Sunday, March 18, 2018

Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - Gold and Diamond Italian Locket

The plane landed at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome with a jolt.  Despite lack of sleep from the 11- hour flight, Sue felt energized.  She was hopeful that this part of the adventure would be the most fruitful.  Truthfully, she couldn’t wait for it to begin in earnest.  She had so many questions and so few answers.  She gently reached up and flipped the black and yellow gold locket between her thumb and forefinger.  


The rather unassuming locket is 22kt yellow gold over a blackened gold base with single-cut diamond accents
at the intersections.  Very representative of the Italian culture from which it came.

As an archaeologist, Sue had always been fascinated by history but knew shockingly little about her own past.  At least until a random email arrived one foggy Illinois morning from a stranger on one of the ancestry websites she frequented.  Several months and hundreds of emails later, Sue was now in Rome hoping that she hadn’t made the biggest mistake of her life.  She was also secretly hoping that she wasn’t going to be turned into a skin suit or made to join a human trafficking ring.  

Although she was an archaeologist, Sue was cautious, and a bit skeptical, by nature.  Buying an airline ticket to visit a complete stranger halfway around the world on a whim was not normally something that was characteristic of Sue.  She liked to plan, plot and always had an “escape route” at the ready.  She was fastidious, detail-oriented and a bit reserved – much like her father.

Hearing her name shouted with a thick Italian accent brought her back to reality.  Jumping up and down a few dozen feet in front of her was a woman in her mind 30s with long, dark black hair and stunning olive skin who bore a shocking resemblance to Sue’s own daughter.  She waved in return and headed straight for the woman, Martina.


"Sue's" locket became the one piece of jewelry which she never took off.

Sue and Martina had been emailing back and forth since before the previous Christmas.  Martina had reached out to Sue through one of the ancestry websites she had joined to tell her the tale of black and yellow gold locket with small diamond chips that she now wore around her slim neck.

Martina’s great-aunt, Greta, had passed away in the months prior.  And, from what Martina’s immediate family had always known, Greta had never married or had any children.  In fact, she lived a quiet, reclusive life in an older area of Rome near Vatican City known as the Trastevere.  As the geographically closest relative, it fell to Martina to clean out her Great-Aunt’s third floor apartment that overlooked the Via Crescenzio.


Overlooking the Via Crescenzio in Rome.

It took Martina several weeks to sort through what Greta had left behind.  A bit of a history buff herself, Martina enjoyed the scavenger hunt like feeling of sorting and cataloging her great-aunt’s mementos.  It gave her a sense of connection to her reclusive relative.  One day when Martina was working in the unused spare bedroom of her Great-Aunt’s flat, she opened a rather small, nondescript steamer trunk she found in the back corner of the armoire under a haphazard stack of quilts and spare blankets.  Inside were several shoe boxes of black and white baby photos.  Among the baby photos, Martina found several photos of her much younger Great-Aunt Greta with a man she had never seen before.  In one of the photos, Greta was holding the same baby that appeared in the other photos along with a man Martina had never seen before either.

Martina had never seen her Great-Aunt smile or at least she had no memories of it ever happening but as she flipped through photo after photo, she felt more and more like she had never really known her Great-Aunt Greta.  It was like the whole family hadn’t really known her either.  It appeared that Greta had lived another life with a family that no one had ever known about before she disappeared into this third-floor flat.  


The 'Eternal City,' Rome is a maze of alleyways & cobblestone streets dating back to before the time of Christ.

One of the last baby photos she flipped over had the name “Sue” written on it along with what appeared to be a date of birth.  In another shoe box, Martina found more pictures of the unknown man and Great-Aunt Greta.  Several of the photos had only a first name written on the back - “Glen.”  In another shoe box, there were photos rubber-banded together with bits of paper labelling each stack on top.  Each stack of photos held landscape photos - like those taken by a tourist - all neatly labeled in Greta’s handwriting with the location and date.  They all appeared to be from the United States.  The last photo Martina picked up appeared to be a happy family photo of Greta with the baby, Sue, and the man, Glen.  On the back of the photo it was labeled, “Nevada, MO.”  


"Glen" with baby "Sue" & "Greta" - one happy family.

Also tucked within the trunk, Martina found a sterling silver baby rattle, a small white baby gown, tiny pink blanket and little velvet pouch.  Inside the pouch was a blackened gold locket with yellow gold detailing and small, single cut diamond accents on a thin gold chain.  Martina opened the locket, there were no photos inside but instead a wadded bit of receipt paper from one of the flea market-like shops found among the many alleyways in the Trastevere quarter of Rome.  The locket was finely wrapped in a bit of handkerchief within the velvet pouch.  It was obvious that it was meant to be a gift.  Perhaps it had never been given to the intended recipient?


In shockingly good condition for its age, the locket is an ideal keepsake for any family member.

Martina began to piece the puzzle together.  Great-Aunt Greta had in indeed had a family.  At the very least, she had a daughter – presumably with a man named Glen – and had lived in the United States at some point, however briefly.  Martina started making phone calls about her discovery to her own grandmother in the small town of Caprese Michelangelo in the Tuscan province of Arezzo.  


