After Being Complimented on My Spilled Bead Necklace
Imagine a dusty room in Hèrè jè* Training Center, Mali, West Africa with girls sitting at a wooden table stringing beads – twenty-four seed bead strands woven into braids or cords, necklaces to sell to you or me, in black or red, green or yellow, blue or white.
Imagine a bowl of mixed-up beads – and the youngest who sorts what’s spilled. She doesn’t complain, but who doesn’t love to design rather than sort? Sighing, she asks permission: Would it be okay to make a necklace out of mixed-up colors?
Now, imagine me wearing that necklace. Watch how it spills its rainbow strands in speckled ripples, a topo map of dreams, in peaks and waterfalls of red and blue, yellow and green, beads with stripes on opaque white. Imagine wearing happiness from what is spilled. Imagine fingers pushing fishing line through beads the size of sesame – beads that anywhere else, once spilled, would be swept aside, fall into cracks, disappear.
* Happiness group, in Bambara
The Jade Pendant
Christmas, 1965. I opened the small white box and caught my breath. An oval jade pendant, the color of a newly uncurled spring leaf, nestled on a downy fluff of cotton. An intricate gold filigree setting secured the jewel and attached it to a delicate gold chain. Cradling the necklace in my palm, I marveled at the way the smooth, opaque stone both absorbed and reflected the light. I’d never held such a beautiful piece of jewelry.
This exquisite gift from my mother had arrived from a surprising source – Beirut, Lebanon, halfway around the globe from Washington State.
Mom hadn’t planned to be in Beirut; she was supposed to be with Dad in Lyallpur, a small city deep in the heart of West Pakistan, where Dad was part of an international teaching program. But following the eruption of another border war between India and the fledgling nation of West Pakistan, she’d been hastily evacuated to Beirut, then considered “the Paris of the East.”
Mom made the best of her unsettled stay in the exciting cosmopolitan city and took every chance to explore – and shop. She was intrigued by the gold bazaars, glittering treasure troves of jewelry from around the world. Customers could find everything from cheap and gaudy pieces to precious gems. Buyers could even select their own gems and commission individually designed pieces.
Except for my engagement and wedding rings and a pair of pearl earrings, I didn’t own any “real” jewelry. Like many women, I had a drawer full of tangled trinkets, most of them bought on a whim that never quite achieved the look I hoped for.
But the necklace changed the way I shopped for fashion. Instead of looking for the latest clothing styles, I began searching for classic outfits that would enhance the green gemstone. Since I sewed, I made one outfit especially to highlight the pendant. Years later, I wore the pendant for the portrait my husband and I had taken to commemorate our fortieth wedding anniversary. Some day my necklace, along with its story, will belong to my daughter and, I hope, be passed on to her daughter.
Every time I clasp the chain around my neck, I think of the country it came from and my mother’s adventure. I pray that Lebanon, now also tragically torn by political upheaval, will find peace. May Beirut once again become a safe, beautiful cosmopolitan destination for world travelers – and its gold bazaars be filled with glittering gems and gleaming precious metals to give future generations tangible symbols of our hope for lasting peace around the globe.
The long strand of natural pearls my mother’s friend Margaret left her were promised to me. When I visited Mom in Louisville, she’d say, “When I’m gone, you’ll have Maggie’s pearls, unless you want them now.” I wanted them, but how could I ask for them without seeming greedy?
Maggie’s pearls are creamy-colored and gritty against your teeth. Maggie herself was an unpolished stone. Tiny, brilliant, durable. She had a rough tobacco voice and an easy raucous laugh. Black Irish, as my mother called her, she grew up in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. She married a charming but unreliable public relations man who drank his way out of her life, disproving the myth that Jewish men don’t drink.
A ballerina who had danced with the Chicago Opera, Maggie supported herself by teaching ballet at the Jewish Community Center. My mother was her pianist. When Maggie’s daughters left Louisville for New York City, she followed them. There she taught Puerto Rican gang members ballet at the Harlem YMCA. She married Sam, a blustery Manhattan attorney, who doted on her.
After Sam died, Maggie returned to Louisville. She still wore her long hair pulled up into a bun and short skirts to show off her legs and, although she no longer taught ballet, she still danced at weddings. When she got sick, Mom was at her side. One dark night my parents fulfilled Maggie’s final request by scattering her ashes beneath a tree at the JCC.
Looking at the pearls in their velvet box, I began to worry that the sister-in-law who lived in Louisville might take them. As my mother’s health failed, my sister-in-law started commenting on things she’d like – antique demitasses, paintings, my grandmother’s brass candlesticks from Bialystok, Poland. “You better take them before I do,” she laughed and winked. I worried about her key to Mom’s house.
