Green Hills Literary Lantern




Mikimoto Mama 



Mother secretly consulted lace-curtain-Irish sister-in-law Aunt Alice, detested by Father, who I could tell even when just seven was snooty but possessed expert knowledge of things like cultured pearl starter necklaces. So while Parents’ official First Holy Communion present was a glow-in-the-dark bedside crucifix, frightening me halfway to paganism, Mother explained that the real, indisputable, legitimate, and genuine Communion gift from Parents was a Mikimoto starter necklace, discussed only minimally with Father, who thought $4/pearl unacceptable.

Mother had great Sunday best clothes, sewn herself from expensive remnants bought for a song any time of year in Jordan’s markdown sales because you never knew when you’d need good fabric. Except it wouldn’t be available at the exact moments of need. So in those days, there were always two pillowcases of remnant stockpilings hidden in the (Then-No-Longer) Hope Chest where Father would never go.  

Mother and I journeyed—she bravely, I unaware, except uncomfortable in good clothes with scratchy petticoats—into a region of Boston I later realized was countless social classes above us, for Initial Consultation at E.B. Horn’s, the Jewelry Store. Aunt Alice said Horn’s was her Personal Jeweler though obviously it was Personal Jeweler to other people as well. Really had to cut through BS with Auntie A (AA). “Initial Consultation” sounded like seeing specialist doctors for frightening medical conditions. Last consultation Mother had resulted in a hysterectomy for “growths the size of grapefruits” and madness for months because doctor forgot hormone replacements which led to many broken glasses and plates (even if the glasses and plates were just ones gotten on deals from the gas station), infinite GD this-es and GD thats-es, and multiple threats of divorce which eventually alerted Father, always pretty dense when it came to Mother or emotions of any kind, that something must be wrong.

“Horn’s is an authorized Mikimoto dealer,” AA had told us while French-inhaling. Were there “unauthorized Mikimoto dealers”? Not in that part of town, not in Alice’s world. During Initial Consultation, the Horn Head Jeweler (or HHJ as Mother and I called him), with looks of rapture like Priests during Consecration, whispered, “Only the highest quality pearls with the most luminous luster carry the Mikimoto name,” as if letting us in on important secrets. Mother later explained his words meant “best” and “most expensive.” Mother smiled at HHJ’s awestruckness.

HHJ solemnly presented us a thick piece of paper on which his whispered sentence was printed word-for-word in gold. “Parchment,” said Mother, impressed, gasping when HHJ folded parchment to put in an envelope. Going home, Mother intoned in her most Priest-at-Mass voice that the gold-lettered-parchment document (“almost a proclamation”) attesting to authentic Mikimoto-ness should be framed, not folded. She phoned Aunt A (hoping for once to be heard on the party line by our neighbors) but went from eyes gleaming to lower lip quivering when Alice explained it all was simply advertising. Still, Mother ironed creases and any sense of ad‑ness out of it with only a slightly warmed iron—I mean, who knew how gold reacted to heat?—and mounted the creaseless parchment proclamation between TV antennas for Father to discover after dinner.  

When she mentioned starter necklaces as we ate, Father sniggered, “Why not ‘uncultured pearls’! A lot cheaper,” pointing out Mother could buy me whole strands from Woolworth’s for $2.99. Uncultured. Unauthorized. Unacceptable. You could feel the “un-s” leading to trouble. “Like the one from Mother’s Day?” Mother snapped. “No daughter of mine will grow up wearing fake, cheap pearls.” Then they had words. A lot of them. And Mother ended up hurling a kitchen knife in Father’s direction, which fortunately just bounced off the wall.

