A twinge of bitterness hit Calliope as she finished off the glass of wine, leaving the glass on the counter and walking back upstairs. She stretched her arms in the doorway and looked at the nearly empty wardrobe. Except for satin-covered hangers, only a leather chest sat in the bottom. Calliope knew it held the core of her mother’s life. More had always pointed it out to Calliope and said, “When I die, that’s where you’ll find my life.”
Calliope had never looked in the chest, and had never seen a need. She lugged the chest out to the middle of floor, and turned the old fashioned catches. They gave when a groan and the locks popped open. It smelled faintly of old perfume and mothballs as Calliope pulled back yellowed tissue paper to reveal old photographs and various thick stacks of letters tied with different colors of ribbon. Calliope leafed through one stack tied with a black ribbon, old love letters from husbands three and four. Other letters were from Mora’s friendships made during her travels.
A smaller stack of letters wrapped with a pink ribbon showed an unfamiliar and elegant cursive handwriting. They were addressed to her mother, but showed no return address. The most recent one was three years before. Calliope put those to the side to look at later when the room was cleaned out.
The chest also contained dozens of photographs of Mora at exotic locales with one person here and a group of other there. None were dated or showed who the people were. She noticed one photo was framed and wrapped in tissue.
Curiously, she unwrapped the yellowed paper to reveal a black-and-white photo set in the white wood frame. Staring at her was a handsome man in a marine uniform, his hat at an angle over his head. Despite the formal pose, his eyes glittered mischievously and his mouth held a barely suppressed smile. She had never seen this man before and knew that it was not her father. She opened the back of the frame and read the formal script on the back of the photo, “Wade, 1944.” He was too old to have been any love of her mother’s, but knowing her mother, she wouldn’t keep it without some type of connection.
The rest of the photographs were of generic places, her mother sitting in someone’s yard or at a party. It was only a record of her mother’s life after she had left for California and nothing before. There was nothing connecting to her family, her childhood, or her home. Nothing, except for the framed photograph of a mysterious man named Wade.
Calliope had reached the bottom of the chest and only a small parcel wrapped in a rose silk scarf remained. She unwrapped the scarf and found a black velvet box and a letter. She opened the addressed to her in her mother’s flowing script, with shaking hands.
My beautiful Callie,
I have always intended to give you this, but could never find the right time, my darling. I held back for as long as I could knowing that you would ask the questions that I did not have the answers for.
I had such an unsettled childhood, and never had any interest in my family, what they stood for and their past. I always preferred to live by the old adage that what you don’t know will never hurt you. Ever since the divorce from your father, I had always believed in living for the day and for myself.
Now what I am giving to you has been passed down through the women in our family for generations. When my mother gave them to me upon my twenty-first birthday, she told me: “Keep them close to your heart and filled with love. Care for them or they will fall to dust, my poppet.”
I give them to you, and you should know that even when I was away, I thought of you and thought I was doing the best for you. I didn’t need my family’s past to raise you.
Calliope wept as she read her mother’s words. It was the first time Mora had ever signed a letter to her only daughter as “Mother.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me this before? I needed you,” Calliope cried.
She cried with the pain of loss, for her mother and father, for the woman her mother was and did not understand and for the loss of a past history she did not know.
When she eventually stopped crying, Calliope looked at the black box. It was large and fit in both of her hands. She clicked open the top and gasped at the strand of fat pearls interspersed with small diamonds. She fingered the pearls, skimming over the diamonds, and wondered at the pendant that sat in the middle. It was a large black onyx put in the setting of a circle of diamonds.
Impulsively, she put the necklace on and clasped it behind her neck. She pressed her against the pendant that sat smooth and cool against her collarbone. Calliope shut her eyes as a wonderful feeling swept over her.
And then, faintly, she remembered walking into her mother’s room as she was getting ready for another trip. She had seen this beautiful necklace before. It had sat cool against the pale column of her mother’s neck as she looked at her in the mirror. Her mother had quickly snatched it off and put it in a drawer ordering her daughter out of the room.
Calliope had forgotten the incident but now vividly remembered it. She wondered why her mother had never worn this family necklace. It was obviously old and valuable, but what made it more precious was the knowledge that it was a family heirloom, a link to her mother’s past.
Uncurling her cramped legs, she paced around her mother’s room fingering the pendant and the necklace.
Calliope wanted to call her closest friend, Beth, but she held back, not wanting her friend to tell her to have the necklace appraised. Her thoughts then moved to the man in her life. She knew Nick would be sweet to her and let her cry out her feelings on the phone, but this needed to be a conversation for when they were physically close, where she could have his full attention, cry and be held. Thousands of miles and a bad phone connection separated them. At that moment, Calliope felt so, so alone.