If she got the pearls, it would kill me. She had never met Maggie. Never sat under a grand piano and watched Mom and Maggie choreograph. Never heard Maggie yell, “Plié! You sound like elephants.” Never belted out Passover songs or danced to “Hava Nagila” with Maggie. Never got advice over a bourbon and cigarette. Maggie hadn’t named her “Pirouette” while she was still in utero.
A month ago, Mom died. I’ve only worn the necklace once. Fingering the pearls like some sort of Jewish rosary beads, I thought of how tightly their friendship had tied them together. I could see them laughing over secret jokes as Mom’s nimble fingers played Chopin for young ballerinas. I thought about how much longer the strand of pearls had looked on both those petite women. I’m sure I’ll enjoy wearing them some day. For now, I miss my mother. Pearls are cold comfort.
In memory of Margaret Slaff and Ethel Cooper Baer
Gold Locket I Wear
Mine is a lineage
of pendulum and metal works
brooches spread in a backroom
on walnut tables tin bell
gilt letters that spelled
his name My grandfather’s
reassembled and polished
what was precious
From his father’s
pitched to furnace
weld and salvage
his narrow wrists came
to hover above the gold locket
above the tarnished watch fob
broken chain knotted necklace
Artisan of pawn raised on Manchester’s
steel smoke and coal dust
grown on soot and locomotion
he took his long fingers
handkerchief to his pocket
strapped one valise shut
went out from his land
And though it was not his father’s
fleeing the blazing shtetl
no snapped candlesticks
no pharaoh’s terror still
of the lovely hands
crossed the flannel sea
the second hand sky
Freckled and folksong
jewels sewn into his cuffs
he was as likely as any to founder
but he loved the iced deck
the white stars the white-capped night
loved the gleam that rimmed each porthole
brass bells the idea of gold melting
coins into charms Gripping the salt rail
he did not know his hands
would unravel chains thin as thread
that they would empty the watch
springs and gaskets on velvet
that he would rub his palms
gently and get to work
that what my grandmother
pinned to her chest
what caressed her neck
what held her auburn hair
the boy’s hands would grow into
gold disk my fingers pry open
photoless against skin
I come from
The headline screamed “Phoenix: Building Collapses – 5 Dead.” Chet moaned softly over the paper, his head in his hands. Beverly turned from the kitchen sink. “What’s wrong?”
He pointed at the headline. “That was the abandoned building I inspected last week and approved for demolition. This is terrible. I feel responsible for those people who were caught in the collapse.”
“What else could you have done?”
“I could have required demolition by hand rather than allowing heavy equipment. The story says the backhoe operator was drunk, so he was partly to blame. But he shouldn’t have been working in a building that had no internal supports.”
“No wonder you feel guilty, especially after the disaster last year that was mostly your fault.”
He slumped over and put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I know. Maybe I should quit.”
“You can’t quit. We need the income, but there must be some way you can make amends. Just think how people are going to react. It was embarrassing enough last time. I can’t make light of it by joking anymore.”
He jumped up. “I’m going shopping.”
“What for? The wedding ring you never got me? It’ll help me feel better.”
“Remember when you buy, threatening suicide isn’t enough.”
Later, Chet came in from the garage with a bag and some official looking forms.
“Did you buy my ring?” Beverly asked.
“No, I bought a gun and got the permit application.”
“You’re worried about owning the gun legally when you’re going to shoot yourself?” she scoffed.
“I might change my mind, but I doubt it. If I do, then I’ll be legit.”
Soon Chet was depressed and weak from not eating. He’d called in sick ever since the calamity.
“You know, suicide is the most sincere form of self-criticism. Write your suicide note and see if that makes you feel better,” Beverly urged.
“Okay,” he mumbled, and she helped him word it. Then they loaded the gun to make sure he had the right ammunition.
“You’ve always said you want to die in your old pickup. Let’s go out to the garage and see how it might work,” she prompted.
He stumbled on the steps, but made it to the truck. After getting in, he needed help positioning the gun.
“Do I have to do everything for you?” she grumbled.
BANG! “Oops, it went off and almost sounded like a champagne cork popping,” she said as she withdrew her gloved hand from the top of his. “Don’t worry. I’m calling 911.”
The next morning Beverly sat at the kitchen table and read new headlines. “Building Inspector Commits Suicide.” She smiled. “So, Cheap Chet, you wouldn’t buy me a wedding ring after 30 years together. Now I can buy a dazzling widow’s ring with your generous pension.” And she sipped her champagne.