You have to be in a very special social class to have parents fight about cultured pearls. Not too high. Not too low. My friends Agnes and Lucy were too low: when I mentioned arguing and knife throwing to Agnes, she said her parents never discussed pearls of any kind, let alone precipitating objects over them. Lucy said her flamboyant mother wore giant pearls on long strings, so they had to be fake. She shrugged about knives. She was used to things being thrown in her house—drinks in faces, lamps, sometimes silverware, clothes out windows—though usually by her father and after he’d had a few too many. Definitely not high enough. On the other side, inconceivable to imagine Auntie A and the Lace Curtains fighting about pearls because it was their eleventh commandment that females almost always wear pearls—not only at fancy occasions like Christmas parties, music recitals, dinner at “The Club,” shows in Boston, airplane trips, Sunday Mass, Weekday Mass (not that they went very often), weddings, funerals, and Thanksgiving, but also on more relaxed occasions like boating, barbecuing, playing tennis, hospital visits, shopping sprees, even sitting around pools in the Bahamas. We’d been shown countless pictures—Alice never traveled without her Brownie camera and was forever saying that “snapping the little Brownie connected her with people of all sorts” which caused Father to rush from the room in obvious need to disconnect from AA and Brownie and BS. Though Alice drew the line at salt water. Cousin Ali couldn’t wear pearls water skiing (known from watching many home movies—water skiing being too big for little Brownie). “Though they come from the sea, pearls have no desire to return to it,” Alice pronounced whenever pearls, the ocean, and photographs were mentioned together. Definitely not low enough.  

Then there was us: we were, you or Goldilocks might say, just right—not too high, not too low—for arguments about pearls to catch and ignite like tinder. Loving Mother was so frustrated by marriage to irascible Father that they argued most of the time and threatened all sorts of things—her refusing to iron his long-sleeved cotton shirts for work, his saying no weekly allowance, her going back to her mother, his spending all spare time at ballgames. They’d shout at one another not only in-house but she from across-street to him in-front-window—how he’d drive saints insane, and him screaming she was insane. Outside fights were at decibel levels that distracted neighbors from evening TV programs. Though terrified she’d run away, I wasn’t disturbed by outside yelling since back then in my experience most parents screamed at each other inside and out. I had no idea hollering outside was a definitive social class marker. She never left. He never took away her allowance.  

And then she became—unusual for Mother or any mothers I knew (not counting Alice since she lived miles and worlds away in split-level suburbia)—quietly resolute about Mikimoto. Of course, I wouldn’t have known the words “quietly resolute” then, but anyone could see the difference. She became the opposite of shrieking and crying and carrying on across-street to him-in-front-window. So Parents avoided most of the spiteful and bitter pearl arguments for which, socially speaking, we were particularly well-primed.

Mother’s intelligence wasn’t bookish. Father confided to me that unlike him she hadn’t actually graduated high school. But she had intelligence with hands, whether building furniture, sewing, fixing leaks, painting, wallpapering, tiling, redoing floors, washing windows, creating school play costumes, designing intricate Infant of Prague outfits (where even the most minuscule remnants were used for beautiful and holy ends), decorating pumpkins, making banners, or renovating whole apartments in our dilapidated, wrong side of the tracks, three-family house in Cambridge, MA. She was also somewhat interested in ladyhoodness. Not that she had much opportunity. Only now do I wonder if her social class know-how came from secret parts of her Italian family, maybe wealthier than everyone I knew then. Random pieces of expensive jewelry, cut glass, and the occasional mink stole mysteriously appeared at our house whenever undetermined distant Italian relations died. Father offered something else entirely. Growing up in poverty, he was determined to provide us with financial stability, but under a regime of extreme impecuniousness.

Parents’ differing skills could have been complementary. Of course, no such luck. Ethnic prejudices then made everyone believe that when Italian women married Irish men, Italians were “marrying up,” regardless of the actual social status of the men. Or women. Father bought into that prejudice and was controlling, stubborn, and sexist. And much of Mother’s behavior, both private—like knife throwing—or public—like screaming from across-street—did nothing to advance notions she was in any way higher class.

