My Mother's Pearls
That lovely strand of pearls I gave my mom for one of her birthdays were seen by her as such “an extravagant”gift, she thought they belonged in the little red satin box they arrived in.
She would concede to wear them only for very special occasions.
I begged her to wear them every day if she felt like it. She couldn’t imagine that. I finally confessed to her that her perception of extravagance was, well, in the case of these pearls, misperceived. One of my girlfriends, who at that time was a flight attendant, often flew to Beijing and had the opportunity to shop at the night market on her lay-overs. She brought back loads of beautiful real pearls as well as knock-off’s of everything else twice a month.
Mom’s pearls were not the unbelievable extravagance she imagined they were and I was excited to give them to her, she being the kind of lady you'd imagine wearing pearls. I happily bought them for her plus a strand for myself. I liked them, but since I don't see myself as much of a pearl lady, they didn’t mean that much to me. They meant luxury and extravagance to mom and they were special like her.
It took some time and consistent gentle persuasion, until she was finally convinced to wear her pearls with more regularity. I loved seeing them on her. The girls in our clan tend to be hair twizzlers but when mom wore her pearls, she could be seen dreamily twizzling her pearls. I smile every time I remember that image.
Then she died. Suddenly. She died and it was devastating to us all. It took my siblings and I many wrenching months of starts and stops to go through her house and decide what to do with her things before we could put her house on the market. It was just too painful for us. When we could finally gather in her home and not sit and weep, I took the pearls in the red satin box home with me. I rarely wore my own pearls but I began to wear mom’s. They never saw the inside of that red satin box again. I wore them with sweats to work out in, with jeans, in the shower and to bed. I wore them all the time for months. I thought of her everyday while I wore her pearls.
Later in that year after she died, I was dressing to meet friends for dinner in Seattle. It was early winter and bitter cold. I decided to wear a yellow cashmere sweater my mom always admired. It was cozy and warm and made me think of her and naturally, I slipped on the pearls as well. I loved the way it felt to wear them and I loved to tangle my fingers in them, being a natural born hair twizzler like she was, like my sisters and daughters are.
In the middle of a lively conversation at dinner, I absently reached to twirl my mother's pearls and discovered that they were gone! I’d never had occasion to unclasp them before because they were long enough to slip over my head. I looked everywhere, retraced all my steps, enlisted my friends in the search. No pearls anywhere. I was heartbroken. I drove home in tears and shock, the same feelings that I'd had when I suddenly lost my mom welling up all over again. The pearls never turned up. Eventually, I got a grip on myself and accepted that they were gone forever and hoped that whoever found them would happily wear them every day. I put my own pearls in the little red satin box and never wore them again.
On Christmas Eve two years later, I was dressing for a party. I thought about mom’s pearls and wished I could wear them and feel her. I decided to resurrect mine and opened the red satin box for the first time in two years. Empty! I stared at that box in disbelief and stunned confusion. The submerged sense of loss that had dissipated with time, swelled inside of me again and I sat on my bed and cried until I was spent. Finally, resigned, I approached my dresser to retrieve my pearl earrings out of the jumbled tangle of bracelets and necklaces in my jewelry box. I opened that box and there were my pearls, part of the tangle. What a relief to realize that I must have simply forgotten that I put them there. I picked them up to put them on.
Hanging in a loop from my string of pearls were mom’s, clasp in tact, held together, as if they were linked arm and arm, as if they were meant to be together, as if no explanation were necessary. What could possibly be the explanation for something like that? I felt my Mama’s sweet presence acutely and my knees buckled. An extravagant rush of gratitude washed over me, and I began to cry all over again, despair replaced with intense joy and wonder at life’s delicate mysteries.
I wore both strands together that night and the next, the pleasure of them hanging together around my neck and over my heart was delectable. I never suspected in the midst of the music, feast and toasts, all the gaiety of those holiday parties, that it would be the last Christmas I was to share with my dad and my brother alive.
Life and death are so intriguing and strange, both so bittersweet. Life can seem so temporary and death so final. But is that really true? What is real and constant for me is the presence of mystery in them both, the challenge to make some kind of sense of my experiences and stories. I love that. And I love to wear my mother’s pearls.