25_50 Mama’s Jewelry Box

The coffee cake in the oven fills the old adobe house with aromas of brown sugar and cinnamon, fresh butter mingled with fresh brewed coffee and pulls me from my bed. “Donna Kaye, come I have your dress ready,” Mama calls. I slide on my pajama’d bottom down the steps of the wooden staircase, skip past the ironing board where morning sun floods in, where dresses and cotton shirts are draped and pressed just so. I round the corner into the cool sky blue of Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. Mama is Athena there in her silky petticoat, the ivory with lace trim, standing at her bureau pulling curlers from her hair with one hand, and sorting her jewelry box with the other. She holds up a piece and lays it back down, searching for just the right piece to go with her outfit.

“What pretty will you wear today, Mama?”

“Well, maybe you can help me decide.” We lean our heads together, foreheads almost touching, me on tiptoes. I inhale Mama’s Sunday scent, the light shade of Avon mixed with a spritz of hairspray. We get side-tracked then, as we often do with many interesting things on any given day of the week, when time deliciously crawls in a child’s world and is forgotten for an artist as my mother is. We’ll be late for church most surely, but in this sacred space outside of clock time we are looking at precious things: a prism necklace her grandfather purchased for her grandmother at the Chicago World Fair in the early 1900’s; a petite cameo broach passed down from her grandmother, a gift bequeathed to each of the four girls, my mother and her sisters, on their 30th birthdays, each with its own beautiful style and design and specially chosen to match the personality of the grand-daughter. My mother’s broach is no bigger than a coat button, with intricately etched detail of a beautiful woman’s profile, white against pink, with a tiny strand of pearls and diamonds.

I can’t imagine having even one such valuable treasure, let alone four to give away. I want to be rich and have beautiful treasures so I can give them away when I’m old. Mama tells me the about her Grandma Beurtscher, a proper lady with impeccable taste and manners; a fairytale character in contrast to our earthy adobe life out on the high desert. Nestled next to the cameo broach, sits a tiny basket for making wishes drilled from a peach pit. The simple treasure was fashioned by her grandpa, a short round Norwegian man who drank all together too much hooch and ate stinky limburger cheese. I touch it shyly with my pointer finger and secretly make a wish. I don’t remember ever knowing these people of whom our stories were woven. All we knew of the tenacious mid-western children of Norwegian immigrants who were left no choice but to survive the great depression, were the stories my mother told, usually in the kitchen or here in front of her jewelry box. I figured they needed lots of wishes back then, and maybe a bigger basket.

I happily fingered the dough beads on a string necklace one of us kids made, that rested next to a starburst pin that Mama wore with silky scarves. “Here, Mama, wear this.” I gently lifted a small heart of tiny rubies set in gold, a necklace Daddy gave Mama years ago.

*     *     *

A sob forms in my chest when suddenly I can’t recall my daughter standing with me in front of my own jewelry box, let alone her grandmother’s. I’m sure it happened, but we had a library full of books we loved to share and discuss, youtube videos, movies, performances to rehearse; my memory is blurred. We weren’t afforded the simplicity of coffee cake and quiet on a Sunday morning. We more readily costumed for production.

I must see to this. My Cierra is no longer a little girl and I miss her terribly. Did we ever sit and try pieces on, tell the stories about this ring, or that watch? Do I have any treasured legacy pieces, symbols that carry our family story? Now the physical miles between us make such moments only a wish. Rather than diamond and pearls, I think of the tiny peach pit wish basket nestled in mama’s jewelry box all those years ago. I find myself arranging the drawers of my own jewelry box so that when my daughter returns home she can find treasures here with stories like ones my mama gave to me. Heirlooms, memories, a mystery or two, a love note from my son when he was three. Most of all, I want her to be find herself here, a shining jewel shining against the black velvet…and maybe a little peach pit wish basket hiding in the second drawer.