There’s not a whole lot in the way of accessories that a guy like me can get away with wearing. Go much beyond a watch and a wedding ring, and friends raise their eyebrows.
So I expected a bigger reaction when, as a joke, I sent my wife a picture of myself wearing a family heirloom — an elaborate, four-string antique choker complete with seashells hanging from a pair of beaded strands — and announced I was going to wear it every day.
“Don’t worry,” I texted, “I’ll tuck the dangly parts into my shirt so I don’t look weird.”
All she texted back was a smiley face.
I should have known it wouldn’t faze her. For one thing, my sense of fashion is at the level where she can’t always be expected to know if I’m trying to look funny or I just don’t know any better. And even though she knew the Native American choker might easily have been in my family for more than 100 years, it wouldn’t be the first time I put a precious family heirloom to use.
Family heirlooms are things I tend to handle with sentimentality more than sense.
It’s a habit that started back in the early ’90s, shortly after I pulled a beer-making manual from a pile of free books. I thought of the stories my dad told about how his mom used to make beer despite not being the most skilled brewer, as evidenced by bottles that would occasionally explode in a spray of sticky, overcarbonated liquid.
If I could make the recipes in the book work better than my grandma’s had, I’d have all the beer I could drink. And if I couldn’t — hey, unexpected small explosions are high on a young man’s list of good times.
When I brought home a homebrewing supply kit a few days later, my dad took one look at the flimsy aluminum and plastic bottle capper it came with and walked out to the barn. He came back with the heavy-cast iron capper that my great-grandpa put to good use during Prohibition.
I don’t brew much anymore, but when I do, it’s always Great-Grandpa David’s capper that seals the bottles. I figure it’ll break one day if I keep using it, but it’s more noble for a thing to go out doing what its maker built it for than to live on forever in a display case.
Which brings me back to the choker.
Everyone on my dad’s side of the family says we have Native American ancestry, but nobody has much in the way of evidence. They say it was lost when our forebears were taken and forced to grow up away from their people.
One link managed to come down to my dad, though. It was the choker worn by my Great-Great-Grandpa Juan José, a man who my grandma said spoke no English and no Spanish, only a language that nobody named for her.
My dad gave it to me this summer when I asked if he wanted to make me a pair of moccasins for ceremonies I was going to take part in with my son’s scout troop. He’s always looking for leatherwork projects to keep his skills sharp, so I knew he’d say yes. But I was surprised when he added that he had a family relic he wanted me to wear with the moccasins.
Together we attached new ties to the choker, work that compromised its historical authenticity but restored its strength enough to let it come out of my dad’s display case and back into some semblance of the world it once knew.
I won’t put it on every day. Even if it is strong enough for that now, I’m sure not strong enough to pull off seashells dangling from my neck at the office.
But I think Juan José will look down a couple times a year when those beads and shells once again shine in the glow of a campfire, and, in whatever language it was that my family once spoke, whisper a blessing for the descendants who keep his memory alive along with his old choker.