110 Years Ago

In 1977 on my 16th birthday my little Italian grandmother told me she a special gift just for me. We sat at the kitchen table. Mama (that’s what we called her) made us lunch. After we were finished, Mama smiled her mischievous smile. She said that she had a story to tell me. She gently reached into her apron pocket and took out something all wrapped in tissue. She carefully unwrapped what I could now see was an old fashioned brown picture of two young girls. They were all dressed up posing at a photographer shop. At first, I was confused. The younger of the two looked like me but I knew it wasn’t.

Mama told me that she was the little girl with the big bow and the older girl was her sister Elizabeth. When Mama had something important to say, she would gently put her had over mine and give me a little pat. The skin on her hand was so soft and as thin as tissue. But I knew those hands. They were strong and capable. They made homemade pasta, created handmade wedding dresses and could swat you with a wooden spoon from across the room and down the hall. She gave me another pat and she settled into her story.

              When I turned 5 years old my mother brought me to a neighbor lady’s house to have my ears pierced. The lady that lived there pierced the ears of all the little girls in our neighborhood. I was shocked. My mother made us wait until we were in high school to get our ears pierced and we had to go to the doctor to get it done! We weren’t allowed to just go to Piercing Pagoda at the mall like the other kids. Mama, you had some lady down the street do it? Mama said, That’s just how it was done in those days.

              Mama told me that for some reason she decided she did not want her ears pierced. She was only five but clearly had her own opinions about things even back then. Her mother, Teresa had saved her money a bought her daughter Lillian (Mama) a pair of gold and amethyst earrings. Mama was born in February and amethyst was her birthstone. The neighbor lady took out a sewing needle and held it to the flame of a match. Then suddenly a sharp pain. Her mother comforted her and told her not to cry, it was all done. Teresa passed over the new earrings and they were placed in her ears. It took a minute or two to get the earrings in. Earrings didn’t have the little clip backs that we have nowadays. The posts were threaded like a screw and the backs had to be screwed on. Mama said she never cried but she hated having her ears pierced. She hated those earrings.


When Lillian and her mother Teresa got home, Teresa sent her out to play while she started dinner. When the family sat down to eat, Teresa noticed that Lillian’s earrings were gone. She demanded to know where her new earrings were. Mama told me that she told her mother that she had been sitting on the curb when a mean old lady took her earrings. Teresa questioned her all through dinner. Who was the lady? How did she get them off you? The questioning went on and on. Lillian stuck to her story.

              The next morning Mama’s mother woke her early and told her to get dressed. They walked and walked through their Italian neighborhood in South Philly until Teresa found the tiny jewelry shop were she had purchased the earrings. Her mother spoke to the man in Italian. The man looked down at Lillian and shook his head. Teresa purchased a second pair of amethyst earring just like the first. . She put them into Lillian’s ears right there in the shop. All the way home, Teresa warned Lillian that nothing better happen to this pair of earrings or she would give Lillian a day she would never forget.

              When they got home Teresa again she sent Lillian out to play. Mama told me that she was so mad that she just sat on the curb and pouted. Then she had an idea. She carefully unscrewed the earrings and then threw them into the street just like she had done yesterday. It was a great plan. What Lillian didn’t know is that her mother was watching her through the window. She flew out of the house, picked up the earrings and told Lillian “Trust me, you will never fort today and what you did.”

              She called for her older daughter and told them both to go upstairs and put on their very best dresses. Elizabeth and Lillian didn’t know what was going on but they knew it wasn’t good. When the girls came down in the Sunday best, Teresa called Lillian to come to her. She had two lengths of string on the table. Mama said her mother laced the strings through her newly pierced ears. She tied them with a knot and snipped the ends. How do you like your new earrings now Lillian?

              Then it got worse. Teresa closed up the house and took both girls firmly by the hand. They weaved their way through the tiny congested streets of 1910 South Philly. Teresa dragged the girls block after block. Finally they stopped at a photography studio. Teresa said, Lillian, you lied to me twice and you threw your new earrings in the street. I told you that if you lost this pair, you would be a very sorry little girl. The photographer set her up on a white wicker chair and put Elizabeth at her side.

This is the picture of that day.

If you look closely, Mama has small strings in her ears and an unhappy look on her face.

Mama reached into her magic apron again. This time she brought out a small old jewelry box. She smiled and slid the box toward me. I opened it and saw a set of earrings of tiny gold flowers with amethysts in the center. Karri, these are the earrings I threw in the street that day. My mother was right. I never forgot that day and now neither will you.

Mama said I looked so much like her at that age that she thought they should be mine. She said we get the same expression on our faces just like in this picture.

She wrote a couple words inside the box.

              Lillian   1910


Somedays when I feel down, I get the earrings out of their safe place and try to feel Mama telling me the story and patting my hand. I can smell her Keri Lotion and the soft seersucker fabric of her handmade dress. I felt so special and important that day. Mostly, I felt loved.

I also think of the unconventional wisdom of my great grandmother. I think I am a bit like her. She was right. Mama never forgot that day.

Now I will never forget that day either.