But pearl necklace prospects must have symbolized for Mother possibilities that I, only daughter (only child!), could escape stultifying marriages like hers. When engaged in anything related to pearls, a brand new side of Mother emerged. She became Mikimoto Mama—strong, persistent, self-respecting, achieving goals, and bringing patriarchal worlds of pearl sellers to their knees. All of which I can say now. Then I would have said, she became the most contrasting reverse of what she was with Father. And so while pearls may seem at the center of this story, they are simply the launching point from which the story enfolds. Without them, I most likely, terrible to think, would never have met this other side of Mother.

The Mikimoto Forever Plan (MFP) was dedicated to mother-daughter bonds. If, each year, mothers bought daughters five 8mm Mikimoto pearls at $4/pearl (plus $20 for the one-time purchase of a 14-inch gold chain which pearls would hang from until the necklace was complete), Mikimoto guaranteed each mother would only ever pay $4 for each pearl until each daughter turned 16. MFP also celebrated all that happens to daughters “on their journey to becoming Sweet 16.” Of course this particular journey didn’t exist for girls who weren’t high class. Never before had I heard of 16 being special, something to be looked forward to, or for which mothers and daughters prepared, though I vaguely understood Mother suddenly felt 16ness was something I must have. Obviously I can say now, and by now I mean today, not when I turned 8 or 10 or the miraculous 16, that MFP was actually targeting people like us—that special social class who hadn’t ever thought about 16, sweet or otherwise, but who, instead, if told 16 malarkey and introduced to MFP, might well entertain ideas, have arguments about, and gradually develop desires for starter pearl necklaces. Mikimoto’s ad campaign was crafty, though, in always seeming aimed at wealthy people and in making us think we were pulling one over on them. Like that is ever possible. 

Mother’s response was clearly the looked-for one—enthusiastically entering “the Mikimoto Family” (MF)—thereby becoming one of their thousands of guaranteed buyers, with high expectations despite limited budgets. She felt MFP to be economically quite shrewd—since prices constantly went up, by spending $40 that first year when I was only 7 and $20 every year thereafter, I’d end up with one priceless necklace by 16 without breaking the bank or having to discuss it much with Father. “Imagine what just one of those pearls will be worth when you’re sixteen, let alone the whole necklace?” she asked me with such delight at pulling one over on him, who, to be totally honest, was the most significant person she had ever wanted to pull one over on. But Mother’s transformation in this whole pearl process went so much beyond smart advertising campaigns. And it ironically didn’t really begin until MFP went somewhat awry. And even more ironically and totally tragically, it ended just when the transformation was proving successful. This was for me then, at 14 or 15, the biggest and most horrible lesson of how much life can hurt.

MFP first year brought Mother such joy, though all fairly predictable. When Mother commented the chain was pretty flimsy for $20, the jeweler’s face spasmed. “Madam, as it says in the advertisement, the chain is only temporary.” Mother reached inside her purse for that crisp $20 guiltily withdrawn from the bank. “Madam will recall the requested purchase of at least one $4 pearl now,” his 12-piece suit loomed behind the counter. As Mother handed him four dirty $1s and looked up eagerly, he emphasized, as if already asked hundreds of times, “No, Madam, pearls cannot be viewed in advance.” Buying something without examining it concerned her, she told me later, but when looking around, other women appeared clearly confident in their various transactions, even as their voices, gestures, and very bodies might have been crying out to Mother that they were self-assured because of having more money than we did. So Mother persevered.

Horn’s then gave you one receipt for the gold chain and pearl(s) already strung on it, and another for the new pearl(s). They kept the necklace for two weeks while somewhere (was it in the back rooms of this Authorized Horn’s store or elsewhere in the vast beyond of Mikimotoland?) Mikimoto workers were constantly restringing pearls, adding on new ones to previous, reattaching them to gold necklaces which were always becoming a tiny bit longer—and thus more impressive and socially acceptable to all the Private Jewelers’ Privileged Customers (PJPC). When you think about it, pearl stringing processes were pretty labor-intensive for $4. I don’t know how Mother managed to get so much money, but by the year’s end we had one gold chain with—even I had to admit, not being nearly so interested in the whole pearl business as Mother or AA, but getting increasingly into it just by thinking about PJPC—five gorgeous Mikimoto pearls, each with incredible iridescent pink hues. Mother was as radiant as the pearls.

