She stands at the counter, admiring the jewelry. If Papa were here, he’d get a necklace for me, she tells herself. I know he would . . . I’d keep it in the jewelry box he gave me for Christmas.
But Papa was gone. Back to the hospital, again. She knew he feared going and she feared it for him, not knowing exactly what treatments he was being given, only that his face was whiter, more hollow, on every return, his blue eyes sadder.
Her own eyes blur. Wiping away the tears, she finds her uncle, the store owner, leaning over the back of the wooden counter.
“Hello, dear. You like the jewelry, don’t you?”
She nods, tries to smile.
“Tell you what—I’ll give you a piece. Choose the one you like best.”
Her tears flow in earnest then.
She chooses the locket.
She was fifteen. The year was 1931. A year later, her beloved Papa would commit suicide on his sixtieth birthday, just weeks before she graduated from high school.
I wonder if she wore the locket as she sat by his casket in the living room overnight, or to his funeral.
When I was fifteen, she gave the locket to me:
I open the locket to find a black substance on the left side.
“I thought you said there was a picture of you in here!”
“It’s so old. That picture has turned darker and darker over the years,” she explains.
The image is completely obscured.
“What did the picture look like, Grandma?” I ask, mourning the loss of it.
“It was a school picture. I had wavy blonde hair. It was pretty.” She smiles slightly as she picks the decayed photographic material out of the locket with Granddaddy’s pocket knife. She rubs the locket with a cloth until it gleams, and then she places it in my hands.
“I know you’ll take care of it, my dear,” she says.
As I clasp it, she draws me into her arms. I lean against her like I did when I was smaller, breathing in the light fragrance of her Avon cream sachet.
The locket is around 87 years old now. It’s made of brass, remarkably shiny, unmarred, despite its age. The front surface is finely etched with antiquated swirls and flowers, and if you look very closely, in the center there’s a house with a little fence and mountains in the background along the horizon.
Grandma, what a prophetic symbol for you, in so many ways.
The Great Depression was a year underway when her uncle gave her the locket. In 1936, my grandmother married my grandfather. My father was born ten months later. To me, the house on the locket represents their rural North Carolina homeplace; it’s where Grandma’s heart was when Granddaddy, unable to “make a go of it” with tenant farming, sharecropping, and odd jobs, found employment almost two hundred miles away at the Newport News shipyard and moved his family. He was working there when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Grandma was expecting her second child that year:
We stayed in an upstairs apartment and it was so hot. I could look through the window to see the ice truck making deliveries. People couldn’t get refrigerators because of the war; if you had one, it didn’t have a motor. We used them like iceboxes. I’d stand at that window thinking, I’d give anything for a piece of that ice right now . . . .
And she longed to go home.
Those mountains on the locket’s background symbolize numerous obstacles, hardships, trials, everything from the loss of her father to the Depression and the war (her brothers served in the Army and the Marines) to the ten years she did live back home, raising the children while my grandfather commuted from the shipyard on weekends. It was hard, all of it. She endured. The brass locket shines almost like gold—beyond the things of home, beyond every mountain to be scaled, hope always shines bright, not dimming over time. My grandmother’s faith would be challenged; she’d outlive two of her three children, but her faith would hold.
Home, endurance, overcoming, hope, faith, love. All of these are her legacy to me.
And the stories.
All old things have a story. Grandma’s locket is a tangible reminder of the stories she lived and told to me. It even opens like a book for pictures or tiny mementos to be placed inside; pictures of my two boys when they were babies are in it now. The locket is the story of who I am, where I have come from, where I am going. I like to think that as the generations rise and fall, the locket will be passed down again and again, and that our stories will go on, and on, and on.