The Story of Things: Aquamarine Earrings from My Grandmother

After every natural disaster, as people pick through the remains of their homes, we hear them tell reporters that what is important is that they and their families are safe. They are overwhelmed by their material losses, but they know their family’s survival is the most critical fact.

And yet, our material belongings are important. Most of us have at least a few possessions that matter to us, because of the memories they bring to mind. Photographs. Mementos. Childhood treasures. We come back to these things over and over, and we grieve when we lose them. These things – and the stories behind them – remind us who we are and where we came from.

IMAG0616For my 18th birthday, my grandmother gave me a pair of aquamarine earrings from Argentina. In addition to the aquamarine drops, each earring had a tiny diamond in it. I still have them, and I smile every time I look at them and wear them.

Why do I smile? Not because the earrings are beautiful, although they are. No, I smile because they make me recall myself as an 18-year-old, and because they bring to mind my grandmother.

My 18th birthday was the first birthday I spent away from home. I was a freshman at Middlebury College, 3,000 miles away from where I grew up. My birthday, which is in early April, occurred during spring break, but even though classes were not in session, I couldn’t go home – it was too far, and too expensive.

I was fortunate that a good friend at Middlebury invited me to visit her home that spring break. She and her family gave me a wonderful birthday celebration – a special dinner, a cake, gifts – as nice as if I had been at home with my family.

But it wasn’t my home, and I was homesick that birthday. My parents and siblings and grandmother sent gifts (including these earrings), but I missed their presence on this milestone birthday.

When I see the earrings today, I remember the hospitality of my friend and her family, but I also remember my wistfulness. The earrings are a symbol of my growth into adulthood, but also a reminder of family left behind as I grew.

And the earrings make me remember my grandmother.

She bought these earrings and many other gifts for family members on a six-week cruise to South America that she took a couple of months before my 18th birthday. It was a monumental event in her life – the first international trip she had taken as a widow. Her gift seemed exotic to me – a present from another hemisphere.

My parents and I laughed all that year, as my grandmother delivered gift after gift she had purchased on the trip. We joked that she must have felt guilty for spending her money on the cruise, because she was making sure we all shared in her bounty.

But my grandmother always lived life fully. She gave of herself, her time, and her belongings to friends and family. Although the story we told that year was that she bought the presents out of guilt, in fact we saw her generosity as just one more example of how she always treated those around her.

And that’s why I smile every time I see these earrings. They are a symbol not only of my growth, but of my grandmother’s love, thoughtfulness, and adventuresome spirit.

Which of your possessions make you smile, and what memories do they evoke?

(I put the thimble in the photograph of my earrings to give perspective on their size. The thimble also came from my grandmother. It brings to mind another story, one I’ll tell another day.)

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  1. In our house, almost everything evokes memories and smiles from the Duncan Phyfe furnature Cliff brought from his childhood home to the paintings and photographs from friends and family and adventures. Our whole house is a museum. How nice to have tiny earrings! And beautiful ones at that.

    • Janet,
      Your house is a museum, and a lovely one.
      I worry about who will get the china cabinet (and china) “that came all the way from Ireland” — that’s how it is always identified in my family. This cabinet and the dishes inside came by ship around the tip of South America and up to California when my great-grandmother’s family came to the U.S. Soon, someone in my generation (or the next) will need to make room for it.

  2. I’ve never been big about keeping things. We have a hoarder in our family and having cleaned out her house more than once, I lean toward letting things go. When my mom died, I kept a tacky little butterfly saying that oddly, I’d always asked her to get rid of but then couldn’t bear to part with it myself.

  3. My grandmother, who was the anchor in my life, was a widow for over fifty years, never took her wedding ring off until one day I visited her in the nursing home. She slowly took the plain golden band off her finger, handed it to me and said. “That’s for Ellen.” (My only daughter, then eight years old.)
    “You can’t do that,” I objected, but I left with the ring that day and saved it until the day my daughter got married. Had to have it re-sized by a jeweler, who was able to get 19-ounce gold, illegal now, because he was restoring historic jewelry.

    • Peg, my wedding and engagement rings contain diamonds from a ring my husband’s great-grandfather bought. That man’s son gave the ring to his bride. After that great-aunt was widowed, she gave her ring to my husband, who had my rings made from the stones. But I think of their family history frequently.
      Thanks for the comment.

  4. I have several momentos, connections to our past I cling to as they have helped mold me. Some are happy memories and some bittersweet but entries in my ledger and reminders of stories still waiting to be told. Great post!

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