By Carol Paik
I’m holding in my hand an inexplicable jewel. It’s about an inch and a half long, just the right size to nestle inside my closed fist, and smooth; it feels slightly warm, not cold as a stone would be. When I was a child, I thought it looked like an eggplant—a miniature, precious eggplant. Not only because of its fat teardrop shape, but also because of its color—in my hand, it looks dark, almost black, but when I hold it up to the light it glows deep purple-red. On its blossom end is a bright gold cap that comes down in points just like the green stem part of an eggplant, which makes me think its maker intended it to look like an eggplant, and it wasn’t just my childish imagination. At the top of the cap is a gold loop, so that it can be worn on a chain.
This object used to belong to my Korean grandmother, my father’s mother. She gave it to her daughter-in-law, my mother, who kept it in her jewelry box, unworn, for years, where I used to love to find it. Not long ago, my mother passed it along to me.
The eggplant is not the only jewelry my grandmother gave my mother. My grandparents made the trip from Korea to Boston to see us perhaps once every two or three years, and when they came my grandmother brought gifts. Matching sweaters she had knit for my two older brothers. Tiny rings for me: turquoise and amethyst. Cash, hidden in the hem of a coat. Once, my mother parted the wrapping paper in a large box; inside it was gleaming, dark fur. My mother reached for it, exclaiming, “A mink stole!” When she unfolded it, though, it turned out to be a tiny fur jacket that tied at the neck with big mink pom-poms. For a five-year old: me. I can picture my grandmother hiding a smile.
My mother and her mother-in-law were never close. It did not help that my father himself did not have a good relationship with his mother—“she’s a bullshitter,” he would always say of her. But my father was the first of his brothers to marry and so my mother was the recipient of a number of gifts from my grandmother, all of which are embedded now in my earliest memories.
When my mother gave me the eggplant, I was caught off-guard. My mother has a long, rich history of giving me presents I don’t like, although I have never believed she has done this intentionally. Gift-giving is simply not something she cares about, and thus she approaches it like the chore she finds it to be, to be accomplished with the least inconvenience to herself.
She frequently gives me old things that have been lying around her house, or that she has picked up at the swap table at the town dump. Now that I’m an adult, I’m glad that she just gives me old stuff because then I don’t have any qualms about throwing it away. But sometimes this tendency of hers annoys me, as when she wraps up things that are already mine. I’m not sure what she is thinking when she does this. It could be that she has forgotten that they belong to me, as when she presented me with a set of twelve wooden place-card holders, carved to look like miniature Korean villagers, that I somehow acquired on our one family visit to Korea when I was eight. When I unwrapped them, I said, “Mom, these are mine.” She seemed genuinely surprised. Since I had never bothered to remove them from her house, I suppose she was justified in thinking that they were hers. That still does not explain why she thought I would like to receive them as a gift, however.
For my fortieth birthday she gave me a set of gold-plated miniature spoons bearing the crest of my grandmother’s alma mater (Ewha Women’s College, in Seoul, Korea).
“Mom,” I said, letting the gift wrap fall to the floor. “If you want to get rid of old, ugly, useless crap, why don’t you just sell it on eBay?”
“What?” she said, incredulous at the suggestion. “Who would buy it?”
The point is, when opening a gift from my mother—when smoothing out the previously used gift wrap bearing the ghostly marks of old scotch tape and lifting the lid of a cardboard box bearing the logo of a long-extinct department store (Jordan Marsh recurs with some frequency)—expectations are low. It could even be said that the sight of a wrapped box can fill me with dread and anticipation of disappointment and bewilderment.
But when she began, within the past few years, to give me her old jewelry, I was moved. For the first time, I felt that she was giving me things that had some meaning for her, things she specifically wanted me to have.
The first time I opened a small box and found one of the bracelets she had been given by my grandmother, I believe my mouth actually fell open and I uttered a word I rarely say when I open her presents: “Thanks!!” This bracelet is made of oval domes of a material with the hue and translucency of apricot jelly. No, not apricot. Something redder, darker, something that must be plucked from a tree with blossoms and is juicy and tastes like honey—maybe quince? I can picture this bracelet as it used to nestle against white cotton in my mother’s cream-colored, red-silk-lined jewelry box. I used to love to look through this box and carefully handle the colored gems. My mother is a pianist, and I remember watching her get dressed for a recital, how exciting and disconcerting it was to see her put on little screw-back earrings that dangled and swung and caught the light and transformed her from mere mom to someone perfumed and lipsticked, floral and fine, an artist and a performer in a pretty dress and high heels. My mother was giving me part of my childhood, and part of her youth.
In addition to the bracelet, she gave me the earrings that match it. The earrings are more of a teardrop shape, but of the same deep clear orange. Another time she passed along to me a necklace and earrings of dime-sized slightly curved disks the color of the ocean at its greenest, set inside circles of silver. I also have heavy earrings of a green-gray stone carved into flower baskets that hang from enameled flower backs.
