After a lengthy hiatus from writing memoir to write a second book, my first of fiction, I returned to memoir, and recently completed an essay about my mother and I during her final months of life . . . or so I thought. Yes, grief was palpable throughout the paragraphs, yet, when I read the essay a final time before handing it to the editor, I learned more not only about my mother, but also more about myself.
While going through my mother’s belongings after her death, I asked my older sister about a small gold-toned jewelry box. I remember my mother telling me long ago she believed it was a first Christmas gift from my sister and her brother. (Children from our father’s first marriage). I described the box to her as being from the sixties, opening like an accordion with three tiers lined in once deep purple velvet now faded to pink. Atop the lid, cloudy rhinestones were inlaid in a leaf medallion and outlined the box’s outer edges. I hoped my telling would sound familiar and spark her memory, but she did not believe it came from her and her brother.
I remembered this vintage box from my childhood, with its little ball feet always found atop my mother’s dresser and surrounded by a spritz bottle of Nina Ricci, a mix of silver and gold jewelry that regularly adorned her earlobes and chest, and a square ceramic picture frame with a black-and-white photo of my grandmother, her mother, dressed with large pearl earrings and a small ring of them around her neck.
The box must have had value to my mother. Perhaps it was the “French boudoir” look to it, as reason for her to keep it for sixty years. Or maybe because she considered it a thoughtful gesture by her husband’s children, touched by the gift as if a warm embrace.
I wondered about the box and why I held it, as it appeared to have no equal value to me. But when I spread open the box’s tiers, plumes of memories trailed—my child eyes perusing the top of my mother’s dresser, fingers tapping each bauble of her necklace, fingering her earrings, bending and leaning close to catch the scent of her L’air du Temps Parfum. The tarnished box appeared elegant and innocent, petite and curious to me, perhaps an apropos description of my mother, one who always modeled a clean and tidy appearance. I think now how this reflected womanly virtues, and not necessarily a mother, my mother, who indulged in her appearance and her scent, and, unbeknownst to her, who would become an example for her daughter in instilling the ways of style and taste, if not, self-care.
After my father’s death, a select few items of his lay on the bed in their bedroom. “Pick anything you’d like,” his wife said to me while I stood just outside, surveying from a distance his personal effects: a few belts, a stopwatch, a ring or two, a tarnished chain bracelet, and a shiny steel Swiss Army-style knife etched with his signature. At first, I thought the items to be meaningless to me, leftovers from the good stuff that must have already been taken: photographs, albums of his growing up, baby pictures, his thesaurus, and Barlett’s Familiar Quotations he used when preparing speeches to address an audience of advertising executives.
After she left the room, and I thought a second, I quietly stepped into the bedroom and gave a quick look at the display. I picked up the knife and noticed his signature was etched into the steel. On my way out, I grabbed the stopwatch, slippery in my hand and attached with a long heavy loop of cotton braid hanging between my fingers.
I took the knife not only because I thought my father had a cool signature, but also because how mine looked much like his. This sparked a glimmer in recognition of how alike we were, a possible connection, if just in our signatures. The stopwatch in my hand was a memory when it was once in my father’s grasp, timing commercials while they were being produced. Perhaps one day my advertising career could lead to doing that, too, just like him? The simple silver etching of his name and a stopwatch helped me to learn more about my father, and me, too, and to connect to him in a way that begged for a father-daughter relationship that had eluded us for most of our lives.
A jewelry box, a Swiss Army knife, and a stopwatch identify their owners who have left them behind and bestow a connection to one’s own identity by those who have kept them.
“Of An Orange,” my essay in memoir, will be published next spring. Orange citrus skins was what my mother left behind, an understanding in the joy of life’s moments, through her, and through all the connections that we hold in our hands.