I paraded the burgeoning starter necklace at AA’s Christmas party, and though she was the only person who commented on it and though cousin Ali, three years my elder—who rarely spoke to me and made no exception that afternoon—was wearing a full string of Mikimoto pearls, Alice assured us all eyes were on me. Probably not true. What am I saying? Most certainly not true. But back then I longed to believe her, even though AA’s comments brought on major GD this-es and GD that-s and BS everythings from Father and sort of ruined the rest of Christmas after we went home. But I rejoiced to see Mother in near ecstasy when together she and AA stared at and fingered the pearls around my neck since she was usually petrified at Alice’s because of its intimidating wall-to-wall Lace-Curtainness, even though Mother frequently asked Father when we could move to our own one-family which Father, giving Mother no credit at all for thoughts of her own, always and unfairly linked to AA’s bad influence.

But then nothing short of oyster-like, a grain of sand, you might say, entered Mother and she began transforming it. More grains were added. They set off in her oysterish secretions of thin, iridescent, crystalline nacre, the magic substance oysters layered over such sand irritants, slowly smoothing and eventually—think of the number of layers!—creating pearls. I made mother/oyster/pearl comparisons back then because I read up on oysters in the local library’s encyclopedia after realizing oysters were the crucial element in MFP. At first I was incensed because the whole Cultured Pearl Process seemed massively cruel to oysters. Painful sand irritants didn’t just slip into shells by chance but were put there intentionally by Mikimotos. But then I thought since oysters, mere bivalve mollusks—though who were we to judge any other creature since humans with their guns, envy, global warming, homelessness, oil spills, religious intolerance, rape culture, lack of funding for the Arts, top 1 percent, NRA, religious fundamentalists (okay, this is later thinking since I can’t recall what I thought was truly evil then, but sentiments are the same) are the worst—could create only one incredibly beautiful something, that making pearls was oysters’ destiny and Cultured Pearl Processes helped them fulfill it.

After acquiring five luminous pearls in the first year, Mother saved bits of grocery allowance from Father for two new pearls for Easter. But when bored HHJ deigned to put down morning coffee and showed Mother my pearl necklace—anticipated for ten long, though extra expeditious by Mikimoto standards, restringing days—two dull, lusterless, Woolworth’s-like-tan un-pearls were mixed in among the previous five radiant ones. “Surely some mistake has been made,” Mother’s voice quivered. HHJ looked shocked but anyone could tell he knew of what she spoke.

“Madam, Mikimoto always knows best. Mikimoto also recognizes natural variations exist in pearl color.” Another parchment was produced to announce that Mikimoto experts visited Horn’s every month from Mikimoto headquarters (MMHQ) in Japan. “If Madame is interested, an appointment can be made where you will learn,” and he pointed stubby fingers with clear nail polish at gold words, “Mikimoto pearls vary in color from white, cream, and pink to light green, even to blue and silver.”

Mother blinked as if feeling pain from multiple grains of sand at the center of the two tan pearls, from Horn’s no-return policy (tougher, it was known, because even low-class stores, except on final 57th markdown, allowed returns), and from HHJ’s harsh threats regarding MMHQ. More sand from her own self-doubt—did Horn’s think Mother was not from a class of mothers destined to buy daughters fine pearls? And the sharpest grain of all, would HHJ have continued to give good, pink, radiant pearls to Aunt Alice for Ali? 

But then Mother’s nacre began to secrete resilient layers of protection. “I can’t help noticing,” she said, voice still thin but determined, “that the colors listed in this pamphlet don’t include tan.” Layer one. Nacre starting to release. “Vary as they might, my daughter and I are only interested in pink.” Layer two. Smooth and hard. “What we will not accept are pearls that look like this.” And she pointed to his coffee. Layer three. Fine, intense, and brilliant was Mother.

