My Aunt Connie had pearls for every occasion. Real pearls, faux pearls, white pearls, cream pearls, and, I think, one pair of black pearl earrings.
Some had gold settings, others silver, others no visible ones at all. She had pearls to hang around her neck – long strands and short and everything in between – and pearls to clip onto her ears (her piercings had succumbed to curious toddlers and too-heavy earrings when I was still in primary school). There were a few bracelets, a few brooches, a few other odds and ends. But always, there were pearls.
If you knew her, the abundance of pearls wasn’t terribly surprising. Born in 1947, she graduated from high school at a time when pearls were the thing for a lady to wear. She was also raised by parents for whom being considered a lady or a gentleman held special meaning.
My grandfather grew up in a tough Boston neighborhood. His dad rarely left the pub and left most of the raising to my grandfather’s mother, a four-foot-eleven-inch firecracker who did her best to keep her three boys on the straight-and-narrow and make do with incredibly little in the way of money or possessions. After graduation, his hopes of art school dashed by lack of funds, he joined the Civil Conservation Corps. He eventually went to work for an engineering firm where he gained nearly a dozen patents for underwater welding equipment and processes and retired as vice president of the company, but he never quite got over a sense of impostor syndrome that ran core-deep.
My grandmother was raised on the second-largest horse ranch in Wyoming at a time when women were just starting to have broad opportunities as teachers and nurses. Not, however, ranch girls, the nuns at school told her scathingly. Ranch girls married cowboys and had babies and weren’t afraid to work in the barns. They most certainly did not go to college and they did not become nurses, as was my grandmother’s dream. At the time, ranch girls were also decidedly uncool as far as the kids at school were concerned. Furthermore, as the youngest of five girls, all my grandmother’s clothes were hand-me-downs. She was terribly self-conscious every time she and my grandfather “went East” to visit his family and she battled a perpetual sense of not being up to snuff after they moved to Ohio in 1956.
Aunt Connie was the third-oldest of their six kids, the first girl born to parents who were perpetually aware of their humble beginnings. For them, being “middle class” was not just an achievement and a point of pride, but a validation. When my Aunt Connie was young, they were still working to get there and they’d imparted many of their rules along the way. Don’t wear blue jeans to school or on an airplane. Use proper grammar. Never start cleaning the kitchen while your dinner guests are still there.
Ladies wear pearls.
To be sure, my aunt Connie bucked a lot of those rules. She finished high school in the mid-sixties and had a hippie streak a mile wide. She put herself through not only college but grad school because my grandfather saw college as optional for women.
Aunt Connie didn’t. She went to college. She got her degrees. She had a career and a family. She was a teacher, a principal, a mother, a daughter, an outspoken activist, a passionate advocate for education, and a million other things. She wore jeans wherever she pleased. She took pride in driving a mini-van long after the kids were grown because she liked it, darn it. She did things her way, defied both the odds and the powers that be.
But she always wore pearls proudly.
She helped my mother and me pick out pink pearls for my first homecoming dance. She tossed half a dozen pairs of earrings in the center of the table when my cousin suddenly realized, just hours before her wedding, that she’d forgotten to pick out jewelry. She wore them at her wedding and at both of mine and at all three of her children’s – and at everyone’s various high school and college graduations. She wore them to her mother’s funeral and her father’s and her husband’s. She wore them to her own this past summer. Pearls, to me, will forever be my Aunt Connie.
The thing about Aunt Connie’s pearls, though, is that they didn’t stop at jewelry. We’ve all heard the phrase “pearls of wisdom,” right? That was Aunt Connie’s specialty. Have a signature dish people love and that you like to make. Dress for the occasion, whatever it is. Put a mix of useful things and fun things in Christmas stockings. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being smart.
A few years ago, when I sat down to name my newly-formed company, I started running through the things I wanted people to think of. Brain food. Healthy growth. Different ways of thinking. And just like that, a decades-old memory popped into my head: Aunt Connie telling me she was putting wheat germ on my peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich because it was “good for your brain and body.” I called my company Wheat Germ.
I went up to Ohio for a week when she passed in June and slept in her room, among all the things that represented her. A statue of the blessed mother, stacks of books, lace curtains and sensible pants, ten thousand pillows. And, on her dressing room counter, a necklace bar laden with strands of pearls. It was both the hardest and the easiest thing in the room to look at.
When I started teaching a college English class this semester, I almost picked up the phone to tell her the news – then remembered. While grading my first ever set of college papers, I was hit with the longing again. I texted my cousin Katy, a college history instructor: “I wish I could call your mom and ask her what on earth to say to a student when you literally can’t figure out what a sentence in their paper is supposed to mean.” After a few minutes, she texted back: “I miss her too!” Then, after another pause: “Never underestimate the power of just a question mark in cases like that. Also, I like ‘Word Salad!’”
Instantly, I laughed and felt better and that’s when it hit me: pearls have always held value for their beauty and rarity, but also because they last. They are, in fact, the perfect thing to pass down through generations. We can abandon the flash of diamonds and gold. We can wear jeans everywhere or nowhere, ignore the opinion of the world about our lives, and do the dishes while dinner guests are still chatting over coffee – or even, shocked as our grandmothers might be, let them help if they offer. Your go-to meal that everyone loves can be take-out. You don’t have to eat wheat germ just because it’s good for you. Rules were meant to evolve, to be broken, to bend.
But everyone should have a few pearls.