Who else is organising the contents of neglected boxes and cavernous cupboards, putting order on disregarded bookshelves and dusty sheds? I’m sure I’m not the only one, it is what people do when they have time on their hands. We call it ‘sorting out’ or ‘tidying up’. We give it a simple label that belies what it is we are really doing: anchoring ourselves to the safety of the past and warming our hearts with an accumulation of resurrected memories. You might be working through a fust of old linen folded and pushed to the far reaches of the hot press, or you might have crawled into the roof-space and lost hours opening and reading box files of newspaper cuttings, or you’ve retreated to the shed and are wondering why you’ve stockpiled twenty tins of paint, most of them with lids rusted shut.
My equivalent has been to root through jewellery boxes. I’m no Elizabeth Taylor, most of it is paste, costume, worthless accumulations from God knows where. But there is some good stuff too; by which I don’t necessarily mean valuable, but ‘good’ for the stories that have been set and soldered into them, for jewellery holds a great deal more value than the price put on it by a man with an eyeglass. All he can see when he peers down his loupe is clarity and cut; the piece’s true worth is invisible, even to his trained eye. Only the wearer knows their clasp is pinned with significance, their ring bound with meaning, necklace hung with sadness. But this wasn’t going to be that sort of blog, a sentimental harking back to the who and when, nor was it to be an inventory. Now I’m afraid it might turn into a little of both as I smoke out the memories from a stack of Pandora’s boxes. I should correct myself, this is no Pandora’s Box, for she opened a source of great and unexpected trouble and these memories, far from causing me trouble, soothe me. They bring me back through touch and feel and waves of sweet nostalgia. I’m surprised as I watch myself pop up in memory reels from the past. There I am, in snatches of what feels like a film I once saw, sometimes centre stage, I can even recall the script, or I think I can. This isn’t jewellery at all, this is a film archive.
I double the string of freshwater Filipino pearls around my neck and remember his eyes dancing as he gave them to me. A first gift. They are cold against my skin, like when the top of your back first touches the enamel of a just-drawn bath. In moments, they’ve drawn heat from my body and (I know it’s impossible) they feel softer. I work them, mysteries of the rosary, through my forefinger and thumb. I unzip a pouch containing lapis lazuli beads; neither soft nor cold, they hold a solid warmth. Why is that? Surely it was as cold for them lying deep in the mines of Afghanistan as it was for oyster shells on the ocean bed. What’s in the little trinket box? The round one. It’s Indian (I think), with chipped enamel – blue, green, orange. A fine gold chain with a tiny pendant of pink sapphires shaped like a flowerhead. Got that the day we went to Salts Mill to see the Hockneys. A silver torque bracelet engraved with North American totemic eagles. I remember the heat that day. A moonstone from Sri Lanka; a band of deep green Colombian emeralds; the high cross of Bodna on a silver chain, with the same Celtic knots and saints as those carved into the tenth century stone cross in Cloncha, the wilds of North Donegal. I remember the long, damp grass in the graveyard. Rose quartz from a Geneva flea market, a Mexican silver bracelet dropped at the end of Keel beach on Achill Island. I remember the wind on the sand.
And, some day, someone else will have them, either by design or by accident, and they won’t know the stories behind them: the visits, the moments, the deeper meaning, the occasion marked. Or perhaps they’ll have an inkling, something gleaned from an old story, a half-remembered history. Like my sepia brooch, a miniature portrait of my great-great uncle Dan Graffan, who went to America at the turn of the century to seek his fortune and sent this serious picture of himself home, full moustache and questioning eyebrows. And now I keep it pinned to a lapel of a certain black cape that matches Dan as he matches it. And for who’s sake do I wear it? I wear it for the sake of posterity. And for the sake of maintaining the memory of a man whose scant story I can tell in a dozen words. I wear it for whoever loved him, I don’t know who. It’s not about the jewellery, it never is, it’s all about the story. And about love.
All I Want Is You, U2
You say you want
Diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want
Your story to remain untold
But all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you