The only heirloom my grandmother kept apart was her pearl necklace, a gift from grandfather, a ship’s captain, the single piece of property she clung to during the Depression and the years that followed, almost unto the new millennium. A cache, it was. A safety net. An insurance policy. Its brightness carried unknown shadows, the shifting depths, the vast collective of live atolls. She once said, “The Captain picked it up in Tongareva, an island in the Pacific Ocean. It’s nacre at dark elegance. The pure black of stars. String of Neptune. Host of fortune.” When she said picked it up there was broadcast for the whole family a series of incomplete pictures. We never knew how long it would take to complete those images, to see the whole story, but she did say one other time, when the necklace was being discussed, “The Captain made me special.”
Sooner or later we all understood what she had said.
For their fifteenth anniversary he had given the string of pearls to grandmother on his return from an eight-month cruise. Nobody knew where that cruise was, and grandma never said.
No more than a half dozen years later, after that gift was ceremoniously placed about her neck, he went to sea again and never came back. In the vast South Pacific, in the torment of wild storm, his ship disappeared. Thereafter, from the confines of a small box in a small sewing table, the necklace became part of her everyday attire, a mere but glorious neckpiece. She refused to store it in a safe cache, preferring to wear it like a widow’s emblem, her insignia, her star in the window.
The necklace was exquisite in its perfection of thirty pearls, each one a most marvelous entity in its own presentation. It was, as seen on our visits, so resplendently beautiful on her neck, so icily beautiful, that we wondered for its reward what ship the old sea captain had run aground. Or what strange cargo lade aboard what strange ship. Or what mysterious passenger carried away from the shade of what prison or political fray. Light often danced on its gems, or bounced off them, telling stories of their own, mysterious stories of origin and marketing, of some kind of high jinx no less, what the sea carries in its mix of shores and stories, the mix of myths and magic. Often I had imagined them being lifted one by one from the Pacific floor by a great-chested diver eluding a giant black squid, and, through a series of trades, sales or thefts (none of us ever really knew), they had eventually come stringed and lovely into grandfather’s hands and to grandmother’s neck.
We, of course, had invented a hundred different scenes of its receipt into family hands. Grandfather, sea captain, was a shrewd bargainer, an adventurer, and possibly not averse to taking to bosom what might come easily. Life at sea, he had often said, was perilous and boring only in menial tasks, and was every day chastely cast with new opportunity. One had to be ready for anything, he’d say, as if a near-private penance of one’s own was earning its way with him.
Visibly, at about her seventy-sixth birthday, the grand lady began to fail. Her eyes, now and then, but always distressingly so, became fixed with an element of distance in them, a pale green light way back in a soft bank of memory, a core turned over. She’d talk of parades and a bright stone hearth and dark moorings and strange coastlines and high storms. Her own myriad intensities, her innermost depths. Once in a while, at oddest moments, a ditty found words in her throat. She measured and some of us measured and she would begin to nod and would adapt an accompanying look to her eyes. Drifting slightly became a daily sign as she wandered between those banks of memories, sailing here and there, at sea with the captain we all argued.
A few older members of the family, probably with mortgages or some kind of pain of their own locked up inside, began to wonder what she would do with her necklace, how it would be consigned.
Unfortunately, it became the concern of too many of them, and too often.
Young John, being the oldest of her children, a grocer in the trade and wise at profit lines, expected the necklace to be entrusted to him. Softly one evening, as if he were passing a tidbit of knowledge, he said, “It should pass from the oldest to the next in line,” and he said it with his head at an inquisitive angle, yet fully expecting no rebuff, no question. I figured he was really taking a poll of the family in his own way. He was not my favorite uncle, nor my favorite relative.
I was the oldest of the grandchildren and I always hoped I was more like grandfather than even his children were, having wanted that likeness from the first. A strange kinship had developed with that sailor so long gone. I replied to young John, “If so, Uncle John, then not from you to your oldest child, but to Mary who is next in line of grandmother’s and grandfather’s children.
Young John appeared irked at my suggestion. “That would depend on time and circumstance.” His voice, as usual, was soft and mushy, so unlike the man who captained three ships and had probably gone down with the third one in a bizarre moment.
