The only time I ever wore my mother's full length mink coat was at her funeral.
It was a bitter day at the end of October, sharp with the threat of a brutal winter to come, and I was frozen to my bones with the shock and grief of her sudden death. The coat fit me perfectly, and offered about as much comfort as I could have hoped for, given that I had been living in California for so long I had forgotten how to endure cold, given that my mother had died while I was still on the plane flying east to New York, and given that I was at the beginning of the rest of my life without her.
I remember being horrified when she bought the mink, and feeling reluctant even to touch it. I was about 15, I think, and I recall that my hands did briefly reach out to stroke the impossibly rich softness of the fur. But I didn't try it on, not until the day of the funeral when it was suddenly obvious that this was the only coat that might truly keep me warm. I tucked the handwritten pages of my eulogy into one of the pockets on my way to the cemetery, and after returning to the house, I realized the pages had somehow gotten lost. I told myself that my mother had kept them, since she always loved my words, especially when they were about her.
Almost exactly a year later, after we unveiled her blue granite tombstone, my sister and brother and I, along with our father, descended to the mildewed basement where the safe was to examine my mother's hoard of jewelry. It was an astonishing collection, hundreds of pieces she had acquired over several decades of both impulsive and compulsive shopping. Even my father, who had dutifully paid all of the credit card bills, was overwhelmed by the array.
My mother was an only child, and a Holocaust survivor. Before the war, her family had been wealthy, and her mother, as I've seen in a handful of rare photographs, was a gorgeous and stylish woman. She wore furs too. (People who knew my grandmother as a young woman say I resemble her, which I take to be a great compliment.)
As a child in the 1930s, my mother had a governess. Her mother attended medical school, and her aunts were all highly educated too. My mother always seemed delighted when she talked about her father being outstanding at tennis. He was kind of a playboy, she used to say with a smile. And I can still remember the girlish pleasure on her face when she described riding on a horse-drawn sleigh through the deep snows to her grandparents' house in the Polish countryside, where the table was always set with embroidered linens and cut crystal.
All of those luxuries my mother would have inherited - the finery that would have made up her dowry - everything was lost when the Nazis invaded Poland. My mother's family was sent, with all of the other Jews of Vilna, into the ghetto. Overnight they were forced out of their elegant villa and onto the street, carrying only a mattress and some bare necessities. One of the few stories she ever managed to share about how she made it all the way through the war featured a bag of gold coins that she wore around her neck, along with some pieces of her family's jewelry that she used to pay the Polish peasants who hid her in their cellar, after the ghetto had been liquidated. She was 13 years old.
I believe that my mother spent the rest of her life associating (if not equating) gold and jewels with safety and survival. I know that she used to stay up late at night sometimes, especially when my father was away on business trips, playing (as she called it) with her collection of rings, comforting herself with their gleaming presence. Nearly all of them were antiques that she had found beckoning irresistibly from one shiny display case after another.
Throughout my childhood, her frequent mood swings were punctuated by extravagant purchases from jewelers and boutiques. I had mixed responses to my mother's unpredictable phases. Sometimes I imagined taking advantage of her euphoric episodes, knowing that she was very likely in that state of mind to buy me whatever I wanted. But most often, I just wanted her to be more emotionally constant, more like the "normal" parents I was sure everyone else had. I loved that she was the only mother I knew who bought clothes from our single local designer named Ursula of Switzerland, but she was also the only mother I knew who wept inconsolably for hours at a time.
Her extremes of temperament and her shopping sprees seemed to intensify as she grew older, especially after all of her children were grown up and living in other states. Bags and packages full of merchandise were stashed in every closet of the house, price tags still attached. Since her weight fluctuated wildly, she bought in all sizes. Sometimes an elegantly simple designer outfit would hang uncomfortably beside a gaudy knock-off, much too vivid and covered in sequins.
It wasn't until she was about 55 years old that she was finally evaluated by a psychiatrist and told she was suffering from bipolar disorder. By that time, I was in graduate school on the other side of the country, filled with relief and dismay about the official naming of her illness.
During my visits from California, my mother loved to show me her latest acquisitions. When she bought clothing for me, it was either perfectly my style - exotic, a little sexy, usually black - or weirdly inappropriate - electric-hued and several sizes off - as if in her excitement she had forgotten who the intended recipient was. But she always insisted that I try everything on, sure that she knew better than I did what would look best on me. Some of her newly purchased jewelry was classy and glamorous, the kind of thing I imagined wearing to a ball. Not that I had ever been invited to one. Other pieces, though, seemed far too flashy to me, intended for people who gilded their furniture and dressed up their miniature poodles in designer outfits and gemstones.