But my favorite piece of all was always the eggplant. My mother gave it to me in the condition in which it had sat in her jewelry box throughout my childhood—without a chain or any way to wear it, just its gold cap, and a rough patch on one side as if someone had dropped it in something sticky that then hardened forever.
When I’ve asked my mother what these objects are made of, she has always been vague. There are so many opportunities for misinformation. It was never clear to me exactly why my mother was uncertain, but it could have been because she thought it was impolite to ask directly, and so my grandmother just hadn’t told her exactly what the pieces were; or perhaps she doubted what my grandmother had said; or maybe my mother just didn’t understand her because of the language barrier. My grandmother could be the source of uncertainty, or it could be my mother herself. At various times my mother told me she thought my grandmother had said the quince jelly jewelry was made of red jade. She told me maybe the ocean necklace was green jade. The flower basket earrings were white jade, perhaps. And the eggplant—she didn’t know, but she guessed amber.
All the references to “jade” made me suspicious. My mother doesn’t like to say that she doesn’t know something. And I know the “jade” answer solves a lot of problems for her. When she says something is made of jade, it is her way of saying: it’s from long ago and far away and however little I know about jade, you know even less, so just be quiet.
So I tried asking my father. My father is a scientist, a person who believes that facts matter.
“Dad, do you think this is red jade?”
“How would I know?”
“Grandma said it was red jade.”
“Then it’s bullshit.”
I wonder if my mother actually liked any of these pieces. The fact that she wore them doesn’t necessarily prove that she liked them. But she herself might not even have been able to answer that question. I don’t recall ever hearing her say, about a piece of clothing or jewelry, or item for the house, “I love this!” or even, “This is nice!” I heard her say, “It was on sale and it just fits the bill!” or, “It was right there in the back of the closet!” Liking or not liking something was not particularly relevant to her. Which also explains why, when giving gifts to others, she doesn’t tend to take their personal preferences into account. It’s not because she doesn’t care about them or intends to displease them—personal preference simply is not something she thinks very much about.
I considered taking the pieces to an appraiser, but most of them were in need of repair and I didn’t want to take them anywhere in the condition they were in. In addition, I had been to an appraiser once, in New York. Their policy was to charge ten percent of the value of each piece, which, it seemed to me, provided an odd and transparent incentive to appraise on the high side. It was a transaction loaded with more than the usual distrust and positioning, and I didn’t want to go through that with my few family heirlooms.
Last winter, however, while skiing in Vermont over Christmas vacation, my husband and I came across a small, family-owned jewelry store in the base village, and we went in so I could choose my Christmas gift. The young woman standing behind the case of blinding diamond rings was wearing a great deal of jewelry. I thought that if I wore that much jewelry I would look like a crazed kleptomaniac, or a hoarder heiress. But Roxanne looked like a radiant goddess. She guided us through our options patiently, enumerating each piece’s characteristics with the deep, husky voice of a fortune teller, and by the time I finally settled on a pair of gold dangly earrings, I trusted and loved her like a sister. As she wrapped the earrings, I told her that I had some old, broken jewelry that I wanted to have fixed.
“I can help you with that!” she said. “Bring them in the next time you come.”
So when we returned home to New York I packed my pieces carefully in pouches, and when we went skiing over Martin Luther King Day weekend, I brought them to Roxanne.
She and I sat opposite each other under a bright light, with a small table between us. I suddenly felt afraid for my little jewels. Here’s the thing about them: they are all I have from a grandmother I barely knew and whose life was essentially unimaginable to me. We are not a family that has much in terms of handed-down possessions. My mother’s family left Korea when she was a child of six, and no family possessions came with them across the Pacific on that boat, the last to leave Yokohama for the United States in 1940.
My father’s family, still in Korea, fled their home in Seoul for the south as the Communists advanced at the beginning of the Korean War ten years later. On our one visit to Korea when I was a child, I explored my grandparents’ home and found doors hidden in walls, rooms behind panels, places where they could hide if the Communists came. My father calls his mother a bullshitter, but I prefer to think that she simply was a keeper of secrets, a role that often necessitates obscuring the truth. There are reasons why the provenance of things is unknown—in all that fleeing and hiding, all manner of things were lost and forgotten.
But now it feels important to know about these few things that remain, these things that comprise my inheritance: what is their value? Perhaps it is because my grandmother is gone, and my parents are aging, and soon this information will be irretrievable, unless someone makes an effort. Perhaps it is because I want to give these things to my own children, and I want to know what it is that I am giving them.
Roxanne placed a little pad on the table and carefully laid out each piece. She examined each with interest. I sat silent. I didn’t tell her about how I always thought the bracelet looked like jelly or the necklace like seawater.
She started with the bracelet.
“My mother always said that was red jade,” I ventured.
