I cannot say what charm bracelets meant to my grandmother or why she sent one to each of her granddaughters scattered across the country as a tenth birthday gift. Seven sterling silver bracelets for seven preadolescent girls born between October 1945 and May 1960. I am third in line, and unwrapped mine in the aspirational days following John F. Kennedy's election in November 1960. It is still with me, fifteen tarnished charms hidden under the unruly mounds of beaded necklaces and carved bracelets crowding my jewelry box. Thirteen are quiet now; two speak to me still.
I remember the moment when my mother fastened the glittering bracelet around my wrist for the first time. I felt giddy, but also grown up, proud to wear a piece of real jewelry and delighted by the first three charms my grandmother had chosen for me, a heart-shaped locket, silvery bright with my initials engraved on one side, a miniature Wisconsin—the state where I was born—enameled green on the front, and a small glass sphere with a yellow speck inside. "A mustard seed. It's for luck," my mother explained."Barely visible to the human eye. You can only see it because it is magnified by the glass ball." She did not explain the Biblical significance. We were not a religious family. It was years before I would learn of the parable's metaphor that even a great, spreading tree can grow from a tiny seed.
I raised and lowered my arm, watched the bracelet slide up and down, the charms tumbling and flipping and catching the light, careful to hold my thumb out to the side so the bracelet would not slip off my narrow wrist. A roller coaster ride for the charms, to be sure. It would later become a roller coaster ride for me as I have worked to understand what my grandmother meant when, in 1964, she gave me one charm in particular. Not sterling silver like the others. The largest and heaviest, a Sacajawea-dollar sized disc that pulled on the bracelet, weighing it down once it was soldered to its link.
I felt a strong connection to Grandma, believed we had a special relationship. She believed in me, made me feel important. Maybe my sisters and cousins felt the same. I have since discovered that our charm bracelets are similar in many ways. Each of us has a locket with engraved initials, each has a birth state, some also have birth stones and signs of the zodiac. There are charms to represent family pets in miniature, charms to dance and dangle our talents, hobbies and interests—artist's palettes, musical G clefs, tiny books and ballerinas—for all to see. They are story-tellers, talismans meant to remind us of who we were and where we came from. And of course, they are reminders of the things in our lives and of the collections my grandmother added to each birthday and Christmas. They are mementos of her.
But I am the one who helped her bake a blueberry pie, who shared a love of birds and knew where the Eastern bluebirds had nested in her yard. I'm the one who watched in awe as she completed The New York Times Sunday crossword and followed the Yankees game on the radio while keeping an eye on the pink baby sweater she was knitting and on the sad yellow practice square slowly emerging from my brand-new number eight needles. I was the one who listened to her stories about Grandpa in World War I, the "Great War," she called it. I was the one who wanted to become a teacher, just like she had been. How smart she was and so wise, I thought.
It was like she could see inside me, knew what I was dreaming, knew that I was growing up when my own mother did not. Without asking, she knew when to change her gift subscriptions to me from Highlights Magazine to Calling All Girls (which later became Young Miss), and finally to Seventeen (a couple of years before I turned seventeen). She was the one of all the adults to know that my feelings for my high school sweetheart were real, as were his for me. She said she would be honored to embroider the Juliet cap I wore at our wedding.But she is also the one who sent me the heaviest charm, the one with Albrecht Dürer's engraving of Praying Hands on one side and a message embossed on the other. I was fourteen, standing in my bedroom in a shaft of strong sunlight piercing the southern window. I held the heavy charm in my right hand as the other charms along the links trailed away. In my left I held a magnifying glass, the same one I used to read textbooks and do homework. It has been three years since I saw my first ophthalmologist, and a dozen others came after him. None offered a clear diagnosis or effective treatment for what was robbing my vision, making me miss school, making me different.
This is good light, I had learned, and I was right. Through the magnifiers' double thickness lens I read the tiny words.
"God," it began. God? I felt a jolt. My grandmother and I had never talked about God. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." I was dumbstruck. "Grant me the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I stood in the light. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe. I felt cold. Tiny letters revealed, tiny letters spelling out a huge message.
I didn't know she knew, had seen through my efforts to pass as normal. My grandmother had always let me believe. I had always felt normal and whole around her. I wanted to be perfect for her, just as smart and wise and perfect as she was to me. Maybe Grandma was trying to help me answer questions not only about who I was or where I came from, or even where I was going, but also what I would need along the way. My path was different, fraught, she knew, but didn't say.
She wasn't like the other adults—parents, teachers, doctors—buzzing and fretting around me, wringing their hands, none sure about what to do, none trusting me to handle a chronic eye inflammation marching along a path of destruction. An assault that began in the retina and later would ravage the cornea, prompting an opthalmologist to shake his head and say "Looks like someone took a Brillo pad to it."
Grandma never let on. Somehow, she just knew. This was her silent prescription, the words of a sooth-sayer charm, a prayerful amulet that told me what would be needed if I were to grow into a great, spreading tree.
Today, I am a grandmother. I have one granddaughter nearly ten and she is curious about my charm bracelet. My fingers untangle it from the unruliness in the chest and I hand it to her. She touches each of the charms, names them as she moves along the links. "Bird," she says. "Cat, drum… What's this one, Grandma, it's all scratched up?" I feel the curve of the glass ball."It's a mustard seed, its supposed to bring good luck," I say, surprised. "Guess it got banged up when I wore it to school."
"It's all white now, Grandma, like it's frosted over. You sure the seed is still in there? And what's this big one?"
"Turn it over, can you read it?"
I hear the words and wonder again what my grandmother meant for me. I am fourteen in the light. I am sixty seven in the dark, still wondering how she knew I would need some serenity, some courage, some wisdom in my life. And I wonder, do I understand what my own granddaughter will need in her life?
"Avril…" I hear myself asking. "Would you like a charm bracelet for your birthday?"