Between my mother’s death in June and selling her jewelry in November, I learned that the Phillips auction house was offering free appraisals for estate jewelry: that’s where I discovered that Nana’s “saphire set” was perhaps correctly spelled after all, since the stones weren’t actually sapphires. The day before our trip to the appraisers’, I prepared for the outing as my mother would have. I took a photograph of each piece of jewelry; I sealed it in a zip-lock baggie; I made a label for each one. When I woke up the next morning, I knew exactly where my mother’s sapphire engagement ring was: I had photographed it, unbeknownst to myself, the day before.
That swirly pendant my sister and I had found. The one I’d thought Aunt Linda might like. It strove after beauty as awkwardly as a grown woman doing ballet moves while drunk. Disproportionately small, relative to both its stones and clasp, it pulsed with the same galumphing whimsy my mother had brought to her embroidered and beaded pillows. That morning I dug through the stack of jewelry and found the pendant. Yes. That diamond and that sapphire. Those were my mother’s engagement stones.
I hung the pendant on a chain and stared at it. I clasped the chain around my neck to feel its slight weight as she would have. I looked in the mirror, and I figured it out.
After her divorce, my mother had taken the stones from her engagement ring and had them reset on a pendant made to her specifications. I noted the oversize clasp, so like the ones she favored once her arthritis made threading a pendant on a chain into an ordeal. And although the pendant would have looked like a silvery swirl to everyone else in the world, when I put it on, that swirl spelled out two letters in the mirror. Not my mother’s married initials, EA, but the initials of her maiden name: ES.
My mother had kept what she treasured from her marriage, ditched the broken diamond, melted down the false promise of the ring, and made what she willed with what was left. What a clever, artful, significant thing to do with despair! Turn your favorite parts of your marriage into a reminder: don’t ever forget where you came from. When my first lover and I broke up, my mother, not much comfort in the face of a broken heart, finally cleared her throat and said, “From now on, I hope you get a little more set in your own ways.” For that hard-earned wisdom, I thank her to this day. The pendant, I realized was her diamond-hard, Ceylon-blue gift to herself, ES: a reminder not to be undone by love, but to live, from now on, a little more set in her own ways.
I did not love the pendant. My sister and I both wanted the ring. So I took a page from my mother’s book: a piece of jewelry wasn’t a terminus, after all. It, too, was subject to change. I took it to a jeweler and had him make each of the stones into a charm.
Because my sister had wanted so few things of our mother’s, when she did want something, like our mother’s sapphire, I paid attention. I wasn’t about to trust the U.S.-Zimbabwe postal connection with a gemstone, but I set the sapphire aside for Amanda’s next visit, and took the diamond.
But I was jealous. I wanted the sapphire. The tiny diamond didn’t make me think of my mother’s eyes or her left hand the way the dark blue, Solari-blue sapphire did. Other people thought it was reverent and touching that I wore my mother’s engagement diamond on a chain, but I just wanted the sapphire.
I didn’t dare wear the engagement sapphire out of the house; my sister might forgive me if I lost it, but how would I forgive myself? I wore the stone at home sometimes, however: a pip of black water at my throat. It reminded me of the ocean after we’d scattered our mother’s ashes. In Florida, it’s illegal to scatter ashes within two miles of the shore, and the hour-long boat ride in the bright late sun the day we committed her remains made me queasy. I held my belly the whole way, too uncomfortable to speak. I had eaten cherries on the drive to the committal ceremony; when we reached the two-mile point and cut the engine, I disgorged blood-colored pulp off the side of the boat. My mother had disliked boats and abhorred discomfort: why weren’t we committing her remains someplace she’d loved, like her patio?
But that night, walking by the sapphire-black water with my sister, I took selfish comfort in wondering if my mother had wanted to be scattered at sea for our sake. The oceans, and my mother with them now, engulfed the world: wherever her children went on earth, every time we saw the blue-black sea, we’d know she was there.
Eight months after my mother’s death, still jealous, I realized nothing prevented me from buying a sapphire for myself, if I could afford it. So I sold another pair of my grandmother’s rings, and I bought one.
I had not paid attention when my mother told me how she had picked out her engagement stone. Here we go again, I would have thought, if anything, another painstaking description of an object. Prop up your eyelids and smile, kid. I don’t remember a word she said about the experience. Only trying to match her stone at another 47th Street jewelry store made me see it as carefully as she had when she’d chosen it. I studied my mother’s stone from its top facet, or table, to its bottom tip, or pavilion, and chose as close a match as I could find.
Once I had found my sapphire, the woman at the jewelry store pointed at the white-gold setting, or basket, that housed my mother’s. “You see the four prongs of the basket? How they look a little thick and round and old-fashioned? You want each prong to come to a point instead, or you want your basket to match this one?”
“I want it to match,” I said.
“She doesn’t want the eagle claw,” she murmured to herself. Basket? Eagle claw? Who knew there was so much to learn?
Before I paid, a shopgirl ferried me across the street to a dusty twelfth-story atelier where a young smith, flirting with the girl in Ukrainian, set my stone, welding a silver chain just like my mother’s to the ribs of the basket. Other shopgirls wove in and out delivering tiny blue-paper packets of diamonds. The smith’s gear fascinated me, from the high-tech welding machine in back to the blowtorch and tongs he used just feet away from me, working until his tools and materials glowed, then plunging them, hissing, into a tub of water. Now I had two matching necklaces: my sister’s, with my mother’s stone, and mine, with the sapphire I’d chosen. Before I left the neighborhood, I stopped at an independent appraiser, just to make sure that I’d bought a real sapphire, and was reassured to learn that I’d only paid a moderate markup.
The next day, I held my new stone up to the sun, relishing the flash of blue my mother had loved. I liked holding my stone up next to hers and—because this is what we did, my slender-ankled mother and I—gloating: my stone was a tiny bit larger. But then I held both sapphires up to the light, and I realized something. There are four Cs to gem-buying. Mine matched my mother’s in color, and from the front, it matched hers in cut. Mine may have been a tenth or two of a carat larger, but I had forgotten the fourth C. My sapphire was like a twilit hallway; my mother’s was like a pane of blue glass: in the clarity smackdown, my mother had me beat.
At first I felt ashamed. I’d failed. She wouldn’t have let them cheat her like this. She would have remembered all of the four Cs. But then I thought twice. She had loved jewelry; I never had. Did I really think I could catch up in a few days to a lifetime of passionate interest? If she had been alive, I would never have gone on this errand. But if she were alive, she would have helped me choose a better stone. I looked into the twilit hallway down which she’d disappeared, never to return. “Come back,” I said aloud.