In witnessing her layering of resilience and assertiveness at that moment, Mother must have realized her whole new capacity to drive powerful bargains. Lifting her arm, pursing her lips, she refused to take the necklace home. HHJ brought over other jewelers who looked at pearls and mumbled approving things. She was resolute. And in the middle of all this, Mother looked up, well over the head of HHJ, and addressed him in her new soft but hard voice, as if she wasn’t being spoken to, let alone chorused at. “I wonder, given the range of colors in the leaflet, whether these two are Mikimoto pearls at all?” Then, with perfect posture, she took my hand, slowly turned, and with measured steps, we walked out of Horn’s, leaving my Mikimoto necklace, gold chain, pearls—both luminous and tan—behind. A behavior opposite in every possible way to across-the-street shouting with Father.

At home, fight though she did, Mother never knew how to protect herself from Father. But in Horn’s, transformations continued, and she defended both of us. Effectively. “If they think I’m—or we’re—too low class for good-looking pearls, they’d better think again,” her posture announced, creating coats of dazzling compound. Mother’s layering process eventually produced not only one pearl but a whole pearl necklace, and a total and thorough reversal of her home-person. She turned into Mikimoto Oyster Mama, strong and able to stand up for us. We went back to Horn’s later that week, and with a smooth and iridescent voice, she ordered another pearl. Coming home, she confided that our reception of the new pearl—which she suspected would be as tan if not tanner, more un-, than the last two—would be elaborately staged. 

I basked in protective dazzle, watching Mother’s rapid stitching of Easter outfits during every possible hour, day and night, realizing sewing wasn’t done with any potential celebration of the risen Christ in mind, since Easter was still a few weeks off. Mother’s outfit was to be a blue-gray, delicate, loose, three-quarter-length wool coat with matching, lined sheath skirt and a light-gray chiffon blouse. Mine, a pale tangerine coat-dress, with double-breasted covered buttons and a self-belt. Both with new coordinating shoes and purses found at Christmas at Thom McCann’s Discount Shoes off-season sale.

In addition to sewing like mad, Mother introduced me during the next two weeks, whenever Father wasn’t home, to new ways of holding our heads, all part of the protection plan. Standing or sitting extremely straight like we were stretching ourselves beyond our actual heights, we were to look at people as if our eyes were in our chins. While odd (and somewhat painful) at first, we practiced enough at home that every giggle was gone by the day of the pilgrimage to Horn’s, though her insisting we be “chin viewers” on the train hurt my neck with every jerk. But train chinning was worth it walking into Horn’s, when I felt like maybe I could secrete some luminescence of my own.

Dressed to the nines in rapidly completed Easter finery with heads cocked, Mother and I were also armed with painstakingly rehearsed nacre-dazzling, sand-proof arguments. As a Horn Junior Jeweler (!) (HJJ) approached us, Mother demanded something noticed but not commented on during Initial Consultation. It was possible, despite the small store size, to set up tiny French bistro round tables and chairs and present jewelry to important customers in open wooden boxes, veiled with white silk, lined with black velvet. “Since my daughter will be viewing her eighth pearl in her eighth year,” said Mother from a position of some altitude, “I want her to have a more relaxed setting to appreciate the necklace with the new pearl.” They obliged without hesitation to Mother’s—let’s face it—rather ludicrous request. All tone and posture and dressed-to-killness, Mother’s iridescence spread through Horn’s.

Sitting down in the uncomfortable iron chair, I worried how to look down at the table through my chin. “Mademoiselle?” HJJ lifted the silk cloth off the wooden box. Mother’s foot gently kicked under the table and I gasped, studying the necklace though my chin and eyes. I’d missed my cue, stunned that this new pearl was, as Mother had predicted, more tan than the last two. “Mother,” voicing quiet alarm, addressing the top of her head, “why is the new pearl so ugly?” Mother glared at JJ through her chin. He withered away. When she turned her jawline to HHJ, he was drawn like a magnet. I raised my own chin for extra luring power. “These three tan pearls are unacceptable,” Mother’s thin, strong voice secreted to HHJ, nothing like yelling at Father. “Please bring out some individual pearls, and my daughter and I will choose which three you’ll replace these with.” Leisurely lifting her arm until elbow reached waist and undulating her hand must have signified dismissing him. HHJ’s face became scarlet and he quickly withdrew from us. But didn’t turn around. Like subjects backing away from Elizabeth I on that TV special. 

