Tuesday, July 24
The Family Jewels
I spent the last week in Colorado visiting friends and family and came back with lots of new freckles and some new things to wear, including lots of cheap jewelry. As I was putting my new things away I began to think about my mother's jewelry. My mom was a big fan of accessorizing and prized all manner of baubles and dangly things. I, on the other hand, have had to adapt to wearing jewelry. Adorning myself has not come naturally to me. Until recently I've often felt silly or overdressed when wearing jewelry. Even my wedding ring, which is literally just a small silver band, felt a bit gaudy at first. Lately, however, I am rapidly becoming a big fan of draping myself in diamonds. Just kidding. Actually, in the same fashion as my mother, I tend to gravitate toward the costumey, the ridiculous and the cartoonish. I'm a big fan of anything that looks like a middle school Art/English teacher would wear. Wooden elephants? Turquoise? Noisy? Yes. Give it.
Sorting through my mom's jewelry has been something I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember. I loved opening all three of the jewelry boxes (two fabric covered old fashioned ones that belonged to my grandma and one smooth, shiny black one that transformed into a mini vanity when you opened it) and taking everything out, examining each item, trying a few things on, ranking things, untangling things, matching things, and then putting it all away again as neatly as possible. Type A since birth, I tell ya.
When I was a kid the jewelry boxes were a mix of my mom's jewelry as well as my grandmother's. My mom had class rings, little things my father brought back from his deployments, a jade Buddha, lots of jangly bracelets, her name in Egyptian on a pendant. She liked things that looked African or earthy, and later in life started picking up hippie pieces. Glass beads, handmade necklaces, quartz. My grandmother's items were gaudy and loud and distinctly from the 70's and 80's. I remember a lot of clip-on earrings. My favorite piece belonged to her: a pair of dangly fruit earrings. A bunch of tiny little plastic fruits -bananas, apples, oranges, limes- bunched up together and attached to a post. My mom never wore them, but I thought they were fabulous because they reminded me of the Carmen Miranda caricatures I had seen in cartoons.
At some point my mother had a young couple move in with her. They seemed nice enough the few times I met them, but one day my mom came home from work to find that they had robbed her. The stole her pillows, food, silverware and most of what was in the three jewelry boxes. None of it was worth anything to anyone except the two of us, and I'm still heartbroken thinking about that couple trying to pawn my grandmother's jewelry only to find that it was junk. I imagine them just throwing it all away like it was garbage, angry with themselves for stealing something that might have been special to my mother. The best case scenario is that maybe they dropped it all off at a thrift store and some silly woman who likes silly things found those fruit earrings and brought them home.
Fortunately some of my mother's things were spared: lockets of my three uncles as boys, my grandmother's AA pendant, a brass cuff I used to pull all the way up my arm and pretend I was an Amazon princess with (top left), a hematite necklace my father brought back from Africa (top right), the pendant with Carmenita (her name) written in Heiroglyphics.
When I was 20, about 7 years after I moved across the country away from her, my mom died. We went down to Florida for her funeral, to collect her things, to collect her, and I made it very clear to everyone that her jewelry would be mine. I took the two remaining boxes home after her funeral and sorted through them just as I had when I was a little girl. The collection had changed. Still nothing fancy and much of it was still familiar, but there were also the crazy jingly earrings I'd bought her for Christmas one year (bottom left) and tickets stubs from plays and an old pack of cards I'll never understand the importance of.
I have gone through these boxes periodically over the last five years, sorting, untangling, trying things on. I've added lots of my own baubles: an adjustable penguin ring from an old boyfriend, a necklace I stole as a child from a girl I still know, a ring given to me by my best friend when we worked at Burger King and thought it might be fun to get married. I miss the jade Buddha, the carved wooden necklaces, the plastic fruit earrings, but I'm elated to have anything at all.
Now that I'm into jewelry, sorting through the boxes has been a different kind of fun. I'm actually wanting to wear things, pulling them out and setting them aside to pair with outfits. Since I came back last week I've actually taken out quite a lot to wear. This is a kind of joy that I can't really describe. My mother left behind very little when she died and my brother and I barely managed to keep any of it. A cardigan, her jewelry, some figurines, x-rays of her skull, her ashes. These are pretty much the only things that are left. To integrate any of them into my daily life is a monument to my mother's. I know she'd be so happy to see her jewelry worn rather than arranged neatly in the dark, in a box, silently waiting for another chance at rearrangement.