My mum loved jewellery. When she died in May of this year, my brother and I sat around the coffee table at my parents’ house emptying boxes and bags of it, deciding what to keep or throw. She had amassed it over her lifetime, some from family – her mother had a similar penchant – some bought herself, some given to her by us for birthdays and Christmases (and some of these still had the notes we’d written enclosed with them), and piles given by her step sister, who at one time, had worked in the costume jewellery department at John Lewis: precious metals and stones, brass, dulled and tarnished chains, brightly painted wood and plastic, in antique cases, jewellery boxes, Ferrero Rocher boxes, pretty bags, envelopes, childrens’ purses and on and on…
It wasn’t an easy job; we could still picture her wearing many of the items at family parties, weddings and Christenings and could see ourselves as tiny children in the 1970s, sitting on her bed as she got ready to go out for dinner, in front of her dressing table mirror as she let us pick out her jewellery for the evening, or at least let us think that we were doing so! She seemed impossibly glamorous and ‘foreign’ to me at these times, in ways that I couldn’t quite understand at the time. She was a stay-at-home mum so ‘ours’ most of the time, in her home clothes and sometimes the lycra and tracksuits she wore for teaching her dance exercise classes, but on these evenings, she was going into the outside world without us, make-up on, the scent of her perfume in the air, intoxicatingly exotic.
It also wasn’t an easy job because although parity of worth was not necessarily our priority, it did come into play. We knew that some of the jewellery was valuable but she had made a point of mixing it up so that, in many cases, only she knew what was genuine and what was not. Her mother had been similar: her passion was for rings and when she and her husband fought, he would buy her new ones, or she would get old stones reset, but she also had a serious addiction to Avon products, filling our Christmas stockings, and her cellar in North Dakota, USA, with lockets, earrings and trinkets. One particularly lustrous diamond and jet chequer-board ring went green the first time Mum wore it and did, indeed, turn out to be pure Avon. Anyway, we sat there rubbing pearls between our teeth and Googling ‘how to test if diamonds are real at home’ with only moderate success. One pretty, ‘gold’ pair of earrings I brought home turned out to be brass when they made my ears slightly green!
I have always worn jewellery. My grandma (of Avon fame) pierced my ears when I was four years old and in my teens, the glory days of the ‘80s, I enjoyed matching my earrings to my outfits: baby pink or yellow plastic, bright wooden parrots, the danglier the better! More recently though, I’d stopped changing my earrings; my mum bought me a pair of diamond studs around the time I got married and they were so comfortable, and went with everything, that I just left them in and focused on necklaces instead. However, looking through this pile of jewels and taking home my little stash, I determined to wear what I have, for her. And it’s nice. They are tokens of remembrance, things which, when I put them on, make me feel (even more than otherwise) that I am carrying her with me, but also that they are now mine too, and associated with me, in a kind of chain, or web, of remembrances.
The earrings I’m wearing today I found in a small cardboard box in my draw, though Mum had obviously given them to me at some stage years earlier. The box was covered in cellotape and had the words ‘Spanish gold earrings’, in my grandma’s, or perhaps my great aunt’s handwriting, scrawled over it, the ink going patchy in the places where she’d tried to write over the tape. I’m not sure how ‘gold’ they are – the tell-tale tingly itch in my ears suggests less rather than more so – but I love them. They are huge (by my standards) with ornate filigree (I think?!) work and lots of moving parts, including a ‘fringe’ of swinging golden tassels at the bottom. They might have come from my great aunt’s trip to Spain in the late ‘70s, one which my mum spoke of in slightly disapproving terms because she had (I later realised) gone with her married boyfriend. She bought me a flamenco dress – white with big, red polka dots, and these earrings fit a similar flamenco theme. They are, however, also not out of place with Mum’s Indian gold jewellery. She and her whole extended family lived there until she was in her teens, part of a Baghdadi community that had settled in Calcutta during the British Empire, and given the haphazard way in which the rest of the jewellery was boxed, it’s not impossible that this was an Indian pair; I am not expert enough to tell. Though they are almost entirely hidden under my hair, I like that when I move my head, bits of them come to light, surprising, exotic, physical signifiers of a family history.
Unlike the Proustian involuntary memories that surface often, destabilising and sometimes jerking me to sudden tearfulness and grief, the relationship with Mum through the earrings is comforting and familiar. As I wear them more, see their/her boxes in my drawer, take them out and sort through them, deciding which will suit my outfit or my mood for the day, they are becoming as much an expression of myself, or a part of my eclectic trove of possessions, as they are a self-conscious effort to connect with her.