When, at age thirteen, I asked my parents if I could get my ears pierced, they immediately said yes. They knew that most of my girlfriends had already gotten their lobes shot through with an air gun, and since both my mother and father were raised in poverty, they weren’t about to deprive their daughter from having what everyone else had.
For my father, though, what everyone else had was not going to be good enough.
I would need to have better, or, if possible, the best. Meaning that while Dina and Debbie and Jennifer were gleefully displaying ears newly-adorned with gold studs, silver stars or bronze balls, my father insisted I wear diamonds, given that he was in a position to easily afford them. (His arrest for wire fraud and subsequent bankruptcy were still years away.)
“But I don’t want diamonds,” I whined to my mother after we pulled into the Topanga Mall parking lot. I wanted tiny gold balls, or maybe even hoops. I had no idea if you could get hoops but it was the 1970s and hoops were all the rage. I wanted to be part of that rage. Cher wore them and she had about the cutest husband ever. Linda Ronstadt rocked her huge hoops. I would rock them too.
“Your father wants you to have diamonds,” my mom said unbuckling her seat belt. “Stop complaining and get out of the car.”
We walked into Nordstrom whereupon my mother became a woman possessed, lurching toward the women’s blouses, rifling through them as if her life depended on it. I ambled along from rack to rack, watching her slam hangers aside as if they somehow offended her. She’d hold up a shirt, sigh, then cram it back in, her obsessive yen for neatness shunned. She forgot I was even there, standing impatiently a few feet behind her. Out of habit, I began to rub my right earlobe.
“You realize after today you won’t be able to do that anymore,” my mother declared, surprising me yet again with those eyes she had in the back of her head.
“What?” I said. “What won’t I be able to do anymore?”
“Rub your ears,” she said as she headed over to pants. “Once there’s an earring in there, no more.”
No more rubbing?
When I was little, like four or five, my mother caught me with my hand down my pants, playing with my vagina. Rubbing it. “Why do you keep doing that?” she’d asked in a slightly irritated voice. “Are you itchy?”
“I like it. It’s soft,” I replied. In retrospect, it’s possible that I might have been searching out pleasures beyond the obvious tactile ones. In fact, it’s quite normal for two to six-year-olds to touch themselves “down there.” But what did my mother know from normal?
“Well, it’s not okay to do that,” she’d stated. “It’s a bad habit.”
What did I, a small happy child, know from bad habits?
“Touch your ears instead. They’re just as soft.”
“Yes,” she said putting my tiny hand on my tiny lobe. “Rub this. See? It’s nice, right?”
It was nice. Quite nice.
One hour and an overpriced black cashmere sweater later, we headed into the mall. No fewer than five times did I have to stop my mother from entering another store before we finally reached Kay Jewelers. While my mother spoke with the salesgirl, I bent over the glass case of earrings, excitedly surveying the many choices. When I saw a pair of sparkly azure-colored balls, I knew they’d look marvelous contrasted against my dark hair. “These,” I said calling my mother over. “I want to get these.”
My mother stood next to me and peered into the case. I could smell the JOY Parfum my father insisted she wear. I knew it was one of the world’s most expensive perfumes because he made a point of telling people that whenever he had the chance. To be honest, it actually smelled pretty fantastic.
“No, come over here,” she said dragging me over to the case filled with diamond studs. She pointed to a pair of small diamond earrings. “May we see these please?” she said to the lady behind the counter. The lady took them out and gently placed them on a black velvet pad as if showing off the Hope Diamond. When my mother put her left hand out to touch them the young woman gave out a small yelp. “Wow! Your ring. Whoa.”
One day, when I was ten years old, I stayed home from school because I was sick. I remember being in bed contentedly flipping through my Archie comic books when I heard my mother shriek as if she’d suddenly confronted a snake. I threw off my pink duvet and ran into my parent’s bedroom. “What’s wrong Mom?” I asked when I saw her tearing the pillows and sheets off the bed while frantically screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God!” over and over. For a few scared seconds I wondered if she’d lost her mind. My crazy kid imagination pictured her being taken away in a straightjacket, leaving me to be raised by my father, or—worse—our mean housekeeper whose name I can no longer recall.
“Mommy!” I yelled, throwing myself on the bed. “What are you doing?”
“My ring. I can’t find my ring!!”
“Help me look for it. Oh my God, your father is going to kill me.”
My feverish imagination conjured images of my father—who had quite the temper—stabbing my mother in the chest, blood spattering everywhere. Since I loved her more than anything in the world, I knew I would have to help save her. “Tell me what happened so we can figure this out,” I said calmly touching her arm.
My touch was enough to snap her out of her frenzy. She sat on the edge of the disheveled bed. “Let’s see. I was in bed watching TV,” she said thinking out loud, “and I always take off my ring and put it on the night table before I go to sleep.” Even I, an adolescent with a barely formed brain, discerned the inherent dangers of sleeping with a 7.54-carat marquis-shaped diamond ring. A sudden bodily shift in the middle of the night might gouge out an eye, or, at the very least, shred a sheet. Hence, the nightly removal.
My father had given my mother the ring only a few months ago for their 15th wedding anniversary. It was yet another in a long line of extravagant objects he bought because he could. Before the ring he’d gifted himself a Maserati Mistral. Between the car and the ring there was the carpeted treehouse from FAO Schwarz. And the thoroughbred race horse. And the Chagall painting. And the gold Rolex watch.
