Many years ago, my mother returned from a trip to Korea bearing gifts for my sisters and me. We grew up getting socks, underwear, and school supplies for Christmas and our birthdays, so when my mother gave us necklaces that she had had made at a jeweler, it was completely unexpected. They were simple necklaces made out of polished stones in plain silver settings fashioned from silverware that she had melted down. I’m ashamed to say that my sisters and I regarded our necklaces with vague curiosity that quickly gave way to disinterest. The three of us stashed them away, and it pains me to admit that I’m not sure if any of us ever wore our necklaces a single time. It was only much later that I appreciated how precious they were.
My grandfather came to the U.S. as a young man in the 1950s. One of the places he visited on that trip was Cape May, New Jersey. He was far from his home: another seaside town on the other side of the globe. He had grown up on Jeju Island, where he was raised by a distant cousin. He was orphaned as a very young child, when three generations of his family were massacred in a single day in one of the multiple bloody purges of converts to Catholicism that occurred in Korea. His cousin, an innkeeper who had no children of her own, hid him during the massacre, and raised him into adulthood.
I’m not sure where or how my grandfather met my grandmother. Although they were both from Jeju Island, they came from different worlds. My grandmother came from a family of prosperous merchants, who owned a factory that produced and exported canned sea food and buttons made out of shells. Religion brought the downfall of my grandfather’s family; wealth brought disaster to my grandmother’s. Communists captured her father, beat him, and burned down the factory. The family escaped from Jeju Island and made their way to Seoul.
In Seoul, the family was able to rebuild their wealth by opening up a leather goods factory and store on Myeongdong Street. Besides the factory and store, my grandmother’s family owned an orchard on a huge swathe of land that was next to what is now the Blue House, (the Korean White House). Their own traditional hanok was right across from City Hall and Deoksugung Palace. It was unusual for women of that generation to get a higher education, but my grandmother was sent to Japan to earn her graduate degree in Psychology. She was a cultured, worldly woman who grew up in comfort. When she met my grandfather, he was a poor man with big dreams.
Six of their children survived to adulthood. Their eldest child is my mother.
My grandfather was in the U.S., trying to raise money for the university he was trying to build in Seoul. One day in Cape May, he looked for a suitable gift to bring back to his wife, who by that time had poured every penny of her wealth into the school. He brought her back a bag of polished beach pebbles. I imagine the smooth, colorful stones looked beautiful to him compared to the black, pitted volcanic rocks that cover the beaches of Jeju Island. My grandmother took one look at my grandfather’s humble offering and tossed the pebbles into the trash. My mother, that soulful little girl standing in the forefront in the photo above, felt sorry for her father, whose gift had been so callously discarded. She secretly rescued the rocks from the trash and kept them hidden away for decades.
It amazes me to think about how long my mother held onto that bag of rocks. I couldn’t tell you the number of times she’s moved in her lifetime. There have been multiple international moves, and perhaps as many as a dozen moves within the U.S. My parents tended to regard every move as an opportunity to purge and start all over again. My father remembers giving away a television and a car to my mother’s brother, before boarding a Greyhound bus with his wife, two little girls, and a couple of suitcases to begin his studies at yet another school, in yet another city. In another of our moves, we lost almost all of our clothes, because they had been packed in garbage bags that were mistakenly tossed out as trash. My mother is a minimalist at heart. She has always relished giving things away or throwing things out. The fact that her father’s rocks made it through every single move is almost as miraculous and unlikely as his own survival on that terrible day when the rest of his family was slain.
When we were deciding where to spend our annual family summer vacation, my sisters canvassed several possibilities. We could go to Fenwick Island, where we’d already spent two happy summer breaks. We could try another beach in Delaware, or we could go to Cape May. Without hesitation, my mother declared that she wanted to go to Cape May, where her own father had gone more than half a century ago.
“Remember?” she reminded us, “That’s where my father bought those stones that my mother threw out. The ones I saved and made into necklaces for you girls?”
In the weeks leading up to our trip to the beach, my sisters and I went on a desperate search for our necklaces. I would lie awake in the middle of the night, brooding over that lost necklace and trying to remember where I’d put it. To my husband’s dismay, I’d leap out of bed several times a night to rummage around in a new spot that I hadn’t already tried before. I kept returning to the same spots too, indulging in magical thinking that the necklace would somehow reappear where it hadn’t been the last time I’d checked. Alas, I never did find my necklace. My sisters weren’t able to find theirs either.
A couple nights before we were to leave for Cape May, I was having my usual late night self-flagellation session as I racked my brains trying to think where the necklace could have gone. A sudden thought crossed my mind. I got out of bed again and rummaged around in my sock drawer. I pulled out a small pouch that my mother had pressed into my hands some years ago. As is her wont, she had gone on a binge of paring her possessions down to the essentials. She had gathered up all her most precious jewelry in a small pouch and had told me to give them to my daughter.
My daughter and I were both horrified to see that she was giving us her wedding ring, and the jewelry that was most precious to her. It seemed to us a portent of something we did not want to face. My daughter cried and tried to hand the pouch back to her grandmother. The poor girl hadn’t lived long enough on this earth to realize that her grandmother’s will is as inexorable as the passage of time.
My mother’s most precious jewelry isn’t worth much money. The fake pearl necklace is chipping. My father was a poor graduate student when he bought her wedding ring. The watch was another modest gift from him. Their immeasurable value lies in the fact that she wore and treasured them all of her adult life.
As I suspected, the necklace she had made and kept for herself from one of my grandfather’s pebbles was in the pouch.
I polished the silver and wore the necklace to Cape May, where it all began.