Caprese Michelangelo is a small, hillside village located in the Tuscan province of
Arezzo & is famous for being the birthplace of the great painter, Michelangelo.

Martina’s Grandmother, Donata, was Greta’s younger sister - only a year separated them.  Martina remembered the stories Nona Donata would tell of Greta’s adventures.  As Martina grew up, she attributed Donata’s tales of Greta to idolization by a younger sibling.  The Greta she knew was a hermit.  Unwelcoming.  She found it hard to reconcile her impressions of Great-Aunt Greta with the stories told by her Nona.  But it was beginning to make sense now.  Nona Donata’s tales of Great-Aunt Greta’s magical time in the United States riding horseback through the "Wild West" among the golden wheat fields.  Martina thought such tales were pure fantasy from the many westerns Nona had watched.  Now, she wasn’t so sure.

Sue had joined several ancestry websites to try and learn more her own heritage.  She grew up in a small town with her easy-going, quiet father and her strongly opinionated grandmother.  Sue had never known own her mother.  In fact, she had no memories of her.  Her grandmother was tall, thin, redheaded and blue-eyed – much like her son, Sue’s father, Glen.  Sue looked nothing like her father or her grandmother.  She was short with dark brown hair and dark eyes.  People would often ask, as politely as possible, if she had been adopted.  Her father would always smile nicely and assure them that she was 100-percent his.  Then he would hug her and they would go about their way.


Baby "Sue."

As the years passed, Sue often wondered if she resembled the mother she never knew.  She had never seen any photos of her and her father never mentioned her.  In fact, he would pointedly change the subject when Sue tried to question him about her.  To date, all Sue had was a name on a birth certificate.  Until she got that email from Martina.

As it turned out not all of Nona Donata’s tales had happy endings.  As Martina questioned her grandmother more, Donata revealed that after World War II Greta had met a young American sailor.  The family did not approve but Greta was hopeless and would not listen.  She followed the young sailor to America.  Donata’s family forbid her from writing her older sister.  But much like Greta herself, Donata couldn’t simply abandon her older sister.  Secretly, she relished the stories Greta regale her with in the letters.  

It wasn’t long before Greta’s letters began to take on a different tone.  Once the young family settled in the small Midwestern town of Nevada in the center-most state of Missouri where Greta’s new mother-in-law, Francis, lived, she began to miss the calm demeanor and feeling of safety that her family had always provided, Donata said.  Greta’s mother-in-law was less than enthusiastic about her only living son’s choice of bride.  She had lost her oldest son, Robert, during the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943 during World War II.  Greta felt that, in her own way, her mother-in-law blamed her for Robert’s death.  Donata said that Greta would tell her many years later that her mother-in-law would often lament that she couldn’t bear to “loose another son to those damn Italians!”


"Greta" & "Sue"

Eventually, the hostility in the home became too much for Greta to bear and she told Glen that she wanted to return to Italy with Sue.  Her mother-in-law would hear nothing of it, she had told Donata, saying only that her singular granddaughter would “not be raised in a country that had given birth to a madman like Mussolini!”  Greta had said that she tried to explain to her mother-in-law that Mussolini was dead but Francis could not be swayed and Glen had no power to stand up to his mother.

Greta returned from the park one day to find her bags packed and Francis waiting in the car for her.  She drove her to the airport, unbeknownst to Glen, where she dropped her at the curb, handed her an airline ticket to Rome and drove off without even letting her kiss Sue goodbye.  Upon hearing Nona Donata’s rendition of Great-Aunt Greta’s American family, Martina knew she had to find them and began the hunt.


The locket was not designed to hold photos but rather a memento such as a lock of hair or a small note.  It does
not appear to have ever held glass under which a portrait or photo would have gone.

After many months, Martina finally located Sue on the ancestry website.  She reached out and after confirming the details of her birthplace, date of birth and father, Martina was certain she had found Great-Aunt Greta’s daughter.   She retold Nona Donata’s story of how Sue came to be raised by a single father.  Martina sent Sue the locket and the bit of handkerchief which she was certain Greta had purchased for only daughter in the hopes of giving it to her one day.

Martina’s retold account did not lessen the number of questions Sue had about her mother; her upbringing or her heritage, but it did bring her some comfort.  It became obvious to Sue that her mother had missed her.  Sue’s father and grandmother had long since passed.  She touched the small locket again and smiled.  She was looking forward to this new adventure with Martina.  An adventure to finally get a sense of her own heritage.  To see mother’s flat to get a sense of the woman herself.  To spend some time in Rome with her mother’s mementos to see if they had ever had anything in common.  To drive to Caprese Michelangelo and meet Donata and tour the village her mother had grown up in.  And, to get to know the family she never knew about.


"Sue's Locket" - Other than the  origin & design details of this locket, the above written narrative is entirely
a work of fiction.  As a jewelry collector, I often times wonder about the provenance of a piece.
And, when none can be found, I find myself fantasizing about what the story of the piece
might be.  This is my attempt to create a history for this stunning & unusual piece.

Additionally, some of the historical details such as the historical figures, roadways & city names are 

completely accurate to the time period in which this story takes place.  The surrounding narrative is my attempt
to create a context & an explanation for the locket itself & its lack of hallmarks, etc.


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