THE GOLDEN LADY

If you translate my mother’s name– and it’s more than ten letters long– into English, you end up with something like “pure gold”. In encounters with strangers or occasional acquaintances, she presented herself as “Kim.” Coworkers called her a different moniker, more similar to but not quite her real one. We didn’t blink an eye when Asian adults or kids had a faux American “work” or “school” name. Loved ones knew who you really were, and that was the only thing that mattered.

Mom avoided buying jewelry at department stores because they never had enough karats. Fourteen, eighteen, twenty karats: none of those would do. Once we visited a large Chinese store somewhere in Northern Virginia, decorated with gilded evergreen damask wallpaper. I have no idea what she bought but my brother and I traipsed next door and got a bag of white rabbit candy which we ate on the ride home. There was another little store that opened beside her favorite Vietnamese grocer and then closed a short time later, transforming into a hair salon. She spent the most time in a local store with purple velvet stools for leisurely shoppers. This particular jeweler also sold embroidered robes and pajamas, displayed artfully against the wall. I enjoyed sitting on a stool and pretending the shop belonged to me, convincing imaginary ladies to buy turquoise and pink slippers. After peering into all the cases, pieces of cool, green jade intrigued me, but Mom said matter-of-factly, “No, no jade.” Twenty-four karats, she declared again and again, was the best.

She didn’t make a purchase every time we visited the jeweler; she mostly perused and saved her money for special items. Twenty-four karat gold is most often seen in necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. A must-have item amongst Mom and her friends was a linked gold belt, worn with traditional clothing on holidays to Buddhist temple. An important gift for a baby was a tiny gold bangle accented with a bell, worn on the ankle to gently tinkle. I was reminded that we buy gold just in case. You could sell it if you ever fell upon hard times. My mom talked a lot about hard times, but she never sold anything. She bought gold for my grandmother; later I learned gold provided monetary stability in a communist country.

In my awkward tweens, Mom began presenting me with jewelry– pieces from her own collection, things that weren’t too precious to give a girl. I wore a gold pendant necklace, set with a pretty amethyst in one of my school pictures. I inherited several pairs of earrings and more necklaces. After carefully telling her I had enough gold, I received a silver Swiss Army watch for one of my birthdays, followed by aquamarine tennis bracelets another year. I slowly began returning the presents to her jewelry box under the guise that she would keep everything safe for me. She wasn’t easily fooled. “Linda doesn’t like to wear jewelry,” she compellingly announced if I got a compliment for my fingernails or slender, unadorned hands (a gift from my dad which I have passed along to my son).

I grew older and started spending more and more time away from home before finally leaving home, as a lot of children do. During that time, I think my mother and I pondered each other. I loved my mother but I wasn’t exactly like my mother. She loved me and realized I wasn’t exactly like her. Our styles differed and our lives no longer meandered on the same road. But our hearts were the same.

Before college graduation, she surprised me with two tiny gold charm bracelets. The charms included a heart, a giraffe, a butterfly, a bird, a whale, and a rose. The bracelets were lightweight and delicate. When I put them on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing anything, yet they felt like everything from my childhood at the same time. Right away I knew I loved them.

Now I live a plane ride and a layover away from my parents. I talk to my mom twice a month, once a week when I long for cold weather, sliced green mangoes, and perfectly fried rice. I don’t wear much jewelry daily– one ring (my engagement ring doubles as a wedding band) and petite earrings no one notices. I wear my bracelets for good luck, and I wear them sometimes just because I miss her.