She shook her head. “It’s carnelian,” she said, eying it through a loupe. “Pretty, and it’s set in a high karat gold. The bracelet is lovely just as it is. And the simplest thing to do with the earrings is just to put them on gold wires so you can easily wear them. I can do that for you right now.” And she disappeared into a back room, re-emerged with two gold wires, and, with a twist of a pair of pliers, replaced the screw-backs.
She next picked up the green necklace and weighed it in her hand. I could tell from the quickness with which her hand lifted and fell that the weight was underwhelming. She showed me how the green color was pulling away from the edges of each little disk, leaving them clear. I was very disappointed in them. They plainly had no value at all. Roxanne, seeing my expression, held them up against her neck.
“They’re a pretty color, “ she said. “A fun piece, for your daughter, maybe.”
“Hum,” I said. I didn’t want to give my daughter anything crappy, not even for fun.
The jade flower baskets interested her. “Look,” she said. “The baskets and the rings they dangle from are cut from one piece of jade—see how there’s no break in the ring? “
“So they are really are jade?” I said, brightening a bit.
“A great piece of workmanship,” she said. “A real conversation piece. The enamel backs are going to be too difficult to clean, though, especially since I can’t tell what the metal is. So if you want to wear them we’ll find you just a simple pair of gold hoops, and you can hang the baskets from them. “
“Should I be careful with these, then?” I asked. “Are they fragile?”
“Well, they’ve obviously been through a lot—you can see how the rings are wearing thin in places. They can’t be as fragile as all that. And it’s not so much that they’re worth a ton of money—they’re just interesting. Nice pieces.”
And then we came to my little eggplant.
“Oh,” Roxanne said. She held it, and thumbed the rough patch. She weighed it in her hand. I told her to hold it up to the light, and she did.
“Oh, look at that,” she said. She weighed it some more. Finally, she spoke.
“I have no idea what this is,” she said.
“Neither do I, “ I said.
“It’s very light. I’m going to guess some kind of resin,” she said. “Amber.”
“Amber sounds right,” I said.
“But this gold cap is very high-karat,” she said. “And the workmanship on it is very fine. It indicates to me that it’s something of value. No one would put a fancy cap like that on something worthless.”
“You didn’t know my grandmother,” I said.
“Let me hold onto this one,” she said. “I’ll ask the people at our studio what they think it is, and what they think can be done with it. I’ll let you know.”
I wear my new carnelian earrings quite a bit. I like their length, their color, and the way they dangle. But I still do not know what they are worth. Roxanne would not put a dollar value on any of the things I brought her. She said she didn’t know what they were worth, and determining exactly what they were made of would involve subjecting them to tests of various kinds to determine things like hardness and melting points that would probably damage them irreparably. Her view was, if you like them, then wear them—what difference does it make what they are worth?
This wasn’t a satisfying conclusion for me, though, so I went on eBay and plugged in “Carnelian earrings” to see what I could find. “Carnelian earrings,” it turns out, are a dime a dozen. Almost literally. I found a pair that approximated the size and shape of my teardrops, and the bidding started at: thirty-nine cents.
I heard from Roxanne a few weeks later.
“The artists at the studio could not determine what the material is,” she said. “Our best guess is still amber. But I have to tell you that there is a possibility that it is plastic. We can’t rule it out.
“We can repair the loose cap by putting in a new pin, and we can take off whatever is stuck to it,” she said. “And I’ve found a perfect gold chain for it. The chain runs …”
I can’t even tell you how much. More than I would ordinarily pay for a piece of jewelry, especially one that could not be ruled out as being plastic.
I wrote back. “I would like to be able to wear this piece. But is there any way to guarantee that it is not plastic?”
“No,” she wrote back. “But it is a lovely piece, and I think if you love it, you should wear it.”
If I love it. It was as simple, and as impossible, as that. Being my mother’s daughter, I don’t ask myself that question very often. Do I love it? Is there an answer to that question that is separate from the questions of its utility, its dollar value? Of course I don’t love it. I don’t tend to feel love for inanimate objects. Although, you know, if I ever were to love an object, the eggplant might be the one.
“I wanted her to tell me what it’s worth,” I complained to my husband. “She didn’t answer my question at all.”
“Go ahead and get it fixed,” he said. “Otherwise, it will certainly be worth nothing.”
Ultimately, I gave Roxanne the go-ahead. In a few weeks she let me know that it was ready. She said it was gorgeous.
And it was. And it is. The chain is Italian gold, richly colored but not overly brassy or bright, substantial but not heavy. Roxanne had two loops put in so I can wear the pendant at different lengths. As it turns out, I wear it all the time. It suddenly seems that every outfit is enhanced by a possibly plastic eggplant on a lovely gold chain. I will never know what my eggplant is really made of, but at this point I’d almost rather not know, for its unknowability may be its most precious feature. When I give it to my daughter, she will know at least this part of its story: I took my mysterious inheritance of indeterminate value, and I put it on a gold chain, and I gave it to her, with all my love.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband in a half-empty nest. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places, and has been anthologized in The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com. More about her short film, Pear, at www.facebook.com/pearthemovie.