there's always a story
I spend a lot of my day immersed in story. I have written many times before about being raised by storytellers, in kitchens, under carports, in backyards and underneath stars. Stories are my life. I didn't know this in a conscious way until graduate school when I took a course in Creative Non-fiction and suddenly had a vocabulary, a language, and a way to make academic but also personal sense of my girlhood. It also contributed to and helped me to refine my writing voice. Since then, I deepened my theoretical understanding of narrative, memory, storytelling. I've taught business writing classes on story and am planning a data visualization course which has at its core the idea of telling stories with numbers to make sense of the information.
Humans connect through stories. Listen to conversations around you. Stories moving from one person to the next. Sure, some are more compelling than others, and some people, like my brother, are better storytellers than others. I have noticed that as my attention span decreases/grumpiness increases/willingness to be bored shifts, I have become a super-annoying watcher of TV. I don't give a show very long to hook me, anymore because I am hyper-aware of the time I am asked to commit, especially to new shows. This is becoming true of books, too, though I usually give books a few chapters. I need to care about your characters and what they are doing. My religion professor's theory on why the New Testament was more popular than the Old Testament was simple: better stories, more interesting characters.
We love objects, food, outfits, music, films, and books for their stories as much as we do for their other properties. Admittedly, I am attached to some objects because of their function i.e. my Keurig, with which I am a little more than obsessed. But many of my favorite things are made sweeter because of the stories imbued in them. Take, for example, jelly beans. I like jelly beans. I like how they are sweet or sometimes sour, depending on the flavors you choose. I like that they are colorful, easy to grab a handful of and remind me of my childhood.
I'm not sure when it started. In my remembrances of visits first to Lynn Haven and then to Ft. Walton Beach to see my maternal grandmother, the jellybean jar was always there. I'm sure there is a reason the tradition began: as a treat/bribe for us kids, a promise of something sweet if we would eat dinner, sit still, be quiet for just 5 minutes. I do not know. But what I know is that I looked forward to it. The jar itself was large, glass, with a top that had piled jellybeans shellac-ed on top. I would eye the jar on the shelf and think about which flavor I wanted to choose most. I prepared for negotiations with my cousin who liked the purple ones; orange and pink were my favorite. We would try to wait as long as possible to mention it, but eventually one of us would break, "When can we have jellybeans?" Today, the jar still sits on my grandmother's shelf, though who knows the last time she re-filled them. When I think of jellybeans, I think of those visits, the anticipation, the sweetness, the joy of getting a pink and orange in the same handful.
When helping my parents go through households, we had to make decisions about what to keep, and what to let go of. I found so many things going through Gran's closets. (My paternal grandmother with whom I lived for 7 years, who built a home for me in her space, who taught me invaluable lessons about friendship and loyalty and strength, and still does even as she struggles with dementia, has moved into assisted living, and my parents have moved into her house since my father retired). I found my old mix-tapes, my favorite old t-shirt, lots of my writing, tons of photographs, which I'm still going through. It all had a story. I did the best to honor those ghosts before making hanging on to or donating the stuff. I was most amazed by her costume jewelry, which I remembered her wearing for Mardi Gras balls and events. Some things I'd never seen before. I did not know their story. Some things were broken or mismatched, lots of lonely earrings. (Maybe hanging out in the land of lost socks).
I came across what I thought was a really cool bracelet. It was hard to tell because it was sterling silver and it was mostly black from lack of wear. I tried it on, though and it fit, so I decided to see how well it would polish. Turns out, the polish helped a lot and I've been wearing the bracelet for a month.
Some people will say, "cool bracelet" or "I like your bracelet," and I usually answered, "it's my grandmother's" or "I found it in my Gran's costume jewelry." But today, after having lunch with a colleague who asked about it, I decided to see what, if anything, I could find out.
I started by searching for "Hindu goddess bracelets," which brought up thousands of results. I then did an image search and noticed a similar style on some of the earrings and brooches listed on ebay and etsy. I looked at those listings and discovered that the jewelry is called Nielloware. The jewelry, handmade in Thailand, was popular from the 1930's to the 1970's when American soldiers would bring it home as gifts. My bracelet features Manimekhala, the goddess of lightning and the seas (the one with sparks coming from her hands), and other characters from Thailand's national epic, Ramakien.
When I searched for the jewelry a lot of the listings referred to it as "Siam Nielloware" because during the late 30's and 40's that was what we called parts of the area that is now Thailand.
I don't know where my grandmother got it, however. I don't know if her brother gave it to her or my grandfather, both of whom served in the military, though I do not know if either served overseas. I plan on doing more digging to see if I can find out who gave it to my grandmother or how she got it. It's challenging to ask these questions of someone whose memory is failing her, but she often remembers the past with more clarity. I would like to think the story of the bracelets is an interesting one. (I left a similar bracelet with a fish on it with my mother), but it could be that she saw them in an antique store and bought them. I do not think it matters to me. I like having a piece of her with me, a small trinket, an object that represents the story between us, even if neither of us are really involved in the bracelet itself. Hers and now mine, is story enough, at least for now.