Every pearl brought out in new velvet-lined boxes was a wonderful-lustrous pink. No tan in sight, no discussion of “natural color variation.” At least 80 gorgeous pearls rolling around on velvet. So we easily chose three. “There will, of course, be no charge for the work you’ll do,” Mother said in a lower, layered, unyielding voice. “It’s simply correcting previous errors for pearls I’ve already paid for.”

“Yes, Madam,” HHJ said obsequiously and offered Mother his card. Mr. Richard Pearce, Head Jeweler, E.B. Horn’s. “I would be most pleased if Madam would deal with me directly on future occasions, and Thank You Mrs. Flaherty.” Mother raised lustrous eyebrows ever so slightly, but I understood. She was letting HHJ know his card should have been given at Initial Consultation. Requested back then to be our Personal Jeweler. But Mother’s eyebrows also said, better late than never. Today she approved of him. At home both parents always lifted eyebrows to each other, but these were signs of displeasure and precursors to peevish disputes Mother could never win. Now her eyes and brows had coated Mr. Richard Pearce in impenetrable nacre. He was caught, imprisoned. This was new, exciting, powerful, admirable, strong Mother. Mother I might become like. Stealthy Mother with totally different, effective, and quiet ways of fighting for what she deserved.

Mother stood up and extended one gray-doeskin-gloved hand. “Mr. Pearce,” she said in the new liquid voice. Mother’s hands always had deep cracks from washing too much and using strong cleaning products without rubber gloves. According to Nana, her handwashing had begun after she’d almost died of Scarlet Fever as a child. But Mr. Pearce could never have guessed at roughness underneath smooth gloves (99 cents, Filene’s Basement, November last year), especially given Mother’s smiling, kind, yet totally impenetrable elegance.

Finally we were outside, though Mother had pre-warned we couldn’t change back into more normal selves until blocks away from Horn’s. We walked quickly. Far enough away, we lowered our necks, looked deeply into each other’s eyes—chins momentarily forgotten—laughed, and raced to Jordan Marsh’s basement café. We celebrated with large hot fudge sundaes, the pleasure only slightly diminished by the numbers of napkins Mother inserted all over my coatdress since pristineness was required for upcoming Easter Sunday.  

We then stopped off to see Lucille, Mother’s high school maybe best unmarried friend, who worked at the Helena Rubenstein makeup counter just one floor up in Jordan’s. She wasn’t busy, so performed a gorgeous makeover on Mother while being told everything about pearls. Laughed so hard tear lines formed on made-up cheeks and Mother’s eyeliner kept running. In the end Lucille gave us lipstick samples and told Mother she would give her proper makeovers before future visits to Horn’s. “Your clothes are lovely, Elda, but your face and brows need work if you two are going to pull off this high society routine.” They laughed some more. I laughed too.

Mother never met MMHQ man. Mr. Pearce continued to bring out the table and chairs and present us with boxes of pearls on velvet cloaked in silk. “Will you be selecting five for the year?” he asked casually, like we’d been lifelong customers and he really was our Personal Jeweler (PJ). Ha! PJ! I thought to myself. That AA isn’t all BS. Clearly days of receiving pearls not chosen by us in advance were well and truly over.

Mother nodded, though mostly with her eyes. “And will you be paying for them all now?” Mother remained unflustered and responded so little, I wasn’t sure she’d heard him. But she heard alright. Mother was never aloof, but Mikimoto Oyster Mama oozed aloofness. She liquidly intoned, “Just a deposit today.” I watched Mother becoming quiet, powerful, and confident and imagined being her.

