Family Jewels (circa 2013)

Equally at home in the good stuff and the junk.

As a kid, I could get lost in my mother’s jewelry. She kept it in one of those tiered jewelry boxes I believe were mandatory in the trousseaux of Eisenhower-era brides. Better than a dollhouse, this box was like my own private boardinghouse of bling, its velvet-lined compartments filled with baubles I could pile on in endless combinations, conjuring a parade of exotic characters in my head. Many of the pieces I never even saw my mother wear. They seemed to exist purely for my pleasure.

I especially loved her charm bracelet, whose band was an intricate mesh of golden strands, twisted like vines on the walls surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Dangling from it were objects of great romantic intrigue: a gold filigree fan studded with seed pearls; a hand, clenched into a fist, carved out of dark, thickly veined jade. Most spectacular of all the charms was a knight’s helmet, with a visor you could move up and down. My father told me years later that the helmet was the first piece of “good” jewelry he had ever bought for my mother; they’d found it in a stall on the Ponte Vecchio on their first trip to Europe. Hearing this as an adult, I understood perfectly what he meant, as I could still recall the remarkable heft of the little thing, the exquisite detail of its carving, and the yellowness of its gold. At the height of my jewelry box obsession, however, this distinction would have been lost on me. It was jewelry. How could it be anything but good?

Over six decades of marriage, my father gave my mother quite a few pieces of good jewelry. But what really came to define her was the stuff she picked up for herself, here and there, which she proudly called “the junk.” She was drawn to tribal-looking pieces — silver rings that stretched from knuckle to knuckle, necklaces like breastplates, bangles that encircled her arms to the elbow, and ropes of chunky beads in a riot of colors. Jewelry that jangled, announcing her arrival before she entered a room. As a petite woman, not to mention a mother of eight, she favored clothing and accessories that contributed to a mien of power. And when she discovered a new treasure, her excitement was contagious. An impish gleam would light her eyes, and her face would split into a grin as she held, say, a beaded Masai fertility necklace up to her tanned, bony clavicle. “Can I carry this off?” she would ask. This was largely a rhetorical question.

I grew to love my mother’s outlier style, but I must admit, it took me some time. I had to get over my infatuation with those other suburban moms, with their ladylike pearls and tennis bracelets, their steady and predictable presence at school functions, their cheerful bustling off to country club lunches. They seemed, to my adolescent mind, to embody something safe, accepted, and unimpeachably desirable. My mother never belonged to this clique, nor did she aspire to. She was a fierce tribe of one.

Mom’s collection outgrew the jewelry box, even as I outgrew it as a plaything. Annex containers cropped up to catch the overflow, and the box came to be a sort of retirement home for older items, as well as a repository for anything involving precious gems. Even my irreverent mother recognized that sapphires didn’t belong in Ziploc bags.

Then one day, years after we had all left the nest, my parents’ house was robbed. It was a clean job, just the silver service and the jewelry, though this fact did not lessen the shock we all felt at the breach, the sudden jostling reminder of our collective vulnerability. Needless to say, the thief took the “good” stuff. It was all boxed up and ready to go. Gone, with that box, were items of beauty and considerable value — objects burnished with family history, like the charm bracelet with the little knight’s head of Florentine gold, cheated of their heirloom destiny. Still, what strikes me now is how insignificant a dent that burglar put in my mother’s jangly armor. He walked off with quite a haul, but he left the Ziploc bags behind.

Eighty pounds of jewelry. That was the sum total, according to the friend who shipped it all up from their place in Florida, after Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and my parents hastened home to face whatever battle remained. A pound for every year of her life to that moment — and that was only what she had taken south with her for the winter. It almost seemed like a joke. Stunned by the diagnosis, preoccupied with the logistics of closing up houses and researching nursing homes, we questioned whether the junk was worth its shipping cost. I hope my mother never knew of our disloyalty.

She died last January, less than two years after she and my father came back north for good. Another jostling; a violent one this time. At her memorial service, we draped a small dogwood with necklaces and bracelets, inviting each guest to take a piece from the “bling tree” as they left. It made for a noisy, slightly raucous exit. I am sure she would have approved.

Several months later, my sisters and I gathered to divide up the rest. Digging through piles of my mother’s jewelry, I thought of the long afternoons I had passed as a child doing much the same, when the shiny stuff served as a conduit to imaginary worlds. This time, the only character conjured was Mom herself. But what a character she was. And what a gift that she had left us so much, not only to remember her by, but to play with. Piece for piece, we all agreed, the bling had lost some magic, disconnected now from its power source. Some of it looked, in fact, like junk. Collectively, though, it was marvelous evidence of how she had moved through life. Maybe not fearlessly, as I had once believed, but with a voracious appetite, and an enviable arsenal of swagger.

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