As a copyrighted jewelry designer and former vintage jewelry dealer, she is uniquely qualified to pen “Jewels,” the opening story to her novel “Delaney’s People.”
The book, which is written in short stories, opens with Delaney Robinson, a 2-year-old with a loving great-grandmother, Margaret, who guides Delaney through life with the wisdom of a nonagenarian. Margaret’s reminiscences — as well as stories from Delaney’s parents, grandparents, distant ancestors and family friends — tell the story of how this adorable little girl came to be.
Duke’s second novel, “Don’t Shoot Your Mule,” was released in November. For more information, visit delaneyspeople.com or dontshootyourmule.com.
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By Beth Duke
There are diamonds in the red clay of northeast Alabama. Delaney is one of them.
She is my great-granddaughter. On Wednesdays, her mother brings her by after her Toddler Tumble class. Delaney sits on my lap and pats my necklace.
She never pulls, twists, or tries to eat my various necklaces — she just pats them delicately with her tiny dimpled hand like soft moonlight whispering over the pearls. She seems to love faceted crystal beads and rhinestones in particular.
Delaney is my grandson Tommy’s daughter, and so much like him I’m convinced his wife Lisa was just an incubator. Her hair is a soft cloud of curly golden ringlets, and her huge brown eyes crinkle like his when she laughs. She laughs often, like the Irish ancestors whose name she bears. She smells like Cheerios and baby soap.
When she comes to Arlington Shores, my neighbors envy my thirty minutes of joy. Gloria Ledbetter peeks through her curtains to glare when they arrive, Mr. Henderson always greets them from his tiny front porch, and Bitsy Miller will wave if she’s out walking. Most of us think that a retirement community probably shouldn’t share its name with the best-known cemetery in the country. We like it here, but the running joke is that they come and attach a headstone to your condo door when your time’s up, as in, “Arlington Snores.”
When Delaney pats my jewelry, I am transported to the time when I first wore it long ago. I may not have been Babe Paley, but in my day, I spent lots of time and even more money at Gelfman’s Department Store on chic clothes and the latest costume jewelry. My collection includes pieces by Haskell, Hobé, Trifari ... there’s over sixty years’ worth of jewelry in my closet, and all of it has a memory or two attached.
The first time Lisa brought Delaney over I was wearing my triple strand of faux pearls with the rhinestone spacers and my periwinkle dress, as I had been to my weekly old lady bridge game. Delaney really likes that one, because sometimes it creates rainbows on the wall. I bought it in 1952 and wore it with an elegant black shirtwaist to Darrell’s fundraising dinner when he ran for state senate. He never came close to winning, but I looked fabulous at that event. Somewhere, there’s a newspaper clipping that shows Darrell, me, Carolyn and Dennis Tharpe, and Julia Neece with her husband. We’d had a lot of wine that night, and my arm was resting lightly on Darrell’s shoulder. He was leaning forward and ever so slightly toward Carolyn. I didn’t know at the time that he was leaning a lot more toward her at the office. We looked shiny, polished and new, so young and happy in our world.
Another of Delaney’s favorites is the citrus Miriam Haskell bead torque. In 1940, we spent our first year on Cottonwood Avenue, in the only house Darrell and I ever owned. It was the one where I baked endless cookies, where I rolled bandages a few years later for WWII, where I kissed boo-boos and sat up all night with Ellen because she had the croup. When she pats that one, I see myself spending twenty dollars for it at a time when that was a month’s groceries. I loved it too much to pass it up, though, and Darrell’s practice was doing well.
When Ellen was born, Darrell gave me the most exquisite McClelland Barclay sterling silver choker — a vine with a dangling floral design. I wore it constantly, and when Ellie was teething, I let her clamp down on a flower now and then. The tiny teeth marks are still there, and I treasure it as much for that as for anything else. Delaney adores her Grandma Ellen, and I’ve tried to explain that she made those marks as a baby years ago. I don’t think she quite believes me, though. Grandma Ellen has always been sixty with silver hair in her mind, though she once had Tommy and Delaney’s golden ringlets. The sixty part might be right, however, as my little Ellie was a serious and brilliant infant. She was speaking in complete sentences at one and a half, knew her alphabet before she was two, and regularly settled arguments among her less mature playmates.
She examines a brass kaleidoscope my father gave me for my twelfth birthday. A Limoges Eiffel Tower Darrell bought me in Paris, and then a silver filigree music box from Ellen. Delaney gazes intently at them, poised with her arms folded carefully behind her back. She leans forward, looking remarkably like Foghorn Leghorn as she explores my étagère. I’ll give Lisa credit for that, thanks to her gentle suggestion, “We don’t touch Mama D’s pretty things.” Lisa is one of those modern mothers whose lips are incapable of forming the word “no”. I imagine her saying, “Now, Delaney, let’s take our fingers out of the electrical socket and color instead.” Fortunately, my great-granddaughter is a naturally well-behaved child. If Lisa has another, she may find “No!” a bit more acceptable. We’ll see.
I take the kaleidoscope down, and let Delaney squinch her eye to look inside. She’s every bit as captivated by the colors, patterns and sparkles as I am. It’s the reason she shares my love for the brilliant rhinestones and rainbows in my jewelry. We can “ooh” and “ahh” together for hours, this child and I.
Delaney doesn’t know it yet, but she’s exceptionally beautiful. Really — that’s not idle great-grandmother talk. Lisa is threatening to put her in one of those insipid baby beauty pageants, and though I don’t comment, I pray she doesn’t. Not commenting is the hardest part of being ninety years old and watching the mistakes your progeny makes. Everyone thinks old people don’t have opinions, but we do. We know enough to keep them to ourselves most of the time. For instance, when Lisa wears her green floral Capri pants, or when she puts those huge, fluffy socks on poor Delaney that make her look like a tottering Clydesdale.
