"You'll meet the man of your dreams in these earrings," she said, opening the little black velvetted jewelry box to show me. Deep purple gemstones, cut square, set in metal. Classy and tasteful, never gaudy. She had a fashion sense to rival the editors at Vogue; a polished artist herself, after all.
"These are for nights out on the town," she laughed, handing me the box. "For being young and living it up!" We stood at the vanity in her bathroom, well-lit mirrors broad and unforgiving.
I imagined her wearing them, dazzling on younger ears, paired perfectly with a long evening gown and a fancy cigarette; her hair a voluminous brunette bob, not parched, white-and-grey like her wig was today.
"Topaz, with white gold, I think." She fumbled veiny fingers over time-worn documents, perfectly manicured blood-red fingernails flipping through the pages, shaky in her hands. She was always gifting us granddaughters pretty little things like that.
"Why do I have to wait until I'm dead to give you these?" Her clever sense of humor never lacked for irony, a little dark sometimes. She handed me a half-piece of paper, instructing me to read the fine print. She'd need her glasses to see it, she said, and even then who knows, now.
They were insured to the tune of $800 for the pair. But that was back then.
"Who knows what they could be worth now," she smiled, perhaps reminiscing herself.
I didn't want her to catch me looking at our reflections in the mirror, but I dared anyway. I wanted to remember this moment. I wasn't sure how many more we'd get.
Grandma to the four of us. Great-grandmother Gigi to the two littlest ones. Mother of two sons you definitely won't meet anywhere else on earth, quite grown now themselves. Mother-in-law, formidable and quick to judge. Wife, widowed. Sister. Cousin. Aunt. Friend. And once upon a time, daughter. Woman, in as many people's stories as there were films to see at the movies, or boxes to fill in her favorite crossword puzzles.
"They're beautiful, Grandma," I hugged her frail shoulders gently, as if she might snap like a twig in the crisp winter outside her first-floor apartment window. North Shore Chicago in February was absolutely no joke. We flew south and stayed away, mostly because of that. Yet, cold-weathered for nearly a century of seasons, within those slowing, slender bones, she held the strength to stand even the warmest of my affections, however intermittent they came to be over the years.
"They can't kill me!" she'd say - on more occasions than we'd like to count, still making us laugh despite it all. I pulled my gaze away from the mirror and back to the earrings at hand.
"They remind me of you," I said loudly, so she could hear. "It will be an honor to wear them."
I thought about how much they'd be worth today at a jewelry trader. As if it mattered.
I wondered how people do that, trade the invaluable gifts of their ancestors for something as spiritless as money. But then again, that's life, too, I guess.
I was excited to put them on, to carry pieces of her life and soul's journey with me on my own.
I never brought myself to tell her I lost one in the airport in Portugal later that year. That I went back twice to scour the well-swept floor, that I checked lost-and-found and security, and cried when I had to accept it was gone, forever. Somehow, I find solace believing that just maybe, that little piece of her soul wanted to stay. That just maybe, it wanted to be young and wild and free, like me, to live a journey she couldn't anymore; limbs frail, mind weary.
That, I'll never know.
That moment in the mirror was the last time we'd be together.
From my balcony overlooking the valley, I watched the red-headed vulture swoop hard and low between the trees, deliberate in his message, as you died peacefully in your bed.
The man of my dreams held me close as I wept bittersweet for you, for all of us who love you and dare believe you're flying young and wild and free, somewhere here and there and wherever you may be.
I wasn't wearing your earrings when I met him, but I have a little feeling they might have helped.