When I was a little girl, my grandpa was a fixture in my life. He lived about 15 minutes down the road, give or take, and could be with us on short notice. For that reason among others, he was there often enough. My mom’s side of the family had many gatherings bringing the children and grandchildren together. I grew up with my cousins as playmates.
Since I was at an awkward age distance to the cousins and I was less interested in rule-breaking, I often ended up seated with my grandpa listening to him talk about his most recent adventures, politics, and his varying opinions on everything (and he had an opinion on everything). I loved to hear him talk about his rock hunting. He was an amateur gemologist and had fun creating lapidary art. He made bolo ties and rings and a few different things here and there. Mostly, he enjoyed the hunt. He had a story about where he got each rock, where the gem was hidden within it, how he would cut it to get the most of the stone and the best presentation. Once he had cut and buffed each stone to a shine, he’d bring it around to show it off. Grandpa enjoyed the hunt so much that when he died, he had the only spare room in their tiny house filled with rocks; coffee canisters full of rough sapphires, opals, topaz. Some larger rocks were spread out on the table for later critical examination. We still have a number of those veined rocks in our possession and have never managed to have them cut. We keep them nearby and remember.
Gems and jewelry have always been a point of recollection and reference to me. We invest in these items to have something beautiful, yes, but also to mark occasions and to stir memory. In my family, jewelry and cut gems always tell a story. Even if given for a non-occasion, these trinkets (valuable or not) represent something.
I recall when my parents went on their first real vacation without us kids. I remember because of the gifts they brought back: two bracelets. One bracelet was mother of pearl with stars and moons across it. Simple, but nicely made in sterling silver. The other bracelet was made of coral beads, simply because it was interesting. It is the only coral bracelet that I have. They told us that “children aren’t allowed in Hawai’i.” These bracelets will always remind us of these stories, how we missed them, and how we were terribly betrayed when we found out that some of our friends in elementary school went to Hawai’i over summer vacation.
As I grew up, the items eventually became more expensive in order to grow our collections. My mom took after her father; she was interested in the origin of the stones, the cut of the stones, finding them herself and having them put into a setting she designed. I suppose my father was also like this; he had her wedding set designed from his own sketches by a local jeweler. The gems had meaning, the setting had meaning. Time and effort went into the search and the acquisition of the pieces, whether big or small. My mom was determined that we would wait for no man to give us our precious baubles; we should feel free to get them for ourselves to commemorate significant occasions. So it was that my mom became the primary source of my collection.
Eventually, as I got older and boys entered the picture, I received love tokens from my first boyfriend. I received a few necklaces, the one I adore most was lost on a vacation. It was a small golden pinecone that he had bought for me while he was away with his family over Christmas. He was in Keystone, I got a sweet little pinecone pendant on a chain. Even though it is now gone, it was the first nice gift he ever bought me over our three-year relationship. It was sweet, it was thoughtful and it was beautiful. I sincerely hope that it is just buried somewhere in my 1st Love Memory Box. It was the first piece of jewelry a boy ever bought me and it was sweet.
I grew up and we grew apart, the love gifts full of memories put away for a later day’s reminiscence. High School ended and my parents gave me the most beautiful piece of jewelry I had ever received to that point: an amethyst ring. The deep purple emerald-cut amethyst was tension mounted with two small diamonds on either side tension mounted within their own yellow gold windows. I received the ring with the note and warning:
As you move forward in life and onward to college, remember the amethyst. It symbolizes sobriety and clear headed thinking. Wear this and remember.
After college, a friend of mine that I became close with was teaching herself how to make jewelry using precious metal wire. She made me a beautiful copper window with a bent tree with leaves of glass beads and tourmaline. The piece is not expensive, but it is unique and irreplaceable. She made it with her own hands, taking her own time, experimenting, investigating, and thinking of what I would enjoy. It is a snapshot of a time in my life before she moved when we spent a fair amount of time together and we shared our life experiences. I receive compliments on it all the time and it is a staple of my minimalist wardrobe.
In the longest relationship I’ve had, there were many items of jewelry. Many of them were pieces that I suspect he bought me simply because I liked them and had told him. He often did not have much of an opinion on gems; he knew little and seemed to take each lesson from me as a push toward engagement instead of sharing my heritage. He did try, however, and I received a number of pretty little baubles that have remained in use to this day. As a matter of fact, one particular gift of love “a manacle” (for those who know your Shakespeare), was recently worn by my daughter at her 8th-grade promotion ceremony and dance.
A favorite was a gift at the end of everything. It was one of the least expensive items he ever bought me, but it meant a lot to me. I had started nursing school and was beside myself for getting one question wrong on an exam about medical association abbreviations. The professor administering the exam had offered a reward to any student who received 100%: a set of beautiful rhinestone earrings that she had been making and selling at craft shows. I actually cried over getting that one wrong. It was not that I so badly wanted the earrings, it was that I knew I could do better (and technically, I was not wrong; my abbreviation was a medical association, just not the one they were looking for). I was frustrated and since it was the first test in nursing school, I took it pretty badly.
I got home and he had something for me. The most beautiful little Swarovski earrings were there, just for me, because he felt that, regardless, I deserved them. It was one of the sweetest and kindest gestures he had ever made toward me and I associated those earrings with glowing happiness. He had such a hard time giving meaningful gifts and this one was perfect. It was touching and it was one of the most positive gifts he ever gave me.
Other items from that time, I have given away. They have a story all their own and the memories need no cues. It’s best that those memories be summoned the least and so the well-worn and much-beloved items have been given into the care of a friend, waiting for the time they may not bring to mind the memories now blended and tarnishing their shine.
On the other hand, his mother and I had similar feelings about jewelry. Two pieces I cherish most came from her. One in particular was a family heirloom; a small, hand-cut diamond from India. It had been passed down through the family. Each woman reset the stone as she did not like the previous setting. It had been in a ring and a few necklaces. The diamond was bezel set in beautiful yellow gold and the hand-crafted cuts could be examined easily within the setting. I had received it when the relationship was still on the upswing and wore it proudly at special occasions. It was a sign of acceptance into the family and a nod to our shared love of jewelry and the stories they told. One of my deepest regrets was not going to a gem auction with her when I had the chance, it was on the downswing of things and I felt awkward and unable to relate to her normally. I was so afraid of having to answer for how things were going that I turned down the offer to attend. Again, I deeply regret having done so. I heard tell that there were some spectacular pieces on display with wonderful stories all their own.
When the relationship ended, I wrote her a letter expressing my sadness but offering to give back the family heirloom. It was something that had been in the family and despite my love for her and the family, I wished for her to be able to share the story with someone else who would stay in the family. She expressed to me that it was intended for me, regardless of relationship, and she was glad to have me be the keeper of the story.
I have other gems; the first piece I bought myself after my daughter was born (a faceted rainbow moonstone necklace), my cross given to me for my Confirmation, a few gorgeous rings that I received for birthdays. All these things are valuable on their own, but they are beyond priceless for me. The tales that go with them will go to my daughter so that she can remember and send the memory forward to her daughter.
We tell our tales through the stones that existed before we ever took our first breaths and that will endure far longer than my daughter’s last heartbeat.
This is my heritage, this is my legacy.
This is my hope: that the memories written in metal and stone will be recalled throughout the graying years and bring comfort as we age. We will be able to share the tales and give these gifts with our love.