Those pearls I gave my mom for one of her birthdays were such “an extravagant” gift, she thought they belonged in the 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 those pearls…misperceived. I had a friend, who at that time was a flight attendant, flying to Beijing, with the opportunity to shop at the night market. She brought back beautiful real pearls and knock-off’s of everything else twice a month. Mom’s pearls were not the unbelievable extravagance she imagined they were. I happily bought them for her, and a strand for myself, and earrings, and bracelets and all kinds of things via the Beijing night market. I liked them, but they didn’t mean that much to me. They meant luxury and extravagance to mom and they were special.
It took some time, but she was finally convinced to wear her pearls with more regularity. Then she died. Suddenly. She died and it took my siblings and I many many wrenching months to go through her house and decide what to do with her things. 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 that she died, I was dressing to meet friends in Seattle for dinner. It was early winter and bitter cold. I decided to wear a yellow cashmere sweater my mom always admired, though I never really cared much for it. But it was cozy and warm and made me think of her so 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 daughter are.
In the middle of a lively conversation at dinner, I absently reached to twirl mom’s pearls and discovered that they were gone! I’d never had occasion to unclasp them before because the strand was 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 devastated. I drove home in tears and shock, my heart broken, feeling almost the same as if I were suddenly losing my mom all over again. The pearls never turned up. Eventually, I accepted that they were gone forever and hoped that whoever found them would wear them every day. I put my own pearls in the red satin box and never wore them again.
On Christmas Eve two years later, as I was dressing to go to a party, I thought about mom’s pearls and missed her, wished I could wear them and feel her. I decided I would wear 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, welled up 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 the box and there were my pearls, part of the tangle. What a relief to slowly 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, clasped 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 strange, 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 their experiences and stories. I love that. I’m wearing my mother’s pearls.