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The Amber Necklace
“I want you to have these,” Anne’s grandmother said. “I had them from my mother.” Her old, arthritic hands moved slowly but surely, picking up the string of red beads out of a cluttered jewelry box. The beads were boldly large, smooth, with an internal shimmer. They were really too large to be fashionable, but had an elegance to them that demanded admiration. The woman who wore the antique necklace would have to be confident and even unconventional. Anne suddenly experienced an overwhelming desire to be that woman.
She lifted the string. They felt almost soapy to her fingers.
“What are they?” she asked.
Grandmother smiled. “Amber,” she said.
“I thought amber was golden colored.”
“Most is, but it can be green, or this blood color.” The old lady cocked her head, smiling. Her faded blue eyes danced in the wrinkles. “They have a story, you know,” she said. “They’re from northern Russia, from the White Sea. They were a betrothal gift to my mother.”
Anne looked questioningly at the old woman. A shaft of sunlight suddenly bathed the red beads with light, and they glowed like crimson fire in her hands. Surprised at the light, she looked out her grandmother’s bedroom window. The clouds were clearing, and it promised to be quite a lovely spring day. Briefly, she thought about the church luncheon she was expected to be the hostess at that noon. The old lady was so frail now, Anne thought. The ladies’ garden club could wait a little while longer.
“A betrothal gift? Tell me,” she answered the unspoken prompt.
“I could never tell your mother. She was so conventional,” Grandmother said, musing, one finger touching the glowing beads. “She wouldn’t have understood.”
Anne interrupted. “Mother was conventional? But Mother was a hippie. I’ve seen pictures—“
“Oh, that. Yes, she was, but she was so conventional about being one.” Grandmother looked up at Anne. “Not like you. You’re different, even when you try to fit in. You’re like my mother. These were hers, you see. I told you they were a gift, and they were, but not from her fiancé. These were from Alexi. He was from Russia.”
Anne was silent, staring. The old woman’s voice mused.
“You know my mother came from Ireland back in 1918?” after Anne’s nod, she continued. “She never told me why she emigrated. I used to wonder. I suppose it could have been the Troubles. She’d been educated, she could read and write, and she could speak French too.” Grandmother sighed. “I think she was a mail-order bride. I do know it was an arranged marriage. She was coming over to marry Tom Leahy, my father. I think maybe the Church arranged it or something. She never said much about that. My mother did tell me about her hope chest, though.”
The old woman stood up abruptly and went to her chest of drawers. She pulled out the lowest drawer, took out a cloth wrapping and held up a delicately embroidered table scarf.
“This was part of her trousseau. There were sheets, and a bridal gown.”
“It’s lovely,” Anne said, looking at the ancient fabric.
“Mmm,” grandmother said. “Mother was so talented. She could embroider, and paint, she played the piano, and sang. You should have known her. That’s how she met Alexi.”
By now Anne was accustomed to how her grandmother’s thoughts flitted from topic to topic like a bird. She helps the old woman back to her chair in front of the dressing table. The mirror reflected her, tall, brown haired, blue eyed, a younger version of the old lady.
“It was on the boat coming over.” Grandmother continued. “Mother was traveling first class, so there was a piano in the passenger lounge. She was playing there one evening. She wasn’t a paid musician, it was just something proper young women of her time used to do. Alexi was also emigrating. And he was also an educated man, he could speak French, like she did. So they had that in common, along with music. He’d brought along his violin, and they began doing duets of an evening. Tchaikovsky and Chopin, that sort of thing.” Grandmother smiled mischievously. “Not Liszt. He was thought too racy.”
Anne said, “And so they fell in love.”
“Yes.” Grandmother answered.
“So why didn’t she marry Alexi?”
Grandmother shook her head. “Marriage was out of the question. She was already engaged. The contracts had been signed and everything. And, of course, she was Catholic and Alexi was Orthodox. It would not have been allowed.” She again touched the red beads.
“The voyage over took nearly a month. Mother said they played music together nearly every evening. Sometimes they’d stroll on the deck and watch the sea, or the stars. But, then, the ship came to New York. Tom telegraphed her to say where he’d be waiting for her. He was so happy, and already loving her.” The old woman shrugged. “In those days you simply didn’t walk away from commitments. Mother went on to marry, and raise a fine family, and be a good Irish wife.”
“When did Alexi give her the necklace?”
“The night before the ship docked. The last night before New York.” The old woman looked up then, directly into Anne’s eyes. “And she in turn gave them to me, his daughter.”
“Alexi’s daughter? You mean--” Anne stared. “But—she married Tom.”
“Of course. That’s how things were in 1918. Mother understood what the rules were and she accepted them, in her own way, of course. But only up to a point. Your mother didn’t understand that, that the rules can be kept, but still broken. That’s why I never gave her the necklace.”
“And you think I do understand that?” Anne asked slowly, taking the beads into her hands, falling in love with them.
The old woman smiled. “I know you do.”
M.R. Squire is an anthropologist and traditional singer of Irish, Scottish, and American Indian ancestry. She lives in northern Maine with two cats and a window of houseplants.