My six year old daughter Eva keeps two jewelry boxes in her room: one new, bedazzled and pink, a gift from her aunt Hanna; and one old, weathered, and wooden, a gift from her maternal great grandmother, whom she calls Great Grandma K. After lifting the latch on the wooden box for the first time, she clipped on a pair of old pearl earrings, put a delicate watch around her tiny wrist, and lined up the rest of box’s contents in a row: a garnet and ivory brooch, some old buttons, a long silver chain, a white pendant with gold accents, three pairs of crystal and emerald colored earrings, and countless singles that had lost their partners over the years. After everything was out on the floor or draped over her body, she looked at the empty box with satisfaction and closed the lid.
After years of living on her own after my grandfather passed in the 90s, the combination of age, decreasing mobility and memory issues prompted a move from Indiana into a South Dakota assisted living facility. Grandma is still grandma, my mom’s mom, but she doesn’t quite put memories together like she wants to and gets confused more easily. She wants to talk about Borchers, her old German church in southern Indiana, she loves boxes of chocolates, and she gets concerned when she calls her little brother on the phone and he doesn’t pick up. Last time I saw her she told me a detailed story about being the only girl on the county’s softball team. She played first base, and her team was good. She calls Eva by my name most of the time and occasionally asks when she’s going home. Her memories come and go and get mixed up. Some are gone, some might return and others might leave for awhile, just to come back when she’s trying to remember something else. But her story remains, even under layers of forgetting.
Grandma’s wooden jewelry box is still in Eva’s room a few years after we first brought it home, and it still gets opened regularly. When I look inside, I find the old costume jewelry, the earrings, the watch, the chain, the pendant. The brooch and some of the earrings are missing, and the chain is broken. I also find princess Sofia’s handbag, four marbles, a piece of driftwood from lake Michigan, a bit of moss from the yard, and some legos. As grandma’s memories shift and fade, these reminders, these little physical pieces of her story, have been woven into Eva’s as she creates her own. What it’s like to be grandma and what it’s like to be Eva have some commonalities now, even if some of them are just little bits of old jewelry. It’s been a way for them to communicate without words, through the tangible. Eva and my grandmother will probably never spend an entire weekend together, exchange emails, or have a full conversation on the phone. But opening the same wooden jewelry box, even years apart, is a representation of what binds them together.
As the years progress, more genetic commonalities will surely show themselves, from facial features to personality traits to the grit that develops over a lifetime — because these two stories, one that is just starting and one that is nearing the final chapter, remain forever intertwined, no matter what a human mind forgets or what objects are lost or broken or kept forever. Even if that old wooden jewelry box turns up empty one of these years, the story will remain very much alive in the empty space that is left behind.