My Grandmother's Pearls

In the midst of a recent house-cleaning whirlwind, I found a long lost memory. Hiding in the back corner of the top drawer of my dresser were my grandmother’s pearls. The childhood ritual of donning these pearls arose unbidden: standing before the dresser in my bedroom, I was transported back to another, darker and older dresser in the bedroom of my grandparents’ small apartment. As I freed the pearls from their hiding place, I was saddened to see that they had lost their luster. The memory of my mother teaching me the secret nature of pearls arose in my mind. “The funny thing about pearls,” she said, “is that they only lose their luster when they haven’t been worn for a while. All you need to do to bring back their glow is wear them. The heat and warmth of your body will make them shine again.”

Unfastening the necklace’s delicate golden water lily clasp, a wistful smile came to my face: how fitting that her memory lives on in something as beautiful and delicate as she was. Donning the pearls, I closed my eyes, and felt my mother, and her mother before her going through the same graceful and careful motions. My breath caught in my chest as the cold weight of the pearls rested around my neck, and I felt guilty for not having worn them, and for not visiting her memory more often.

Truthfully, I have more memories of wearing my grandmother’s pearls than of my grandmother herself. She died when I was six years old. But not one family gathering, High Holy Day, or special occasion of my youth passed without her sweet, radiant presence, shining there in the pearls around my neck. I quickly fastened them, adding a touch of my grandmother’s glamour to my house-cleaning sweats and baseball cap, in an effort to revive them, and to revive my memories of her.

Pearls have always struck me as the perfect metaphor for memories of our loved ones: when left in the recesses of the mind, they lose their luster, but when held and worn and loved they glow as if from within. The pearls of wisdom that we glean from our loved ones may lie dormant, but we need only to spend some time with them, touch them, and feel them, in order to revive their meaning. Her ready laughter. His strong hands. The way she lived her life with grace and compassion. The way he lavished affection on those he loved.

Some memories are too delicate to uncover often. The loss too near. The pain still fresh, regardless of the passage of time; so we only bring them out on special occasions, set aside for remembrance and reflection, but they are always with us. They are with us in the way we resolve conflict, the way we speak to our loved ones, and in our laughter. They are with us in our times of sorrow: the memory of her tenacity, or of his compassion, guiding and aiding us. They are most certainly with us in our times of joy: oh how he would have loved your children. How proud she would have been of the life you made for yourself.

The late Reb Shlomo Carlebach told the following story:

Many years ago a young boy and his family were preparing to leave their native Poland. The day before their departure the father took the little boy to the town where the Rebbe lived so he could receive the Rebbe’s blessing. They remained overnight in the home of the Rebbe, and the little boy slept in his study. Staring at all the holy books, the little boy could not sleep. In the middle of the night he saw the Rebbe enter the room, and he pretended he was asleep. The Rebbe whispered, “such a sweet child!” Thinking the child might be cold, the Rebbe took off is coat and placed it lovingly on the sleeping boy. Many years later, when the little boy became an old man, when asked about source of his kindness, he recounted how in his youth the Rebbe showed him love and comfort, and placed his coat on him to keep him warm. “I am still warm from that coat,” said the man.i

On four holy days throughout the year we recite Yizkor for our loved ones, to dwell in the presence of their memory, and to elevate the parts of them that live on in us. The text of the traditional Yizkor prayer mentions that charity has been given in their memory. In Jewish folk belief this gift and recitation of Yizkor prayers were a way of adding merit to the dead, of helping them rise to a higher level of heavenly reward.ii By building in this practice of turning our attention outward, to those in need, we not only honor the memory of our loved ones, but we allow their memory to help make us better people. Our yizkor prayers remind us of those who have shown us love and warmth, those who have shared their lives with us, and enriched ours through that sharing. We remember them on this Day of Atonement as we contemplate our own lives, and the lasting impressions that we will one day leave behind.

Scottish writer J.M. Barrie, author of the beloved Peter Pan, said that “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” And so I wear my grandmother’s pearls. And though her heart no longer beats, mine does, and its warmth brings life back to the memory of her, in all that she was, and all that she taught me to be.

iElkins, Rabbi Dov Peretz, p. 191.
iiGreen, Arthur from These Are The Words, excerpted in Yom Kippur Readings, ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (2005) p. 183