Standing at the sink in my grandmother’s kitchen in upstate New York, my hands were aching from all the polishing. Red Vine tomatoes sat plump on the window sill. There was the unmistakable sweet, pungent smell of a humid summer evening breeze. Iced tea lemonade in a glass pitcher, idle chatter of family on the screened porch. As usual, I had been rummaging through a drawer or closet somewhere in my grandmother’s home atop Renwick Heights Road. It was always such a tempting thrill to discover a box of her treasures: Gorgeous Guatemalan and Hungarian textiles, costume jewelry, makeup, forgotten sunglasses, old fashion magazines, faded photos; it was a wonder some of the things I would unveil, all with an heir of secrecy and excitement. And then came the day when I discovered a set of the most beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry that I had ever laid eyes on. It was tarnished and grey, but I knew what it could be with just a little love. I gently carried it to my grandmother Amie and asked if I could polish it, secretly hoping she would just say “Oh, why don’t you just have it?”. Instead, she smiled sweetly and said “That would be wonderful. Let’s get the silver polish.”
I worked harder polishing all of that silver than I had on anything. I treated each piece with care, like a precious piece of history, coveting each one. It was obvious even to my young eye that they were antique. I asked Amie about one bracelet in particular that was beyond beautiful; a large sterling cuff bracelet adorned with a giant turquoise stone, engraved with birds and arrows. She leaned against the sink, her blue eyes sparkling and reminiscent, her incredible smile grew wide.
“When I graduated from Cornell (in the early ’30s) there was a formal ball that I attended. I made my own dress: a black, tea length cocktail dress. With it I wore a simple turquoise boa and this bracelet. I found it in an antique store here in Ithaca and I saved my money for it. I haven’t worn it for a long time.” She gently rolled the bracelet around in her arthritic hands, gazing at it as if she could see a reflection of herself in it, all those years ago. I wanted nothing more than to ask for it, but I knew better. I knew that asking for that bracelet wasn’t my place, even as her granddaughter. My awe and amazement of my grandmother grew in that moment, as I envisioned what she must have looked like at that dance, strong, independent, fashionable, and educated. After that night, I didn’t see the bracelet again for a very long time.
My grandmother would have turned 100 years old yesterday. She was born on October 27, 1913 in Aimes, Iowa. Her father, a professor, accepted a job at Cornell University, which would set the course of my grandmother’s life. My grandmother Virginia (Amie to us), grew up in Ithaca, NY, graduated from Cornell, and raised her three children as a single mother after losing her husband in his early 40s. She was tough, loving, strikingly beautiful, a good cook, and wildly devoted to her family. She had incredible legs and was a swimsuit model in her teens. She drove like a maniac, her “only vice” was smoking, and she gave the best head rubs in all the world.
Amie died in November of 2002. It is impossible to articulate how much she is missed, and yet, how much she is still present to me. There are so many things that live in my memories of her, so many qualities she had that I try to display in my own life as a way of remembering her and carrying on the person that she was to all of us.
And of course, there will always be one very special reminder of her, a gift that she gave to me on my college graduation day. We had never actually exchanged words about it, but like any attuned grandmother, words were not necessary. Amie passed on her turquoise bracelet to me – a gift that I wear with overwhelming pride and love for a truly beautiful woman.