“I just don’t get where it can be. I put it right there!” she said, pointing at the empty bedside table.
I closed my eyes and tried to wish the ring into magically reappearing and when I opened them I saw my mother jump up. “Wait!! I ate a peach. I ate a peach!” she screamed rushing out of the room. Wondering what on earth a peach had to do with the price of tea in China, I ran after her, almost tripping down the long flight of stairs. When I reached the kitchen I saw that she’d upended the garbage pail onto the kitchen floor and was now furiously clawing through the remains of last night’s dinner. I dropped down to my knees. “What are you doing, Mom?” Again, my worries about her sanity intensified.
She continued pawing at rolled up dirty napkins, ripping them apart before tossing them aside. “I ate a peach, sweetie,” she said, finally noting my presence. “I rolled the pit up in a napkin. Maybe by accident I—” and suddenly there it was, her enormous ring, rolled up inside a white paper napkin. Next to the brown mottled peach pit, the diamond positively glowed. As did my mother.
Sure, my diamond studs were pretty enough, but after wearing them for a few months, I got bored by their staidness. Here, I’d already given up comfort rubbing. I didn’t want to also give up being able to express my individuality. For God’s sake, I was a teenager.
“I’m gonna get some new earrings,” I declared one morning at breakfast. “Something dangly.”
My father looked up from the newspaper and shook his head. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. Diamonds are so dull.”
Out of the corner of my eye I caught my mother gazing longingly at her own diamond. Dull, it was not.
“We only agreed to let you get your ears pierced if you wore diamonds,” my father said, “and they weren’t cheap. You will NEVER TAKE THEM OUT.”
After many days of whining and crying and threatening to toss the studs and let my holes close up, a compromise was reached: I would keep a diamond in my left ear and wear whatever I wanted in my right ear.
Decades later, I still haven’t removed the diamond from my left ear, and my collection of single earrings has grown considerably.
Whenever people discover my one-earring-wearing proclivity, they are quick to offer me their lone stud or drop or hoop or dangle earring, although the conversation that follows usually goes something like this:
“This was from my favorite pair of earrings. I’m only lending it to you. If I ever find the other one, you have to promise to give this back.”
“I promise,” I always reply, although I’ve yet to return a single earring in 40 years.
Not long after my father got involved with “La Costra Nostra” and lost his fortune, my parents divorced. Dad either sold or put into hock most of our accumulated valuables. He tried to convince Mom to sell the diamond to help make ends meet for me and my brothers, but my mother adamantly refused. “The ring stays in the family,” she insisted. “When I die, it’ll go to Lisa.”
“I don’t want it, Mom,” I said to her after she made that pronouncement. “It’s hideous. I’ll never wear it.”
“So sell it and buy a house,” she replied, shrugging. She didn’t care so much about creating a legacy: she just didn’t want the man who cheated on her for thirty years to have it.
Being as she wasn’t able to afford to insure it, she kept it in her safe deposit box. Only when she attended an event that required elegance—whether it be a wedding or bar mitzvah or a date with a new gentleman—would my mother take the ring out of the vault and slip it onto her bare finger.
Four years ago I flew to California to pack up my mother’s house and move her to Florida. Most of her friends had died, and she wanted to be closer to her sister, who lives there. My brothers and I had been suspecting something was off about my mother for some months, but during the ten days I spent with her I became fairly certain her brain was faltering. At that point I knew nothing about dementia, but I knew my mother’s suddenly inability to balance her checkbook was strange indeed. I was concerned enough that I talked her into letting me take control of her finances. We headed down to Wells Fargo and put my name on all her accounts, and, while she was getting her hair done next door, I cleaned out her safe deposit box, quickly grabbing everything and stuffing it into a plastic bag.
On the plane back to Vermont I clung nervously to the bag, and when I landed I drove immediately to my bank and opened a safe deposit box. Alone in the small well-lit room I opened the bag. I found her birth certificate; a diamond-and-sapphire Piaget watch; two pearl necklaces; a ruby ring I never saw her wear; assorted cheap rings and bracelets; and, of course, the RING. Just for the heck of it, I put it on my hand and snapped a photo of it.
I was about to scrunch up the empty bag and slide the metal box into the empty slot, when I realized there was something else still inside it. I reached in and pulled out a small blue velvet bag tied tight with a gold-colored string. Anticipating another treasure; one more valuable bauble that I will someday sell to help pay for the very expensive memory care facility my mother presently resides in, I untied the braided string and shook the bag. Out dropped a small diamond stud, the earring I’d long ago left behind.
It’s been a rough couple of months for the entire planet. To be sure, every one of us has some sort of cross to bear during this nightmare—some more burdensome than others. After I wrote about a few of my own crosses, a great many folks private-messaged or emailed me words of encouragement, love, support. Susan N., an acquaintance from Nevada City who I haven’t seen in more than a dozen years, did something unexpected: she mailed me a package of single earrings. That she even remembered I wear only one earring was shocking enough, but that, out of the blue she took the time to find, pack and send me that pink box full of treasures, made my heart—and right ear—shine just a little bit brighter.
Thank you, Susan.