Secrets of My Mother's Jewelry Box

Opening the Family's Vaults

Embrace: Candy Schulman (right) shared her mother’s treasures with daughter Amy.
Steve schulman
Embrace: Candy Schulman (right) shared her mother’s treasures with daughter Amy.

By Candy Schulman

Published June 28, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
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‘I’m doing this because I love you,” my mother insisted.

For decades she tried to prepare me for her inevitable demise. Long before she succumbed to dementia, in between golf tournaments, she’d drag me to the bank vault every time I visited her in Florida, to give me a private tour of her safety deposit box. She’d point out her will, stock certificates and a piece of kitschy jewelry she used to wear to canasta games: a French poodle pin with a blue rhinestone collar. And there was a mysterious envelope titled “To Be Opened Only After My Death.”

I’d roll my eyes like a teenager, desperately wanting to avoid facing my mother’s mortality.

“You must sign in regularly,” Mom lectured. “Otherwise, after I die, they might lock it and you won’t have access.”

Mom was a product of the Great Depression. Keep cash under the mattress, she’d lectured. And buy gold.

I dreaded these bank excursions, but I respected my mother’s wishes. Afterward, she made a detour to her condo storage bin, where fraying, inexpensive cloth suitcases were piled in disarray, curly red ribbons tied onto handles for easy identification at the baggage claim. Pre Big Bertha clubs leaned on each other like old canes, the equivalent of wood rackets to a modern tennis player.

Mom made me practice opening the lock — insisted I write down the combination; at home I kept misplacing the numbers.

I was amazed by how cavalierly she could get ready for death, as if it were a recipe for noodle pudding. Her generation bought burial plots at the age when I was registering for college classes. My grandparents, who’d arrived at Ellis Island from Prussia without any material possessions, purchased their final-resting plots in Queens immediately after settling in the New Country — proud to become landowners.

“Wave to Grandma,” Mom would later command me in the backseat of the car, as we zoomed on the Long Island Expressway past overcrowded tombstones of countless immigrants. I recalled actually visiting the cemetery only once, as a kid. We had to step over other people’s graves in order to find Grandma. Otherwise, paying respects from the window of a Pontiac breaking 55 mph was our family tradition.


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