by Andrea Ruggirello
One morning when I was in high school, I borrowed my mother’s earrings. Round, gold cages with pearls in the center. No one at school seemed to notice them, but I held them gently between my forefinger and thumb as I sat in class. Somewhere, on the walk home maybe, I lost one.
Tight-lipped and cold, my mother told me I couldn’t borrow her things anymore.
Now, in my thirties, I sit on her bed and paw through case after case of jewelry as she dumps them on the dark-blue comforter.
“Take whatever you want,” she says. I pull earrings from drawstring pouches and slide necklaces from velvet boxes.
She pulls jewelry from drawers, from boxes, from plastic tubs. “Here, there’s more. Take it all.”
The hole in her ventricle was small. Now, her heart sets off metal detectors. The defibrillator the doctors inserted lies in wait. After the surgery, she moves as if she’s wading through water. Every railing is an architect’s grace. Every staircase, a punishment.
I signed my parents’ will when I visited last Thanksgiving. All of that jewelry will be mine when the day comes.
My mother’s taste in jewelry has grown more ostentatious with the graying of her hair. Thick bangles cuff each wrist, even when she’s not leaving the house. Stones dangle from chains down her torso like chakra crystals.
My tastes in jewelry are simple now. Clean lines. Quirky, tiny charms. Sometimes, my neck is bare, my hands and wrists, empty. I’m light. Free.
But I owned 14K gold jewelry before I even arrived in the United States from Korea at nine months old. I had diamond studs by elementary school, unwrapped heart-shaped lockets and topaz-studded bracelets and rose gold hoops for holidays and birthdays. In turn, I gave my mother cheap, metal necklaces bought at the school bookfair with money she gave me that morning.
We were not a wealthy family. We were working class on credit, the occasional winter coat purchased at Goodwill. But the influx of jewelry is just what you get when you join a New York Italian family, even one with a Korean adoptee for a daughter. You drape her in white gold until she is one of you.
The cherrywood china cabinet in the dining room is filled with Precious Moments figurines. A child kneeling in prayer. A couple embracing. An angel. Another angel.
We never use the china on display; we only take the wine glasses out on New Year’s. The bottom drawers are stuffed with semi-important papers and yellow Kodak envelopes filled with hundreds of photos. And my adoption scrapbook.
The brown album is heavy in my lap as I flip through the pages. A child study document describes the birth mother I’ve never known as having a “strong wanderlust.”
My adoptive mother has never traveled far. She hasn’t flown in decades. We went to Disney World when I was three and have not vacationed outside of the Northeast since.
“Where did you go for your honeymoon?” I asked once, long ago.
“North Carolina,” she said, her tone bitter.
“Because that’s where your father wanted to go.”
I didn’t question it further. Now, I want to go everywhere, and I don’t know if that comes from blood or regret.
When I visit my childhood home, I try to clean things out, to make it easier on my future self. I live three hours away now in a 500-square-foot apartment that keeps my partner and me from accumulating too much.
I haul trash bags full of broken toys and old trophies to the curb, collect more bags of clothing and books for the Salvation Army. I clear space in closets, in the basement. When I return, those spaces are filled again, as if the house is some kind of junk purgatory. An exercise bike is now draped with clothing. The old computer my parents said they’d get hauled away still sits dusty in a dark corner.
My parents seem more weighed down too. They sit and they order things from Amazon and from perky women on TV. Packages sit unopened for days by the front door. I worry about where they’ll put it all. I dream I am lost in the basement, winding through stacks of stuff, searching for the stairs up and out.
Perhaps that is why when I finished grad school, my friends and I packed my moving van in twenty minutes.
“I don’t like to own a lot of stuff,” I said nonchalantly. “It’s freeing. I could go at any time.”
The things I think I will want to keep:
The heavy, gray typewriter.
The tall coffee urn for company.
The Singer sewing machine that folds into a wooden table.
The magnet in the shape of a chef with curly brown hair whose apron reads: “Fran’s Kitchen.”
The out-of-control way she laughs at Leslie Nielson movies.
Her be-kind-to-yourself advice: “Take it one day at a time.”
Sometimes when I visit, we sit on the couch in the evening and I curl up against her like a child. Press my cheek against her bony chest. The true crime detective on TV ponders a grisly twist in the case. I complain the show is too dark. Why does she watch these crime shows before bed?
“I like them,” she replies simply. I wonder when I’ll stop feeling the need to explain myself.
I can hear her heart: the dull thud of a drum whose skin has loosened with use.
I’m lucky, in a sense, not to inherit her heart problems. Though I don’t know what other diseases might have been passed down. Or other undesirable traits. Which are genetic—my impatience? My Stubbornness? Which are learned—my conflict avoidance? My hesitancy?
There’s only so much to mine from that one short paragraph about my birth mother. The wanderlust and that she was a waitress are the only discerning details that make her flicker into reality, an apparition carrying a tray of drinks, dreaming of her next trip abroad.
From her, I have everything I am.
From my other mother, everything else I am.
But what from whom?
When my mother dies, I still won’t know. I’ll never have one person tell me I have her smile or her eyes, but it would be a comfort to hear someone who knew her well say I have her dry humor or her perseverance, or that I adjust my glasses just like she did. I’m not sure they’ll recognize those things in me as hers though. And that’s important. The recognition. The certainty of who you come from, who you belong to.
As I sort through the jewelry on my mother’s bed, I think of the day when I’ll have to make a decision about each piece—about all of it. The jewelry. The figurines.
I imagine where they might go in my home, how often I’ll wear each piece. How someone might ask about them, and I’ll touch them and say, These? Oh yes. These were hers.
Andrea’s writing appears in Hobart, Gay Magazine, the Baltimore Review, Electric Literature, Third Coast, Catapult, Bitch and other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University. She was born in Korea, adopted and raised in New York City, and now lives in Washington, DC.