I was about 9 years old when my mother sat me on her bed and, holding my hands, told me the story of her mother’s harrowing escape from a fire as a girl.
My grandmother’s family was awoken in the middle of the night by smoke and fled their brownstone, still in their pajamas. They lost almost everything. I was horrified by the thought of my dignified grandmother having to run into the streets of Brooklyn nearly naked. But this cautionary tale was not about the virtue of keeping a bathrobe within reach.
“Pay attention, sweetheart,” my mother said, bringing out a purple velvet box I’d never seen before. Lifting the lid, she continued, “If our house is ever on fire, this is what we must save.”
Before my eyes was a dazzling necklace composed of 16 chunky gems — rubies, sapphires, emeralds — framed by 50 diamonds. It was antique, from India, and was held together by a thick braid of gold thread. “It’s priceless, absolutely priceless,” my mother said. “And if you’re good, someday it will be yours.”
Nothing seemed to ignite my mother’s imagination quite like this necklace. Throughout my childhood, she told elaborate tales about it, stories that changed with each recounting: It had been given to a Mughal empress on her wedding day . . . a Sikh maharaja had handpicked each gem . . . a princess kept it in a case by her bedside. Her dreamy and unreliable storytelling added to its mystery and purported value. “It’s unappraisable,” my mother insisted.
She had first seen the necklace in 1939, when she was 8. Her parents had divorced, but she witnessed her father get down on bended knee and propose to her mother that they marry a second time. The necklace was a token of his promise of love and fidelity. My parents divorced when I was 5, so I can easily imagine how this reunion must have filled my mother with joy and hope that her family might be whole again. When my grandparents’ second attempt ended in yet another bitter divorce, the necklace became something of a talisman, a tangible relic of a happier, almost mythic, time.
At various points throughout my life, my mother promised the necklace to me. I was supposed to wear it on my wedding day. I’d receive it on a milestone birthday. But she could never let it go. For years, I was hurt by her behavior. The necklace felt like an extension of her love, at times doled out generously and at other times withheld.
Last year, I published a memoir, Wild Game, about keeping secret my mother’s extramarital love affair. The necklace played only a minor role, so I was surprised to learn during my book tour how curious readers were about it. Do you have it? Yes, but I’ve never worn it. What are you going to do with it? I don’t know. Is it as valuable as your mother thought? Sadly, no.
Many readers shared their own stories of feeling saddled by heirlooms that were imbued with a dead relative’s emotions or endowed with outsize value. In Texas, a thirtysomething man kept his father’s old rifle in the house, even though he was anti-guns and its presence upset his wife. In California, a woman wept when I signed her book, recounting the pain of having to share a beloved painting with her sister and fighting over it even after an appraisal proved it had no monetary value. In Massachusetts, a woman admitted to having moved a large and “extremely ugly” hand-carved lamp from home to home for decades. “It was my mum’s,” she said, shrugging. “My children don’t want it, but I’ll leave it to them to deal with.” These objects had become external receptacles for memories, or symbols of the deceased or of dreams lost; they felt impossible to jettison.
The necklace has been in my possession for some time now, and it vexes me. I’d feel guilty selling it, but I know I’ll never wear it. And I definitely don’t want to perpetuate its legacy by passing it on to the next generation. Through Wild Game, I connected to readers who helped me see the necklace in a new way. “Why don’t you turn it into something positive?” suggested one. “You can make or break your own story,” said another. A solution had appeared.
I find comfort in imagining that someday I will dismantle the necklace and create rings to give to people I love. I will have them inscribed: In case of fire, leave behind.
Adrienne Brodeur is the author of “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me,” now in paperback. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. To submit a Connections piece for consideration, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.