I was born in George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., the day that the Queen of the Gypsies died there. Around the same time that one member of the throng of gypsies, assembled to sit vigil, stole the expensive overcoat of my mother’s obstetrician, another took my father aside on the Labor and Delivery floor and told him, all dark skin and gold teeth, that the soul of his Queen would enter one of the babies born on that day and in that place. For forty-seven years I have been looking for signs that the baby was me.
Unfortunately, there is not much of the gypsy in my soul, aside from the Hungarian part that makes me cry over Brahms, and anything scored for a cymbalum. I have always been rather more Goth than flamboyant in dress, and am rarely given to spontaneous dancing. Saddest of my Gypsy Failure, for me, is the fact that I have never been a successful jewelry wearer. I envy women who can carry off a pile of necklaces, an arm full of bangles, or an eclectic mix of chunky Turquoise. vintage enamel and deco rhinestones, but I can’t. Most metal makes me itch, and in the summer I can’t even wear my wedding rings; they are consigned to a safe drawer until the first cool winds of October. I am symbolically available during June, July, August and September, putting my rings back on only for formal events or on days when I am feeling so irresistable that my ring-less self might give false hope to my admirers.
In addition to the itching thing, there is the matter of cultural programming. I was raised by a woman who objected to piercings in general, and who, when I suggested that I might add a second hole in one ear, reminded me that Jaqueline Kennedy would never have done such a thing. She tended towards a tasteful assortment that included her wedding band, a signet ring and something colorful and cheerful because she often worked with children. I also internalized the rule that one “does not wear mixed metals;” my mother’s friends wore all gold or all silver, and one lamented the inheritance of a beautiful platinum ring that “didn’t go” and must be re-plated or put into storage. In the early 80s, this sense that there was an 11th Commandment involving the wearing of jewelry was confirmed by the “Color Me Beautiful” system which divided us all into “seasons,” and told us that if we wanted to look out best, we must wear the metal that suited our assigned color scheme. As an “Autumn,” I was told that I should, in addition to dressing in mustard, pumpkin and brown, stick to gold jewelry.
All the years that I was a jewelry minimalist for reasons of epidermis and culture, I continued to envy those who could pile it on and make it look natural. I was on a moot court team with a woman who cried when our coach (a Uniform Commercial Code professor with newly planted hair plugs) told her that she must remove the pile of delicate gold bangles she always wore, because they would be distracting when we competed. She said that she had worn them since her confirmation, that she never took them off, that it would throw off her performance if she took them off. He made her take them off. I considered what it would be like to have jewelry that meant so much, that was never removed, that represented not mere fashion, but part of her identity. Honestly, I was jealous.
In my declining years, I have discovered that the only things that really matter to me (and I do mean material “things” and not “things” in a way that encompasses people or ideas) are those that have some history and some meaning. I live in an old house which I believe to be inhabited by ghosts seen only by Teddy the Cat. I am thrilled to receive an ancient metal coin bank that belonged to my husband’s grandfather, and I routinely rescue maudlin and inept watercolors sold at garage sales, because someone worked hard on them, and loved them. It occurred to me one day, contemplating a pile of inherited and gifted jewelry that some of it had real meaning to me, and, quite possibly, supernatural and talismanic properties. It wasn’t all silver, or all gold, it did not “match” in any way, but it was part of my identity. If I could sort it out and wear it all, I would not only be breaking the Jewelry Curse, but possibly channeling the Queen of the Gypsies, who I imagine in her prime wearing stacks of clinking bangles, ropes of beads and amulets around her neck, and rings on most of her fingers. (I think I’m mixing her up with “Carmen,” but surely you’ll indulge me in a little cross-cultural stereotyping, here).
The one I always wear, strung on a leather cord so that it cannot possibly make me itch, is a triangular Buddha given to me by my father. It is a rich, reddish metal; possibly bronze or copper. He brought it back from a trip to China years ago, a perk of being a professor of Chinese Humanities, and had forgotten about it until I began to speak often about my increasing interest in Buddhism. He gave it to me, still in the gaudy pink plastic box given to him by the seller, and told me that he thought it was old, probably valuable, sold by someone in desperate need of money before the economic boom that characterizes modern China. I wear it all the time now, because it reminds me to be “present,” and because it was a gift from someone I love dearly, and I feel his presence when the Buddha feels cold against my chest, or falls heavily against me after a sudden move.I don’t mind that it usually doesn’t show; it would be the very antithesis of all that is Buddhist to flaunt my interest.
The next one is a gold chain with two gold charms. One is a Maltese cross that belonged to my paternal grandmother, a Roman Catholic. I wear it because it was hers, because I think it’s beautiful, and because in my muddled faith life there has always been room for the meaning of the cross. It hangs along with a tiny, gold heart given to me by my maternal grandmother. She bought it in Dartmouth, England where we were visiting family friends, and had luck with the horses. She used her winning from the track to buy the heart for me at a little jewelry store near the Angel Pub, and it reminds me, always, of that day and of her warmth.
Highest up, on a silver chain is a tiny, enameled four-leaf clover that also belonged to my paternal grandmother. She didn’t have much, an orphan raised in severe poverty by relatives who saw her as valuable only as another pair of working hands, she was rescued by her older brother and her aunt and eventually became a scientist. It was mostly perseverance and brains that got her through the years of constant cold and hunger, reading “Penny Dreadfuls” by match light in the outhouse to avoid punishment, but I also like to think that Helen Murphy had a little of the Luck of the Irish. Her clover reminds me of both duty and serendipity.
So they are not at all fashionable, these ill-assorted necklaces of mixed metal that I wear most of the time. They get tangled, they make me itch, and they have not, thus far, transformed me into a Gypsy. (Or, or that matter, a Tramp or a Thief). They do stand for the proposition that I am “over” following a certain kind of conformist standard, and that I am willing to scratch a little in exchange for the sense that I am protected in some way by my mixed expression of ancestor worship, religious affiliation and New Age-Eastern Mystical-HooDoo. It may not help, but it probably can’t hurt…even if it does, I have a tube of prescription steroid cream in the bathroom.