I’ve been wearing this charm bracelet for the last few days. I put it on only around Christmas time, because it’s so noisy and conspicuous. At Christmas time I feel like I can get away with it, because it sounds a bit like jingle bells, or maybe Jacob Marley’s ghost rattling his chain.
The charms seem to mix hedonism and religious sentiment: St. Christopher bearing the Christ Child aloft and a miniature Nativity crèche are right there with a San Francisco cable car spinning on its own turntable, a sailboat, and a tiny replica of a Monterey pine, a souvenir of a trip to Carmel. There’s a gold whistle that gives a surprisingly loud shriek, too.
I don’t know the stories behind these charms. The bracelet belonged to my aunt Janet, my mother’s older sister. Their relationship was that mix of affection and irritation that sisters often have. Sometimes they’d really mix it up like teenagers, even when they were both in their 80s. These occasional bouts usually involved politics—the Democrat sister sparring with the Republican. “I’m never talking to her again,” my mother would declare, and I’d laugh, knowing this would last only a few days.
When my mother became too ill to live on her own anymore and finally conceded that she needed to move to California, Janet was supposed to come and say goodbye. She hadn’t visited my mother at all in the year-and-a-half that she had been ill, although they lived only 45 minutes apart in New Jersey and used to see each other frequently. I suspect this was some unspoken agreement between them—one sister not wanting to be seen looking ill and the other not quite able to face the reality, either.
But Janet called to say that she couldn’t come on that last day after all, claiming she had a bad cold. The feigned illness avoided acknowledging that if she and my mother were to see each other that day, it would be the last time. “I won’t say goodbye,” I heard my mother saying bravely on the phone. “I’ll just say, ‘See you next time.’”
Janet’s charm bracelet came in the mail that day instead. She’d told my mother that she wanted her to have it. Heavy and pure gold, with charms added for birthdays and anniversaries for nearly 60 years, it was probably the most precious thing she owned. My mother never had an occasion to wear it, but I think she understood all that was left unsaid with this gift.
As I jingle around noisily with it for a few days every year, feeling its heft, I think about sisterly fondness, sisterly spats, and inarticulate kinds of love.