The Solace of Mail-Order Beads

Three years after my mother’s death, my small New York City apartment is crammed full of her jewels. Enough jewelry to stock a 47th Street showroom. Enough to give away to friends, donate to shelters for homeless women and/ or sell a good part of and still have a different accessory for every day of the year. Three years later, I’ve neither donated, sold nor even worn much of it.

After a parent dies we expect a period of emptiness, a grappling with what is suddenly gone. What no one tells us is that from death we are suddenly heavy with stuff, pregnant with a thousand-andone inherited possessions for most of which we have neither use nor place. Whether I was going to keep it or part with it, I had to stop treating my mom’s jewelry like a museum piece.

So this year I decided that in the month leading up to her birthday in November, I would wear one piece of her jewelry every day, each selection documented on a Tumblr photo blog. The blog would challenge me to explore her collection, to decide what I loved and what I could part with, and maybe even help me start thinking of it as my own.

In the last years of her life, jewelry became my mom’s solace and her creative outlet. She learned how to make all types of beaded jewelry while brutal cycles of chemo and radiation, as vicious as the cancers they purported to be fighting, made it harder and harder for her to leave her bed. In the months before she died, she was even working through a correspondence course from the Gemological Institute of America to becoming certified in pearl evaluation and grading.

But when she had no energy or focus for beading and reading, there was the 24-hour jewelry bazaar via shopping channels like HSN and QVC. Tantalizingly small envelopes showed up at her door at least once or twice a week. If my mom was a prisoner of her bed, then the yellow mailers from her friends at QVC were her Red Cross packages.

Connected to the arrival of each new package was a little ritual we enacted together. While hanging out in her bedroom, mom would go to one of her many exquisitely organized boxes of jewelry. “Come here, I want to show you something.” I would look over, and sigh, quietly, as she took out a necklace or ring. “This is Swiss blue topaz” she would say. Or, “This is chrysolite.” Or prasolite or tanzanite or some other gem invented by a swashbuckling team of HSN affiliated marketer-geologists. My mom was in love with her clusters of exotic gems while I ached for the simplicity of a single, perfectly cut ruby or a sapphire.

“Do you like it?” This was always the tricky part. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like them. I didn’t like the gaudy gems with funny, newfangled names. I didn’t like that my mom was spending so much money on jewelry.

“It’s pretty,” I would say, “for you…”

“Oh, you think it’s too old lady-ish?”

“No… it’s just more your style. Are you giving it to me?” Then she’d smile, mock chastisingly. “No, not right now. But it will be yours some day.”

Most of all, I hated this, the casual reminder that she was dying and that, sooner rather than later, all I would have would be her beloved collection of high-tech baubles. So she would lovingly tell me about each piece, the name, origin, where she got it from. And I would smile and pretend to be listening until, satisfied, she put that night’s ring or necklace back in its home. I just wanted to go back to snuggling in front of Animal Planet and to pretend that nothing would ever change.

Today it’s just me and hundreds of pieces of jewelry sparkling mutely in their velvet boxes, still in the order in which my mom last arranged them. I have no idea which is the chrysolite and which is the prasolite. If I could go back, I would pay attention to every detail.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a writer in New York City. She is working on her first book, The Myth of the Yiddish Atlantis: Toward a Theory of Dynamic Yiddishkayt.