the potato shape I fondly remembered, but, even so, a nugget. I bought one for Maggie, too, so she could have her own again. She was residing at a nursing home by then, her husband gone, and was dealing with the limits of having suffered a series of strokes. (Her nugget disappeared too, as gold jewelry tends to do at such places.)
Somehow, she managed to hang on and recover some of her lost abilities. The summer of 1997, I visited her in Chico, as part of a trek up the Pacific Coast Highway. I knew the day we spent together would be our farewell.
We cruised with the top down through town in my rented Mustang convertible. She rode shotgun, looking jaunty in my Tilly hat—she still favored Lauren Bacall—and we yakked (as my father called it) the entire time. We made a slow circle around Bidwell Park, one of her favorite spots as a girl. A little over a year later, Marguerite passed away, on October 21, 1998.
I still have many of her rock and mineral treasures (and have extensively added to the collection). I often pause to think about Maggie and how she encouraged my pursuits, not just in rocks and fossils but anything else to come my way. I wish I could share with her my pleasure with Exquisite Eons™. She would chuckle about being “Positively Prehistoric.” She would have worn a dinosaur brooch and adorned her Serendipity Room with the bronze bibelots.
Marguerite would have anointed me the next proud old fossil.