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In My Mother’s Jewelry Box, A Wish

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I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was 23 years old. I’m not sure why I held out so long: a craven fear of pain, maybe, or a stubborn resistance to decoration of any kind. I was the girl in a hoodie and sneakers, not the girl who wore earrings or makeup or who contemplated her own prettiness.

Unlike me, golden hoops and silver tassels dangle and wave in my mother’s ears. She’s getting ready for a party with our father, slipping into the black and white Chanel shoes she found on eBay, the dress she designed herself and had a tailor make. In her jewelry box are more jingling earrings, some made with bright glass beads and giant jewels. My mother’s taste is bold, modern, and always fashion-forward.

As children, my mother lets us fawn over the pretty things she owns; she carefully opens a box within a box and shows us a delicate ceramic rose pin she was given when she was in high school, the petals perfect, unchipped. We look and we ooh and aah and back the lid goes.

All through our childhoods she showed us the things mothers teach their daughters: how to be elegant, how to be noticed in a room, how to match and coordinate, how to smile and shake hands and make others feel welcome in a crowd, how to be able to speak on almost any subject, how not to be trivial. Fashion, she told us, always carries some small transgression within it. It’s about doing what everyone else is trying to do, but better. It’s walking a delicate line between what’s expected of you and what ways you can defy expectation. She taught us how to dress as though we cared about ourselves. It was a kind of outside-in way of imparting that we have worth and beauty, all those things daughters need to learn. She snuck lessons about womanhood into talks about jewelry, about dresses, about why V-neck sweaters are good for wide shoulders and why jeans aren’t appropriate for every occasion. All those conversations about style were my mother’s way of teaching me to care about myself.

When I visit my grandparents, I look through my grandmother’s matching jewelry box, containing several more decades worth of acquisitions and family history. My grandmother arrived in New York City from Wichita, Kansas, and got her college degree and a job in television broadcasting. My grandfather was one of New York’s first TV anchormen for the evening news. In his day he interviewed all the living presidents up to Nixon. There’s a wall of photographs in the darkly painted den: him laughing with Lucille Ball, or holding a microphone up to Marilyn Monroe. He drifts through the house in his striped pajamas and bathrobe on the weekend mornings that I visit, whistling sad, stately tunes from another era, while my grandmother tells me stories about every piece in her collection. There’s Nanny’s ring and Dodo’s pearls. Her own engagement ring with the tiny diamond baguettes on the side in a V for victory, because there was a war on, she tells me. Her father’s Mason pin. And look at all these lovely earrings, wouldn’t you look pretty in these, she says, her periodic temptation. No, those aren’t for me, I insist.

There are pieces that I know are earmarked for me, and it makes me oddly anxious, as though I can feel their weight on my back.

It seems that the job of women is to hold onto things, remember the stories, and pass them on. I hear about my Kansan great-grandmother out during a storm, who stripped hastily out of her metal hoopskirts after lightning struck nearby. I learn she was a writer too, and wrote a coming-of-age story that is now out of print. She once owned the golden typewriter charm that’s now in the jewelry box. When she died, I learn, she left an unfinished manuscript in an envelope that my grandmother discovered, along with the instruction to burn without reading. Obedient daughter, my grandmother let it burn without looking at a page.

I imagine these women walking single-file through history, passing this piece and this one behind them from daughter to daughter’s daughter. There are pieces that I know are earmarked for me, and it makes me oddly anxious, as though I can feel their weight on my back.

What am I going to do with all these earrings if you don’t get yours pierced? My grandmother asks. Your sister’s going to get them all. And my mother says this too, a few years later when she gets sick, and we learn she is dying.

By then I didn’t have to ask her why it was important to her. I already knew. I’d felt it with all the different women in my life who laid out their collections and let me touch and marvel and listen to the stories that seemed to ride along with each piece. Half of the joy of a jewelry collection is being able to pass it on, to tell a daughter or a niece about the woman who wore this, the quest to acquire it, the family history or the journey, and the lessons learned about love or self-determination. Jewelry is a vehicle for all that we pass down, and the meaning that comes from that unbroken chain.

You looked worried, she says. But now you know what it feels like.

When I finally walk into a Claire’s to get my ears pierced with my mother, I’m 23 and living in a Portuguese immigrant neighborhood in Cambridge, where the girls in line with me range in age from 2 to 12. They all seem less nervous than I am. The store employees have to crank the tiny chair down so I can fit under the brilliant light. My mother is dying but we never use the word dying. We almost never use the word cancer. The disease, the two-year battle, has opened up so many silences between us, things we’re thinking but we can’t say. We don’t want to cause each other more pain.

In the chair, the young store employee draws circles on my lobes. I look at my mother and she squeezes my hand. I cling to her like a much younger child. Then there’s the pinch, sharper and longer than I thought. How did I do? I ask. How did I look?

You looked worried, she says. But now you know what it feels like. It’s always easier when you know what kind of pain to expect.

What do you do for your daughter? You collect all the good things in your life and save them to pass on. You try to teach her how to be your version of a good woman; and when she fails to be that, you sigh, and smile. You fight for her. You fight with gritted-teeth ball-busting hair-pulling fury.

Just think of everything you can do now, she says. She means wearing earrings but it sounds for a moment like everything.

Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted: A Novel, out today from W. W. Norton & Company.