My great-granddaughter is very talkative while she’s in my lap today, and I suspect Lisa has told her nice things to say to Mama D. Where else would she get the idea to ask how I’m feeling, and if I enjoyed my bridge game? Toddlers don’t talk that way, and I prefer when she lets Delaney say whatever’s on her mind. Usually, that’s whether there’s ice cream in my freezer or if I know that her puppy “still pee pees in the living room sometimes.” She used to think there could be a monster under her bed, but it was “my abernation.” Mickey Mouse is definitely not just her abernation, because she has seen him, and he’s real. And, most solemnly, Delaney plans to wear “big girl pennies” very soon. Her mommy bought them in pink because that’s her favorite color except for purple.
I remember a sparkling pink and lavender rhinestone Schiaparelli parure — that was for Mrs. McKenzie’s 100th birthday luncheon. I wore it with a very smart knit suit in cream. You should have seen Delaney’s eyes light up when she saw that glittering jewelry! On that day, everything got patted — the bracelet, the brooch, the earrings, and of course the necklace. It was my most extravagant jewelry purchase ever, but a lady deserves something very special for inspiration when she’s starting a new life. I didn’t think Darrell should get to skimp on my final charge to our account at Gelfman’s.
I was standing in the kitchen packing Ellen’s lunch when the call came. At first, I thought she had the wrong number, because she simply couldn’t be looking for me. I even told her she was looking for a different Margaret Parker, though there weren’t any others in our town. How do you respond when an anonymous woman calls to tell you that your husband is having an affair with his secretary? For the first fifteen minutes, I thought it must be some kind of joke. I hung up the phone, finished making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and calmly drove Ellie to school. I sat there, numb, in the parking lot, reliving a hundred little moments when I should have known. The next minute, I’d be convinced that this nightmare was someone else’s. It was a mistake. It was a mix-up. Darrell would explain it; Darrell could always explain everything.
Then I remembered his secretary Carolyn’s new rhinestone bracelet, the one she’d shown me the previous week. It caught my eye as soon as I saw her arm, so naturally, I took a closer look.
“Oh, it’s just paste, Margaret — you know I could never afford such a thing on my salary!” she exclaimed.
I found that curious.
It was unbelievably brilliant, so much so that I couldn’t help but ask, “Where did you find such a treasure?”
She replied, “I really can’t remember. I’m not even sure what store it was.”
In retrospect, she was downright consumed with the work on her desk that day, and didn’t seem to want to chat. Suddenly, I had a terrible suspicion about Carolyn’s jewelry. I raced home, dug through my husband’s oh-so-orderly desk, and found the truth under a black plastic drawer tray: a receipt from Couch’s Jewelers for a diamond bracelet.
I don’t own a diamond bracelet. I made my usual trip to the grocery store, bought three cans of slimy oysters, and then emptied them carefully into the space beneath the spare tire in Darrell’s beloved new Buick.
Had I ever really believed he needed to work late four nights a week? Could any woman be more stupid, more delusional, more betrayed? I sobbed as I choked down my cruel and jagged new stereotype. I had been the smiling wife of a successful attorney, a devoted mother, the First Vice-President of the Junior League. I was the last to know, the first to cry, the first to want to bludgeon. I removed a dark pin from my hair and twisted it around in the trunk lock until it broke off clean. Here’s my heart, Darrell.
I drove home and packed my husband’s clothes, a few of his least favorite things, and a note saying that he didn’t live in our house anymore. The boxes were waiting for him on the front porch when he got home that night. Ellie and I were at my mother’s house.
The next few years were the hardest of my life. Ellen and I fought a lot, but I made allowances because I knew how much she missed her father. I waited a long time to tell Ellie what he’d done because I couldn’t cause her any more pain. I took the blame for our divorce until I decided one day I could no longer bear her silence, her surliness, and the weight of her accusation. Eventually, she forgave her father. I never did.
Occasionally, I let Delaney try on a Trifari necklace I bought in the fifties. It has deep blue glass beads with tiny green flower accents. I wore it on my first day as a sales clerk at Gelfman’s jewelry counter. It always brought me luck, and eventually, it brought me a handsome man named Carl when he told me it matched my eyes. We were married for thirty-seven years. His absence is still a constant presence, but it only whispers to me now, and I don’t cry.
Carl was one of those men you see in commercials, the kind who illustrate how men age beautifully and women don’t. At fifty, he already had a lot of gray in his brown hair, and the most dazzling smile that gathered the wrinkles beside his deep brown eyes. His wife had died two years before I met him. She had some sort of cancer. The poor man had successfully resisted the attempts his friends made to introduce a new romance. He came into Gelfman’s to buy a birthday present for his niece, Angela, and I sold him a perfect sparkling Monet bracelet with tiny cherubs around it. He left with my phone number and our future woven together in his mind. That’s what he told the guests at our wedding.
Delaney will never fully understand how she brought light and joy back into my life after Carl died. What rapture I felt the first time I touched her tiny face, and watched her fingers curl around mine. She is my future, the hopes and dreams of a very old lady.
My will is very clear — my jewelry goes to my great-granddaughter, and she is to keep and enjoy it. I hope Delaney wears her favorites from time to time. I hope I get to accompany her to her prom in the form of my Weiss rhinestone choker. I hope she wears my pearls at her wedding. I hope her daughter likes to pat every single bit of it, and feels the love I left behind.