When I birth our child, my husband gifts me a pair of small crystalline studs set in a subtle 14-karat gold backing, which I love because they are the opposite of what my mother would have worn. He knows that I prefer simple accessories, dainty, intimate, modest; but we never talk about why.
If I coveted delicate strands with charming pendants and thin watches with plain faces, it was because my mother wore heavy links and a watch made of braided black ropes encrusted with an overabundance of tiny diamonds. She obsessed over elaborate baubles, sparkling with opulent gems and dazzling chains.
She mostly preferred emeralds, which made me grit my teeth, a tense grinding of molars hidden behind upturned lips, because it was my birthstone, not hers. I wasn't angry because I was jealous though; I was angry because she loved to talk about how she was collecting all this jewelry so that she could bequeath it to me upon her death. She often made a scene in the jewelry store, making a point of checking with me to ensure I approved of her newest selection, proclaiming to the salesperson behind the glass counter, "this will all be hers one day," with a flick of a wrist in my direction. She made it clear that she was building this treasure trove of opulence for after she was gone, and all I wanted her to do was focus on just being here now.
My father and I obliged her cravings: the dangling amethyst earrings for her birthday that fell almost to her petite shoulders, the opal tennis bracelet for Christmas that was custom fit to her tiny wrist, a rare black pearl pendant on Mother's Day.
And Mother's Day was always the worst, because it was always the same week as my birthday, so we shared the celebration. She would dangle her latest treasure at eye level, beam as she told me that although it was hers now, it would one day be mine, so it was my birthday gift, too. But I only ever wanted the newest Barbie doll, or the fancy embossed copy of Little Women I had asked for, or her attention.
She wasn't extravagant in other parts of life, just with the jewelry. The car she drove was a standard, beige sedan, our house was always under repair, our vacations were simple road trips. I never knew what it was that motivated her—the allure of donning the shiny ornaments, the fact that she grew up with nothing, often shoplifting her clothing from the Salvation Army, the illusion that we were better off than we were? Or perhaps the jewelry was the opposite of what her mother would have liked, and that was reason enough.
Then my brother died, and without warning, she cast aside the diamonds and rubies and my emeralds and replaced them with a simple silver locket with his name and date of death engraved on the front, his picture captured within. The jewels were stowed away into pretty carved boxes and velvet bags, to await their passage from mother to daughter.
It was that way for the rest of her years; she joked that the locket resting on her chest was her way of wearing her heart on her sleeve, but it wasn't funny, not to me. I thought it was morbid, tacky even, to start every encounter with his death date emblazoned across her chest as if his loss had branded her, burnt into her flesh, and her being. I missed him too, but I told her I didn't want my grief to define me, define her. Newcomers to her presence would say, "oh what's on your locket," and she would respond, "he was my son." Meaning: I am grieving, I am without him, I am a childless mother.
I pleaded with her to swap the locket out for another pendant, or perhaps tuck it in, hide it under a flowy blouse. She never would; the necklace never left its residence around her neck until the day we sent her body off for cremation, carefully unfastening it, for she wouldn't have wanted it to burn.
And now, all I have left of her is this painted jewelry box filled with traces of her, and I can't bring myself to wear them. There is only one that leaves the box, one simple ring that I had gifted to her one Mother's Day in my youth. I wear it on my right hand, my ring finger the exact same size as hers had been. I wear it while I sleep, when I swim in the ocean, and when I travel. I refuse to remove it, even when my hands have swelled during pregnancy and the gold band cuts into my circulation, even during the agony of labor, even during the birth of my own daughter.
It is a simple gold band, its tiny prongs snugly gripping an oval-shaped onyx gemstone. Atop the black stone, a simple word is overlaid in gold script: Mom.
I allow her to be my first encounter with others, let her define me, let her brand me. Strangers will comment, "what a beautiful ring," and I respond, "it was my mother's." Key word: was. I am without her. I am motherless.