Old customs are easy to forget with the flashing of events in our lives. Easy to forget, like the heavy clothing we once wore to survive the winters. It is an old custom, the handing down of things. A good knife, a well-made pipe, a heavy robe. Tradition falls prey to constant change, and creativity becomes so revered that the past is a relic, only to be admired. Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, 2007
A couple years ago, my husband’s Aunt Sue and I sat on her couch while she reminisced about her childhood in North Dakota, her aunts and uncle, her treasured heirlooms. Evidence of Sue’s mental unraveling surrounded us. Stacks of mail drifted across the dining room table. Food containers, Sucrets boxes of quarters, grocery store flyers, church bulletins, newspapers, and other flotsam buried the kitchen counters. Sue, oblivious to her inability to manage her life, smiled as she told me about her antique desk and the needlepoint pictures stitched by her deceased husband.
“Would you like to see my jewelry?” she asked.
I did, and we headed upstairs to retrieve her plastic jewelry cases. Back on the couch, Sue, her eyes twinkling, began by plucking pieces from their little slots and telling me some history.
“This is my high school pin….
These earrings I got from Aunt Gert…
Ray gave me this watch as an anniversary gift. He always bought me lovely things…
Mother wore these earrings…
This is my birthstone ring that I got from my godmother…”
Had Sue known what lay ahead of her, she would have entrusted the jewelry and her other cherished possessions to me right then and there. But she didn’t know. When we moved her to the dementia care facility a few months later, the bank that handled her trust sold her condo and her furniture, but refused to let us take her china, her silverware, her jewelry, or even her old books or photos. Instead, they kept some of it in a safe deposit box and the rest in a storage facility.
A couple of months after Sue’s funeral, the bank allowed us to collect her things. They handed over a fabric bag from the safe deposit box along with the keys to the storage facility. Behind the Safe Storage cubicle’s corrugated metal door in a box on the cement floor, sat the plastic trays Sue and I had looked through in her home on that July afternoon.
Mike and I loaded up the car with the boxes, and headed home, then dragged the boxes down to our basement. Just what had we collected? Technically, it didn’t belong to us but to Mike’s dad, age ninety, in an assisted living facility in Iowa, and his aunt Elizabeth, age eighty-four, in a nursing home in California. Of course, they didn’t want it, so the task of sorting through it all fell to me.
Time to divvy it up.
Grandma’s diamond engagement ring was the plum that should go to Mike’s sister Barb; after all, she was Sue’s only niece.
What about the rest?
I sifted through it all … tiny earrings with colored stones, watches with dime-sized faces , gold chains that Sue had kept untangled by threading them through drinking straws, rings to fit pencil-sized fingers, a silver bracelet or two, some turquoise, a couple of jade charms. Then, I lugged the bag into a local jewelry exchange where the owners examined every piece to see what was gold or silver. Just like Antiques Roadshow, I thought, as I hovered over the counter. Except, there was no “Eureka!” moment. There was a gold charm bracelet worth several hundred dollars, a few broken chains worth a little, and some silver. Those filigree earrings with twinkly green stones? The sweet ruby ring? Not saleable.
Would anyone want any of it?
I plucked a silver bracelet from the bag to keep for myself, one the appraiser valued at thirteen dollars. I chose Sue’s opal engagement ring, too. Later, I had my daughter and daughter-in-law poke through it all. A couple baubles caught their fancy, and, just for fun, Kate took Sue’s Northwest Airlines stewardess pin from the ‘50’s. They also selected some delicate earrings as keepsakes for our granddaughters. But they barely made a dent in the mishmash. I sent photos to my sister-in-law Barb and she passed them on to my nieces. What did they want? Each of them eyed a piece or two, and I convinced Barb to claim a marcasite pin that I knew she’d wear. The bag didn’t seem to be getting any lighter, and I pawed through everything one more time, taking plastic bangles in bright colors and a couple pairs of clearance-rack earrings.
I cashed in the gold bracelet whose charms held special memories for Sue, but not for us. I sold some silver and turquoise bracelets, and the high school pin. But the rest? Seems it’s worthless. A harsh word, worthless.
Some of the pieces were gifts given long ago, for birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions. The givers and the recipients are all gone, and the memories of those special occasions have died too. Once upon a time, the ruby earrings made Sue’s heart sing; she wore that dainty watch with pride. Today, the remaining hodgepodge is holed up in my closet. I can’t bring myself to get rid of these leftovers from Sue’s life, even the tarnished, hopelessly out-of-style odds and ends.
I’ve been thinking about what’s in my own jewelry collection. Where will it all end up? All kinds of trinkets– my high school ring, the little pearl earrings I wore on my wedding day, and a green cocktail ring my husband bought me years ago– are nestled in their felt-lined places in my dresser….waiting. But I wonder, what are they waiting for? All of it, no matter how pretty it may be, is in the end, just our stuff.