The missing link: A birthday gift for the ages
My son turned 16 this week, and my mom (and dad) came through with a surprise none of us expected.
When I turned 16, my grandmother gave me her engagement ring string on a fine gold chain necklace.
It was the life-changing gift she received when she was 16 and a high school student in Springfield, Missouri. This was 1946, just after World War II ended and her would-be husband’s basketball career at Missouri State University was beginning. She went on to become a basketball wife, a dental assistant, a widow, a town treasure, and a doting grandmother to five.
It was a sweet gift, I knew at the time, but one that felt kind of irrelevant in my world. I loved her deeply, but I didn’t really care about jewelry. I wasn’t planning on getting married anytime soon, and the whole idea of rites and rituals — especially around a virtuous “sweet sixteen” — felt like a burden to carry, not a tradition to celebrate.
After I moved away from Missouri in 2006, the necklace sat in a toiletry kit that traveled with me to Austin, where I soon had Julian in 2007.
My stint on “What Not to Wear” in 2008 is what finally changed my mind about wearing the ring necklace. The makeover gave me the willingness to draw attention to myself with something shiny and delicate.
My growth as a mom, who was suddenly aware of the quickly passing generations, is what nudged me to start wearing it each time I wanted to feel connected to Gaga. On the days of big speaking engagements, or a ladies’ luncheon at the country club, or a trip to Sweden to see where her grandmother was born, I’d clasp that tiny latch at the nape of my neck and feel the warmth of her presence come over me.
I don’t have such a talisman from my dad’s mom, Grandma Shirley, who, at 16, was living in Kansas. She didn’t have a ring on her finger, but she carried a baby in her belly.
The family decided to keep the child a secret, so she left Kansas to move in with her grandparents in Kentucky. Not long after my dad was born, my great-grandmother started taking care of him. The entire family agreed to keep up the story that Shirley was Dan’s sister, not his mom.
He was 30 before he found out the truth, already married for more than a decade, still paying for the shame of a family dealing with a 16-year-old who didn’t have the kind of support she needed.
Julian, my firstborn, turned 16 this week. He is now officially taller than me, his hair is curlier than mine, his heart open to receiving what the world has to offer.
This kid changed the course of my life when I was 23 and sure I’d be a single mom but supported in ways that the unmarried mothers in my family line couldn’t have imagined.
I had kinda forgotten about the 16th birthday jewelry ritual, to be honest.
But my mom didn’t.
Her 16th year was spent looking for fun on the weekends. She was closer to marriage than she realized — she and my dad met and married the summer after she graduated from high school — and on her 16th birthday, she received what would become the first of this grandmother-to-grandchild jewelry gift.
Her grandmother, Esther, the firstborn on American soil from the Swedish side, the one who made the quilt, gave her an engagement ring that no longer mattered to her. (Her husband walked out the front door and never returned, leaving Esther a single mom of two children during the 1940s.)
But the ring started a tradition that, as of this week, is now in its third generation.
To mark this special day, my mom wrapped up a piece of jewelry I hadn’t seen in a long time: a silver bracelet of my father’s with his name inscribed.
She wrote a letter to Julian, who has been seriously into the concept of self-adornment in the past year, that included the story: He wore this bracelet when he first met my mom, shaking his wrist in a certain way to slide the heavy chain closer or farther from his hand. She remembers so many of his little quirks, signature movements that are often recorded only by those closest to us.
But she didn’t remember a detail that caught our eye.
On the inside of the bracelet was an inscription: “Love, Amy”
Amy, I vaguely remembered, was one of the girlfriends my dad had before meeting my mom, maybe when he, too, was 16 and trying to figure out what it meant to be a man.
Julian saw the inscriptions immediately, draping the silver chain over his hand and trying to figure out how to work the clasp. He loves chunky, kitschy jewelry, and my mom had the foresight to know that this bracelet was just his style.
She was also giving him something unexpected: Knowledge that his grandfather was more than just his grandmother’s husband. He had the complexity within him that led him to hold onto this keepsake from a teenage relationship for 50 years after it ended, for reasons that were entirely his own.
The next day, Julian and I talked a little about the bracelet in the car on the way to the bus stop to school. He had mastered the clasp by then, and as he snapped it on his wrist, he said, “I think I like it even more with the inscription.”
When my dad died, I ached for the kids’ birthdays and graduations he’d miss.
Like this one.
And yet his presence was very much felt on this particular day. (Good job, Mom.)
Julian is learning that love is complicated. Grief is complicated. Family history is complicated. Rituals and how we feel about them are complicated.
It’s all part of the cake, babe.
Happy sweet sixteen, Julian.
Thanks for letting me share this little snippet of sunshine during what can be a difficult stretch of the year.
I hope these stories about my life spark some new thoughts about your life. The threads you’re weaving through your generations. The gifts you got for your birthdays. The ones you wanted and the ones you thought you didn’t.
Next week, I want to tell you about another reliable source of sunshine in my life and some of the subscriber surprises I have lined up for next year.
Until then, hug your pets, your peeps, your ancestors. They were all doing the best they could.
From The Feminist Kitchen archives: