By Aimee Cirucci
Web Exclusive - January 13, 2008
She slept late but loved big breakfasts, eschewed the outdoors yet adored fall foliage, had little interest in material things but always wore her jewelry. My grandmother, born with the name Italia but called Dolly, was not easily defined. She had reddish blondish hair, a wicked sense of humor and a practice of sleeping in every morning. She did not devour life but she soaked in it, marinating in the joys of homemade biscotti, daily newspapers, and grandchildren. In the summers when I worked retail she lovingly rubbed my feet after every eight-hour shift while we shared secrets. But what I associate most with my grandmother was an opal pendant that hung from her neck.
It is my earliest memory of her: the opal hanging delicately, surrounded by gold. I would sit on her lap entranced by it. She explained that what captivated me was its fire, the different colors I saw inside the stone when I turned it from side to side, twisting the chain. Fire never seemed an adequate explanation to me; fire was something I could relate to—the colors I saw in that stone were unlike anything I'd seen before—more like a prism or a magical rainbow.
She had other interesting jewelry including a jade bracelet with Chinese lettering, intricate Italian beads, and a thick wedding band. But nothing entranced me like that opal, and my grandmother shared my fascination. She never removed the necklace, eating, sleeping, and bathing in it. Into her eighties she maintained a large group of friends, the opal glinting as she caught a ride to the movies, her handbag filled with pepper and egg sandwiches.
I was by contrast a shy and nervous person. Thrust into a new high school I never found my footing and retreated into myself. I was tortured with worry over the thoughts and opinions of my classmates. My attempts to avoid what had become painful social interaction lead me to lunch in the library. But at home with Grandmom rubbing my feet I'd spin tales of my classmates and coworkers laden with the humor that existed only in my head. She laughed at my stories and urged me on, observing that I had both my father's feet and intellect. She wore her confidence like her jewelry—easily and without pretense—and soon I wore it too.
On my 18th birthday in March of 1996, my grandmother gave me her opal pendant. I wore it when I graduated from high school. I cried through the ceremony not out of loss of leaving but fear of where I was going. I wore it again when I left for college 500 miles away from home that August. It was the scariest yet most important thing I ever did. Grandmom knew this; though sad to see me go so far away, she had faith in the wisdom of my choice. Sometimes she had more faith than I did. Often it was her faith that propelled me.
On the first dinner of the first day I sat at a cafeteria table with people I?d just met and boldly started sharing some of the thoughts that danced in my head. I fingered the pendant and rubbed the smooth stone whenever I needed courage. It felt to me like each time I got a literal jolt of its fire. The necklace always attracted attention. It was one of a kind, and at a small Southern school where most girls wore monogrammed silver, my opal was a conversation piece. I chuckled when classmates inquired if it was the gift of a boyfriend up North or an elaborate sorority symbol. How could I explain it was the supercharged gift of a curly haired Italian grandmother? In my mind it had power unrivaled by the baubles of fleeting boyfriends. And I felt the power soak into me. I found my place, my self, and a reputable spot for lunch. Soon I couldn't get the words out fast enough, sooner yet I began to write them down.
Grandmom was thrilled with my college success, and while my parents focused on grades and classes, she reviled in my stories of dates and friends and parties. I would often call her from North Carolina to discuss my late