Of all of her rings, my favorites were diamonds set in platinum, brilliantly glittering in their art deco settings. To me, they struck just the right note between expensive and artistic. When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she told me to choose two rings for myself, saying, "I want to give with warm hands."
A full year after we had buried her, my brother and sister and I struggled for more than two more years to sort through the jewelry. In addition to the rings, we found brooches, bracelets, necklaces and earrings. There were sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. Every once in a while, we found a single earring or a ring with a missing stone, gaping like a missing tooth. There were also pieces of costume jewelry mixed in with the genuine gems. Among the satin bags and jewelers' boxes, we sifted through my mother's beloved toys.
While we compared notes about which ones we remembered her wearing, we began the debate about how to divide things fairly, how to include my brother's wife and daughters, and my sister's children as well. Some pieces that seemed particularly valuable ought to be shared, we thought, and then that led to some complicated attempts to find out what any of them were actually worth.
For a time, by way of jewelry stores and bookstores, I tried to learn about how to evaluate diamonds, the 4 Cs of cut, clarity, color and carats. During an online search, I found out that there is a 5th C, referring to "conflict-free," which seems now to have replaced the term "blood" diamonds. Here was a phrase that graphically alerted potential buyers to the brutal realities of the diamond mining conditions and to the use of proceeds for funding violent rebel insurgencies. Now it's possible to purchase diamonds that carry certified guarantees of their "conflict-free" source.
It shocked me to realize that the ethical complications surrounding these newly mined gems aren't all that different from what happened to my own family's fortune. Whenever my mother bought an antique ring, who knows what stories might have gone along with it that will never be told? It's possible that somewhere among her very own collection, there are rings that once belonged to people who suffered just as she had. After all, jewelry stolen from the living as well as the dead can be found just about anywhere. In countless museums around the world, there are display cases filled with gold and gemstones that have long outlived their owners. Archeology can resurrect the jewels, but not the flesh they decorated. What so frequently amazes me about these ancient relics is how perfectly preserved they are, and how beautiful.
My siblings and I don't actually like all of my mother's jewelry. We also aren't sure we will ever choose to wear the pieces we do like. My own preferences tend toward spare and somewhat modern; my sister already wears a large engagement diamond alongside her wedding band. My brother's wife goes without adornment altogether. As if to make matters worse, we've been saddened to keep discovering how often my mother was deceived by the people who sold to her. She had an extraordinary memory for numbers, and had at one point years earlier told me to write down what she had paid for several of the rings. Too many times, when I approach them, jewelry appraisers shake their heads when I report what my mother spent. "Sorry," they say. "These just aren't as valuable as you would like them to be."
We are still pondering decisions about what to do with this confusing assortment of jewels; what to do about the mink coat, not to mention the cabinets full of china and silver and crystal. None of us, my siblings and I, inhabits the kind of life where these objects naturally belong. And yet their value to our mother gives them a sentimental significance that cannot be denied. Can we really sell them or give them away, these treasures she cherished, or at least believed she needed? Do we turn them into heirlooms as if they came to us miraculously restored, as if the Nazis themselves had apologized? What would it mean to wear diamonds on each of my hands, and sapphires on my earlobes? Would they make me my mother's daughter, mood disorder and all?
In a documentary called "The Last Days," a Hungarian Holocaust survivor tells about arriving at Auschwitz with three diamonds sewn into the hem of her dress. When she was forced to exchange her clothing for a prisoner's uniform, she swallowed the diamonds. Each day of her yearlong imprisonment, she passed the diamonds and retrieved them, rinsed and swallowed again. She never knew when she might need one to bribe a prison guard to save her life or maybe someone else's. In the video, she wears a teardrop-shaped brooch embedded with three sparkling diamonds. She points to it at the end of her story, and says that it will be a legacy for her children.
Whenever I hear the song, "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," I think of that woman's story, and I think of the stories of my family as they've been passed along to me. I carry this history in my bones and in my heart. I have inherited grief and trauma, but I also inherited a treasure chest full of shiny things, promising a kind of endurance against all odds. Sometimes, when I wear my mother's rings, I imagine I can still feel the touch of her warm hands.