Stories and objects: a lost bracelet

Watch locketWe are talking about the frying pan I’m about to buy when the woman behind the counter notices my necklace, a locket.

That’s lovely, she says. Is there anything in it?

I open it to show her the watch inside. My parents gave it to me some years ago, I tell her.

Her face softens immediately. Oh, it’s lovely. I bet you love it. Gifts like that are special, aren’t they?

She begins to tell me about gifts, of jewellery in particular, her now deceased parents gave her. She is one of those women who have worked in a department store for twenty years or more: immaculate blonde hair, just a little too much foundation, long manicured fingernails, rings with big stones on at least two fingers on each hand, just the right amount of some age-appropriate fashionable perfume. As she talks, I notice suddenly how small she is—she comes up to my chest, at most.

She tells me the story of her falling on the way home from the train station one day and losing a beloved bracelet her parents had given her.

Half way through the story, just at the part where she injured herself falling over and walked the twenty minutes home only to discover the bracelet was gone, she starts laughing at herself failing the necessary steps to put my frying pan transaction through because she is distracted by her storytelling.

Hang on, let me put this through first, she says. I laugh too. We finish the transaction and fiddle about sticking receipts to boxes and deciding about whether I need a bag. I am about to leave when she remembers—

Wait, let me tell you the rest of my story. Please do, I say.

When she realised she had lost the bracelet—which she never usually wore to work, but this one day, of course—she called her Dad in tears. At this time her mother was in a nursing home, but her Dad still lived in their home. Her Dad listened and soothed her distress with all the appropriate words. The next day when she could walk okay again she went back to the spot she had fallen, but the bracelet, predictably, was gone.

Some time later, she went to visit her father at his home—I still get teary thinking about this now, she tells me—and at the end of her visit her father remembered suddenly, and disappeared to his bedroom. When he came back, he had a small jewellery bag. In it was a replacement bracelet. Not the same kind, nothing like it, she tells me—he probably wasn’t involved in buying the first one, even. But this one, this one was even more special than the first, and she would never wear it to work.

Oh, Dad, I say to her, touched.

I know, she says. I miss my Dad. He was the kind of man who’d be thinking about whose birthday was coming up in the next month or two, so he could be sure they’d have a gift. He loved giving gifts. She gazes out past my shoulder. But I should let you go, she says.

And I do go, but I thank her for sharing the story with me, feeling that what she shared was so much more than a story about a lost bracelet. What she showed me, a complete stranger, was grief. Not the kind we usually think of—sobbing, distressed, wild—but an everyday kind. The kind where a person is suddenly reminded of a hole that’s been left.

Walking back through the department store with my frying pan under my arm, on my way back to work, I am, for a few moments at least, a little less overwhelmed and irritated by department stores and shopping centres and crowded places where people seem to forget that other people are moving in those places too. Instead, I am aware, in a way that makes my skin tingle, of what it is that all these people might carry around with them that stops them from seeing other people, and I am reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace about the world and people and changing our attitude to others. And this reminder, perhaps, more than the story itself, lovely though it was, is why I will remember that small blonde woman’s story, and the image I have of her elderly father holding out for her a small velvet bag containing a bracelet.

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Storytelling

What has struck me over the last few days, since my Mamie’s death very early Friday morning, is how important storytelling is to the grieving process. Apart from the day she died, when I withdrew into a little shell and moped about the house by myself, I’ve spoken to one or more members of family every day. And each time we’ve told stories about Mamie.

I’ve found out things about her I didn’t know, and heard stories that cement my ideas about her. I said to my Dad the other night (Mamie was his mother) that I’m sure there are lots of things about Mamie that I was never going to know until she had died, and I’m kind of looking forward to getting to know her better — or at least in a different way — through the stories I’ll hear about her.

The storytelling is vital, I feel. Mamie was frail when she died — if we weren’t able to tell our stories about her to one another, I think we’d not be able to remember her as she was in the rest of her life. In the stories, she gets to live again.

I’ve always been fascinated by religion and spirituality. I went to Catholic schools growing up, and every year I did very well in the compulsory Religious Studies. I don’t really consider myself a religious person, but I have always loved learning about how people explain to themselves life and death and everything in between. Life after death — again not something I’m decided on — is a particularly interesting concept to me. I wonder whether these stories, these memories we have of Mamie, are her next life.

Mamie was religious. She believed in God, and Heaven, and that she was going to be with my grandfather, Da, again when she died.

Once, a few years ago, she and I started having a conversation about God. I told her I didn’t know whether I believed in a higher being or not, but that I didn’t think it mattered if I was able to be a good person. She listened. At that point in the conversation we were interrupted, but she looked at me, touched my arm, and said, “Please let’s continue this conversation when we can later, darling.” I knew, from the way she said it, that our later conversation would not involve her trying to change my mind, only wanting to know more of it.

Sadly, we never got the chance to finish that conversation. I would dearly love to talk to her about those things now, and it saddens me to think that I won’t be able to.

But that I can tell that story, and imagine how the conversation might have gone — have the conversation with her in my head — is enough. Whichever way you look at it, Mamie’s having a life after death right now.

I’ve shared my thoughts about the social function of literature here before, and I’m sure what I’m describing here fits into that idea somehow. Stories encourage compassion and empathy, and in doing so I think they can perpetuate a person or character’s voice and existence. Which reminds me, I’m due to write more about my ideas on using different narrative voices — my efforts here don’t do the subject any kind of justice.