Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Pearl Necklace

These pearls were given to me by a woman named Mary. She would be about 81 now. She was 43 when we met. I was 12, and staying at my grandfather's for two weeks. My grandfather, Jeb, was dating Mary then. He was 63.

When I asked Mary if she was going to marry my grandfather, she explained that she would not, because Jeb was so much older. From my perspective, being 12, the flaw in her logic was that they both looked old.

This was 1978. I know that for sure because that was the year that the Holocaust television series aired, and I watched it with my Jewish grandfather. I could never forget that. It was just the two of us, my extremely uptight grandfather and me, watching the Holocaust in his bedroom opposite the small colored TV.

I loved my grandfather, but he was uptight. His house was always clean and tidy. His garage and basement workshop were perfectly organized and very well lit. He made his orange juice from real oranges every morning. The first thing he taught me when I came to stay for two weeks was how to rinse out my dishes and place them in the dishwasher properly.

He could be a little intimidating, not unlike a dormant volcano that hasn't blown its top in 500 years, but isn't making any promises. It's the little signs you watch for: steam issuing through the cracks, the soles of your sneakers melting.

Watching the Holocaust, I saw actual tears stream down his cheeks.

It was a shocking program--with real footage of the horrors they found in the camps. No one had ever seen anything like that on television before.

It was a strange coincidence, because during that visit I also learned that Mary was a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

The Nazis did not occupy Hungary until 1944, but then they immediately started rounding up the Jews and the Roma, and sent them off to Auschwitz.

It is estimated that the Nazis killed between 450,000 - 606,000 Hungarian Jews.

In 1944 Mary would have been about nine years old. She survived by fleeing to the woods, where she spent the duration of the war. I don't know if she was accompanied by an adult, but I assume she must have found others in the woods who helped her survive.

Everyone else in her family went to Auschwitz.

Mary had at least one photograph in her apartment that I remember seeing from Hungary. Her family: mother, father, brothers, and sisters.  A large and prosperous family.

It struck me, being 12, that Mary was alone in the world and that she really ought to marry my grandfather, who, after all, was still very handsome. (I could not have known then that he would only live another five or six years.)

If she had had anyone else--a daughter or a niece--she would have given the pearls to them. But she gave them to me.

Mary owned a white Arabian horse named Woodstock. We went to the barn where she boarded him, and I heard people talking--the way people say things around a kid because they think kids are made of dough and confectioner's sugar. I heard every mean word, as Mary struggled with her horse.

Mary was a slight woman--chopsticks in britches, elegant in clothes--at 92 pounds. (At one point, she suggested that if I didn't lose a bit of weight I would have to wear umbrella dresses for the rest of my life. She meant it kindly. No one was fat in 1978--it was grounds for being institutionalized.  My grandfather loved me, but found my extra ten pounds absolutely mortifying. I could tell that he did, because he had put Mary up to talking to me about it...I had ears.)

Mary struggled for control of her horse--and I remember wondering the whole time whether she could pull it off--this whole trail-ride thing. They gave me a horse to ride. He was minding his manners. Mary finally got herself in the saddle. The horse wheeled round and round, while other people watched and whispered.

The trail wound over hills among some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever seen or ridden. It was just the two of us and our horses.  Woodstock, her Arabian, settled right in and we had the most marvelous ride that included an encounter with deer. We didn't see another human the whole time, and we must have ridden for a couple of hours. It was sheer heaven--a perfect day, blue skies. We returned triumphant.

Not only did Mary have the Arabian horse, she also had a German Shepherd named Janousch. He liked me quite well, but he ate other dogs. It was always tense on the elevator in her building and occasionally really bad.

My grandfather got in trouble with his mailman when Janousch came to stay.

Eventually, Mary had to give him up.  I think I am referring to Janousch , but it's possible that my grandfather left first. Eventually she lost them both.

Life was hard for Mary, though she frequently prevailed--as she did with Woodstock on that perfect day. She survived the Holocaust, but lost her family. She came to the states (somehow--I don't know that story), and ultimately went to school and became a professor.

I was driving with her, just the two of us, when she stopped, parked the car, and asked me to wait. She went into a bank, to her safety deposit box, and brought out the pearl necklace in a Chinese silk purse. She told me she wanted me to have them.

We both loved horses, and we both loved dogs. I was an only child, and in a different way, she was an only child.  My parents were divorced, so in one sense, I had lost my family, too--but in a very different sense indeed.

I am updating this post, changing the ending, because the original ending--that Mary gave me the pearls out of love and a keen awareness of the brevity of our friendship--felt off. There was more to it than that.

I knew Mary longer than that two weeks. I remember seeing her on several visits, perhaps over a period as long as 2-3 years.

I remember, too, that I was aware that Mary felt sorry for me. Though I was serious and melancholy, I felt she pitied me too much. I dare say, to some extent, it was projection. She saw in me just enough seriousness, melancholy, loneliness, and loss to recognize something of her own girlhood.

Mary and I were on opposite ends of the spectrum of childhood deprivation and misery; by comparison, mine was relatively insignificant--by today's standards, hardly out of the ordinary.

I think that pity and projection figured largely into her gift of the pearls.

I don't know if Mary bought the pearls in America, or if they had been secreted away in the lining of her clothes when she was a girl in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

I do know that pearls, poetically enough, symbolize innocence, and that this pearl necklace belonged to a woman whose innocence had been stolen from her.  I believe she gave them to me because I was a serious, melancholy, and somewhat weighty child who had also grown up too soon.

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