“Bridget, let’s decide on the absolutely best pearls. And if we don’t find five we like, we’ll ask them to bring out more.” Once we’d chosen five pearls, now only once a year, they held them in their E.B. Horn’s safe for us. I imagined each pearl wrapped in softest cotton, placed in special white envelopes, lined with layers of thin tissue paper with my name in fancy gold lettering—“Bridget Flaherty. Her Pearls.”

Some might say that in devoting so much time to acquiring this Mikimoto pearl necklace, I wasn’t being true to my social class or that Mother had developed pretensions. But what is most remarkable about the pearls is not their color or current value but how they provided transient relief to Mother from being worn down by Father, by all Irish/Italian tensions, by endless repairs to our deteriorating three-family house, by arguments within-house and across-street, constant threats, and general lowclassness. Shopping for pearls gave Mother access to modes of being with dignity, expectations that others would speak gently and generously, assumptions that she would enjoy peace, security, and stillness in ways unknown anyplace else. 

Learning to be ladylike with Mother was one of the most fulfilling and uplifting experiences we ever shared. And soon not only preparing for eventual triumphs at Horn’s but extending to dress making, fabric shopping, the Helena Rubinstein counter, and occasionally to secret lunches in what seemed then expensive restaurants. Here nurturing Mikimoto Oyster Mama made me believe I could heal myself, just like oysters, whenever I unwittingly took in ubiquitous grains of sand, particularly ones demanding that as a female—especially a female of a lower social class—I should submit, diminish, fail.

Eventually Mother and I reached the point where clothes, gestures, and entitled looks ensured pink pearls and success for the rest of the necklace. And while gratifying—especially when Aunt Alice exclaimed that my not-yet-completed necklace looked almost as good as the new Mikimoto non-starter pearl necklace she’d just bought herself—Mother and I were deflated. Our work was done well before the necklace was finished. What would happen now? To chins and nacre and self-protection? Because Mikimoto Mama’s skills were no longer needed for Horn’s and had comfortably spread to other areas of shopping and intimidating restaurants, I imagined she’d have to bring at least some home to Father. I pictured him confined and bound like HHJ, backing away from both of us, who’d be safeguarded by thousands of fine and perfect coats of luminous self-protection.  

But all those layers, her radiance, and nacre-producing abilities, all wore off on train rides back. At home, no dignity, no gentleness, no generosity, no peace, no security, no stillness. Pearls became symbols of only what could have been. And though the completed necklace can remind me of fleeting happy hopes, 16 came and went and wasn’t even bittersweet as Mother yelled, Father GD-ed, paint continued peeling on our house that would never be replaced by anything close to AA’s wall-to-wall, Mother would forget about ladyness, Lucille was visited less and less, two pillowcases of remnants became one and then just loose fabric scraps left about. Not even put back in Hope Chest. And eventually the sewing machine was brought down into the cellar. And I grew up. And it is only now, a million years later, that I can bear to remember the pain of losing Mikimoto Mama as I hastily dust off the small cedar chest of ashes on her sewing machine now in my attic.


Kathleen Zamboni McCormick is Professor of Literature and Writing at Purchase College, SUNY. Her creative work has been published in Witness, South Carolina Review, Zone 3, CAYLX, Paterson Literary Review, Superstition Review, Kestrel, and Crack the Spine, among others. Her novel, Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome but Mostly Creepy Childhood (Sand Hill Review Press, 2016) won the 2017 Foreword Reviews Gold Medal in Humor and the 2017 Illumination Bronze Medal for Catholic Books (Pope Francis won the Gold!), along with other awards in humor and religion. In June, she received the 2019 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Award. Named for the first woman in history to receive a PhD, this award recognizes outstanding Italian-American scholars for their significant contributions to their profession and their communities. “Mikimoto Mama” is one of the ambiguously genred pieces Zamboni McCormick is writing for her next book.