A Present for My Mother

I was on Ko-Pi-Pi, an island off the southern tip of Thailand, to rest after a gruelling work trip to Japan. I was with a boyfriend, a not very nice one (insecurity made him arrogant; weariness me intolerant) but in that place we did not squabble – the heat and damp were enervating, my exhaustion too profound. We walked on shady tracks though the jungle, dodging grass-green snakes mimicking reedy plants by standing almost on their tails, their tiny heads waving slightly; we dodged imprecations hurled from trees by monkey tribes; we swatted at the vicious no-see-ums. But mostly we hung out in the salty bath-warm surf where none of the above ventured… and it was here one evening that I saw the most incredible sunset of my life.

It was not a sunset in the normal course of such things – a molten red sky in the west, or some love-pink shadings on mountain snows. This was a whole production – a silent opera, a Northern Lights mixed with cream; an entire wardrobe of royal finery laid out on the bed of the sky for inspection. The colors of masterpieces, the purity of altitude, the pallette of cloud and flower, stream and rock, blood and jewel, night and dawn, grass and thunder, all lavished at once on one purling, changing, timeless unfolding display… I lay on my back on the beach here, and my friend did the same over there, and for aeons we were ploughed under, drowned, mesmerized like women beneath a goodly lover – challenged and sated, uncovered and transformed. There was the color of a smokey, inky depth – edged by silver dancing-shoe light – backed by olive transparency – alongside spring leaf – nearby grape satin – laid with paths of garnet, peridot, and tourmaline crushed like wine. Lion color and brass shone in curved swoops like garden edgings. Cloaks of color were swathed slowly over us and then pulled away. The curtains of the sky went on drawing back and showing other scenes behind them. Enough dancing dresses for a vanished world of lissome girls, a hue for each’s best benefit – enough colors to furnish an entire planet with everything it needs. I have seen these same nourishments, these substances, in black Hawaiian pearls – in grey ones – in pink ones – in stones of every sort under my joyous gaze on a jeweller’s back room table in India. In the bottom of a mountain stream over lucent rock at 16,000 ft. in the Himalayas, and the springy grass beside the stream as well. In the coats of the sheep there, and the rich old dyes of the shawl the shepherd wore, as well as in the new garish dyes in the wool in towns lower down. Pink like Hawaiian hibiscus rang there, and changed to sea-coral, and flame. Night beckoned from the black core of a cloud and yet always the sky behind showed fields of clearest blue topaz, softly assertive as mid-morning, spread behind everything, fluid as water.

I think my mouth fell open – I could not absorb it all any other way. I think I drank it with my skin.

Next day I ventured through clean sea to my shoulders out to a tiny island, perhaps the size of a large suburban house and yard. It wasn’t far – it was irresistible. Trees grew on its hillocky middle; it was composed all of white sand. I went there alone, leaving my companion on the beach, and I poked happily about looking at shells, rocks. (The flotsam that lined the high water line on Ko-Pi-Pi was strangely absent here.) There was a sort of shell I kept seeing pieces of – one side a rich, deep orange, pitted like a Mediterranean wall weather-blasted over centuries; the other pearly cream-white.

And then I saw it, just over there – and leaned down and picked it up – a rectangle of this stuff but with rounded edges, about the size of a large cat pawprint but narrowed at the sides, with a proper hole worn into it at the top, just exactly right to put a gold ring in to suspend it from.

And so I took it back to our bungalow and put it in my suitcase and carried it back to India, and there I took it to my jeweller’s and I sat on the other side of the back room table and showed him what I wanted done with it.

Later that year I flew to America and saw my mother. And I gave her a small padded bag, in a tawny silk, and she opened it, saying “Oh?” hesitantly. And she held the necklace on her worn hand, her work-tired hand, the puffy hand that had always aroused my pity and my love – her hand, with its cracked fingers, fed up with labors it had no true use for; thoughtful in the bliss of truthfulness it found scrawling a poem in lyrical loops; scrubbing the top of the purring cat’s head with her fist – he loved her brusqueness – wondering when, when it would ever be free. Then she held the necklace up, and we both gazed at it in awe.

It was a long rope of pink natural pearls, irregularly shaped, each about the size of a rolled chrysanthemum petal; depended from it was a wide hasp of glossy, satiny gold with the shell swinging gently from it. The pearly sheen of the shell’s back was – royal, glad, velvety. The terracotta of the rough front was commandingly colored so deeply orange it was almost… well, sunset . The epicenter of a sinking star. The pearls glowed beige, cream, apricot, ballerina – many shades are held in that misleading word ‘pink.’

And she said, “These pearls – are of course – plastic?” And my heart broke inside my chest as if the yolk could break inside an egg. For she had survived the Depression, and so much more subsequent want and squalor, and she could not imagine genuine pearls – in her hands. “No, Mom, they’re real,” I said. And she put the necklace on, and the pendant came to just below her breastbone. And those pagan pearls with their tameless shape glowed on her and picked up the wild love she’d always had for nature – the wildflower bunches, rocks brought home from hikes and placed on the altar she always made in every house she lived in.

And I think now of a photo of her, from when she was seventeen. It’s black and white of course so you can’t see that her hair was auburn, perfect for the gold and cream; nor can you see the profile of her bold Etruscan nose; but you can see the innocence of her full lips and questioning eyes – and, if you know her, you can find hidden the innocence of her innate rebellion….

And how nature echoes it – wild, bringing shells to beaches, and mosquitoes and swearing primates to jungles, and daughters to tramp the world, and bring her mangoes couched in stone.