by Anneli Matheson
The day after my mother’s memorial service I sort through her jewelry box. Like her, it’s colorful and disorganized. Gold plumerias and pearls rest beside costume brooches perched atop tangled silver chains and errant earring backs. After her cancer diagnosis my mother rarely wore jewelry, fearing the metals were polluting her body. As I hold one of her favorite pairs of earrings, the gold filigree drops with the red stones I pretend are rubies, I’m tempted to bifurcate her life into Before and After the Diagnosis.
Before: she loved to eat angel food cake with strawberries on special occasions; weekly expeditions to the library and bringing home stacks of books to read together; when she taught me to listen for the western meadowlark’s song as we walked through the empty prairie lot near our house; playing duets of adapted Vivaldi pieces, she on her flute and me at the piano while our cocker spaniel howled in protest at our feet.
After: she gave up writing her novel to spend countless hours in the back alleys of the internet researching apricot seed oil and expensive supplements to cure cancer; she feared a childhood vaccine might be the cause of her illness and begged me to promise that I would never vaccinate my future babies; near the end, her curious obsession with blood moon prophecies and her belief that tracking the lunar cycle would help her predict and avert other disasters.
As I hold her plastic pink brooch, the blue opal studs, and a cameo necklace in my hands, I realize heirlooms won’t help in my lament. These artifacts sit heavy in my palm, throwing me off balance with the weight of After-only memories. I place all her jewelry back in the box and lock the lid.
The noun talisman traces its linguistic origin story through French, Spanish and Italian by way of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hindi and ancient Greek. These polyglot roots prove that humans throughout history and all over the globe have sought out blessed jewelry, clothing, and stones to repel evil and suffering and to summon luck and good health.
Ancient Egyptians favored talismans they could wear on or close to their skin: rings and necklaces, or amulets sewn into hemlines. The wedjat-eye was a popular amulet believed to help both the living and the dead as it depicted the healed eye of the god Horus. Wedjat translates as “the one who is sound again” and, according to Egyptian legend, Horus’s eye was damaged by one god and regenerated by another. Carry this brooch-sized amulet and you carry the promise of wondrous healing.
But I am not an ancient Egyptian and never liked Horus’s vacant gaze. I know a wedjat-eye will not heal the tension of my grief–that I first lost my mother After the Diagnosis when she lost her mind, and then I lost her again when she passed.
I decide to fashion a talisman of my own design; a charm to guard all of my memories, Before and After the Diagnosis, and wear close to my skin between heart and mind where the mystery of memory dwells. I unlock my mother’s jewelry box and select the gold filigree drop earrings with the red stones I pretend are rubies, and magick them into a talisman of memory-protection.
Now armed with my charm, memories of joy can surface beside memories of misery: my mother berating me for not stockpiling food and water because civilization is about to collapse; my mother lifting me up to weave bits of yarn between fence posts for the Song Sparrows to collect for their spring nests; my mother refusing to hug me until I wash myself in anti-lice shampoo and dip my shoes in Clorox; my mother reading the Little House on the Prairie books aloud and baking cornbread for dinner.
I heed my talisman’s command not to sever my memory of her into Before and After, or to force a happy ending through erasure of the painful years. Now I seek to embrace the tension of her whole good life as I walk through the prairie grass wearing our gold filigree drop earrings with the red stones I pretend are rubies, and listen for meadowlarks.
Anneli Matheson lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from City University of Hong Kong. Her essay “A Wander Down Dried Seafood Street” was a runner-up in Sweet Lit’s 2020 Flash Essay Contest. One of her favorite projects of all time was co-editing a poetry cookbook titled Feast: Poetry and Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner (Black Lawrence Press, 2015).