It's the morning of November 12, 2022, and this is a story about my birthday girl and her pearls. And a mother who sometimes loses the plot.
Not every kid likes school picture day, but Alison did. And she had a plan for how to make it special, which involved a double-strand pearl necklace her mother only wore on special occasions. They were fake pearls, but to a five-year-old, does it matter? No, it does not. So, on the morning of picture day, she tiptoed into my bedroom and lifted the pearls, tucked them in her backpack, and slipped them around her neck just before the shutter snapped. Never mind that she had documented her pilfering in a school picture package Mom and Dad would pay good money to purchase. The smile says it all; the pearls were much-loved.
Over the years, I've thought back on my reaction when she brought home the proofs of her school photos a few weeks later. A different mother – the one who knows the days are long and the years are short – would have laughed, hugged her sneaky daughter, and given her the pearls (which the mother rarely wore). But I did none of that. Instead, I gave her an age-appropriate lecture on taking things that don’t belong to you, told her to return the pearls to the jewelry box, and relayed the story to her dad with the tiniest hint of worry; did she not understand the difference between stealing and borrowing? And wouldn't this be a good time to re-read that parenting book about “natural consequences?” His answer was yes, to the first, and no, to the second. "You're projecting again," he said and smiled at the photo. Still, I wondered if there were natural consequences for this type of behavior. Apparently not because the school picture was adorable, and everyone loved the story. Also, a wallet-sized version was prominently displayed on her grandparents’ refrigerator. And ours.
Where was the lesson here?
This incident faded as the years passed because, as often happens, life provides enough brutal moments to give us perspective on the trivial ones. At some point, I cleaned out my jewelry box and gave her the necklace, along with a handful of other pieces, and then forgot about it. I could laugh about the photo, and it did make for a good story (that she didn’t turn out to be a serial shoplifter, and was, in fact, a frustratingly honest and forthright kid, helped).
Thirteen years after the “kindergarten necklace episode” my friend Lauren took her to Gilcrease Museum for her senior year photos. It was a crisp fall day, and Lauren told her to bring several changes of clothes, a few favorite items for props, along with any accessories she wanted to wear. “Things that are special to you,” Lauren said. I tagged along because everything about senior year makes me mushy and clingy, and annoyingly sentimental. Alison didn’t mind, and as she dressed for that first series of photos, she slipped on a pearl necklace (this one a double strand), without a word to me. I didn’t notice it until we were walking from the parking lot. A strand of pearls hung against her olive skin once again, just below that beautiful smile. Her teeth were now straightened, her body more woman than little girl, and she had weathered the school years with grace and enough stubborn will to remain true to herself. Thus, the necklace.
That little five-year-old girl put on a pearl necklace for picture day and never looked back. Maybe, even then, she knew the difference between the brutal moments and the beautiful ones we grab just in time. They remind us to smile, seize the day and worry about tomorrow, well, tomorrow. She’s 22 now, and life isn’t so simple anymore. But, on this birthday (and the year that follows), I hope she remembers to steal a few moments that bring joy. They come around more often than we realize.