When I want to be reminded that I am brave and can do hard things, I wear pearls. It seems rather counterintuitive. For years, I associated pearl necklaces with home-bound housewives from the 1950s, or pearls passed down the maternal line through generations of well-off women.
They represented an old-fashioned way of thinking of women – quietly supporting the family through her calm presence, pressed linens, and hot dinners. Certainly not a woman with a career. Not someone who believes women are capable of doing anything a man can do, wearing lipstick and heels if she chooses.
Then, my mother and I took a vacation together. An adventure. And during that trip, we bought nearly identical sets of pearls.
My parents traveled the world together. They would go on month-long adventures, often with another couple, and try to experience all the localities had to offer. No matter where my dad went, he was always eager to see what was over the next hill.
When my dad died after a very brief bout with aggressive cancer, my mother wasn’t ready to retire her passport. She decided her first international trip without my dad would be to China to visit a childhood friend who had lived there for more than 30 years.
I’ve always wanted to go to China, so I asked my mom if I could tag along. She agreed. It’s true – I did really want to be able to go to China and have the advantage of having a local tour guide. But a big part of me just didn’t want my mom to have to go on her first big adventure on her own. I knew she would be fine. I knew she’d be in good hands once she got through Chinese customs. But I appointed myself as a bit of a safety net. Another set of eyes to figure things out in a foreign land. Another head to think through any problems that cropped up.
Having someone guide us through Shanghai was amazing. Granted, a 6-foot-tall blond from South Dakota didn’t exactly look like a local. But she speaks Mandarin, understands local customs (including getting us registered at a local police station), and could navigate the enormous city.
One day, we visited a Chinese Garden and were looking for a tea house that was somewhat authentic — not the one prominently advertised in the tourist district we were in. A Chinese man overheard our conversation and invited us to his establishment. It was just through an alley and up some stairs.
To me, it sounded like the set up of an Agatha Christie mystery. Two women in their 60s and a third flirting with 40 walk into a dark alley and are never heard from again. Both mom and I looked to our hostess for how to appropriately handle the situation.
She didn’t seem to have any reservations, so we followed the man.
He led us to his store, which was mostly display cases of freshwater pearl jewelry. Off to one side were two tables for tea service, along with shelves well stocked with all kinds of tea. He spoke to a woman briefly and settled down at one of the tea tables with us, eagerly asking questions about where we were from and what brought us to Shanghai.
The owner of the jewelry/tea house was briefing us on the virtues of various teas and the necessity for the tea to be loose leaf, not the sweepings from the floor that Americans used in their tea bags. Just like a blooming tea was opening in its glass teapot, the man was opening up about how he came to own his businesses.
He had lived in Shanghai all of his life and was just about to go to college when the Chinese Cultural Revolution began. Mao Zedong closed all of the schools. Rather than continue his education, the man was sent to a rural farm to act as a laborer. One brother made it to the United States and studied at Brigham Young University. Both his brother and sister live in the United States today and, in fact, his sister operates the Florida branch of the family business.
He told us all of this with very good English, which he learned by listening to illegal radio programming.
The jovial man was so excited to practice his English, have an enthralled audience asking him questions about the cultural revolution, and exclaim over his teas that when we went to pay for the tea, he graciously declined. In fact, he asked to take a picture with us.
Mom and I both love to buy jewelry on our travels. It doesn’t take up much space, and is a great reminder of a place you have been. Pearls from China seemed like the perfect souvenir.
We both picked out a solitary pearl on a simple chain and matching earrings. My mom bought my sister a similar necklace.
Pearls & My Mother
Now, when I need an extra dose of bravery, I wear my pearls. They remind me of my mom – resolutely seeking out new adventures even without her travel partner of more than 30 years. The pearls remind me of our travels to China and to northern Thailand without the safety net of my mom’s friend by our side.
They remind me that a little grit is needed to truly experience the beautiful.