Nodding, I said, “I understand,” and with a sincere smile, added, “I know what grandfather would do.” John, as always, did not like the edge of things, not the crust on his toast, or the nexus to an argument, or how I stressed certain of my words.
Grandmother, of course, heard what I said, the tentacles of her grapevine hardly ever missing a word touching on her family. At my next visit, one of a clearly lucid moment for her, she smiled at me, that quietly reflective smile of charm and intrigue, and with it the mysterious broadcast of understanding she had long given to those who accepted such presentation. I saw it more plainly exposed than others, too wrapped up in themselves, or too mushy for their purposes, the way John went at things.
That old sea captain had loved her and I knew why.
The gracious and loving lady, who even in her frailty still looked seaward every day as she had done for years, died in her sleep one night as peaceful as a rose taking leave from a late August vine along the fence. A sudden exhalation, a petal movement, and she was gone.
There were twenty-nine of us in the family, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. All that grandmother left in her will was the necklace. The directives of the will were explicit, and strange to many in the family. Each child, grandchild and great grandchild was given a pearl from the necklace, which accounted for twenty-nine of the pearls. The thirtieth was also and specifically given to me. I sat there in front of all of them at the compounded meeting looking at my two pearls.
At first I felt the agony of the splitting of the necklace, my heart twisted by the severing. A quick flash of both grandmother’s and grandfather’s faces came into the back of my mind. From that brief glimpse, as if I had been bequeathed a sudden and omniscient power, all her last thoughts blazed into my mind. Awkwardly I felt that the capture of her smile had shown up on my face. Young John, I think, must have seen the content of that smile first, recognized it, accepted the message. Until the final realization came upon him, it must have bothered him with its distinction. At first he was not prepared to do anything about the trade of knowledge, but I had no worry on that account. And it didn’t really take too long for responses. Not long at all. Those who did not understand or who were too young to see the prospect of the situation, must have been lead to the proper action.
Young John, in true wisdom, was the first to make a move. Later, after the meeting, he came to me, the elder to the younger saying a lot. “Martin,” he said, his face filled with the most honesty and enlightenment I’d ever seen on it, “Grandmother didn’t get to say all she wanted to say. But I guess she said enough. She really knew us, didn’t she?” He stretched his hand to me and opened it. In his palm lay the perfection of a pearl, huddling like a newborn in its first shelter; quiet, docile, beautiful, but latent with a power that could grow to ferocious dimensions. He dropped his pearl into my hand.
By ones, by twos, by threes, they came to me in the weeks following, after measurements in their odd manners, checking their own statuses, to deposit their pearls in my hand, to rejoin them in the necklace, to bring the unwritten lines of grandmother’s will to the ultimate conclusion.
Eagerly each day I looked forward to the next contributor placing his pearl in my hand, holding my palm out as if to shake a hand. At times, admittedly, I knew an agony when one of them did not come forward. That was a void that quickly made its way through the ranks of the family.
That the score was being kept was obvious.
And one day I had twenty-nine pearls in a little velvet-lined case. From the very first day I had promised myself that I would not restring the pearls until they were all together again.
It was my son who was the last one to come forward. Smiling, gleaming, the happiest eight-year old boy I had ever seen, he came to me. From his pocket he took a paper, made a check mark on it and handed me his pearl. His face shone brighter than the lights from the gas station down the road.
“Am I the last one?” he said. “Am I really the last one?” His face was lit by an inner light. “Did I keep good score?” Then an old pronouncement from a youngster’s soul: “When my turn comes, I will take them back to the sea, to Tongareva, to the Cook Islands. To find where the story started.”
Grandmother’s grin was all over his face, and the eyes of the grand old sailor, that now ancient sailor, stared back at me from a far shore. Those were the eyes I’ll remember forever, and the deep voice holding back a thousand secrets, the hidden smile occasionally let loose for my finding. The genes were still at incredible voyage. One day, I was certain, this sage of a child would have custody of the Tongareva necklace, and would travel back in time to the beginning.
Grandmother must have known that all along.