When I picture a strong woman, I now think of my Mom and her opal. The youngest of four, my greatest joy was riding around in the car with my mother after everyone else left for school—I felt so special to have all of her attention on those days. Even through my teenage years we rarely fought or even argued; I was always in awe of my mother.
My naïve teenage mind, however, thought she was weak. My father was unfaithful, unkind, and didn’t appreciate this amazingly wonderful woman’s commitment to their marriage. I watched her attempt to resolve that unhappy marriage, endure an ugly divorce, suffer through major illnesses and surgeries, and eventually rebuild her life and end up at peace. Despite all of this, I vowed that I would be stronger in my life, make better choices, and never put up with the things that she did.
When I graduated college in 1990, I piled my life into the back of my Geo Metro, tearfully said goodbye to my mother, and drove off to start my new life and career in New York City. I called my mom often and entertained her with my stories. She said she envied my independence and advised me to enjoy those years, make sure I had a good career, and not to settle for any of the jerks I seemed to be dating from time to time.
In September of 1996, I received a job offer in Cleveland and moved back to the Midwest—I missed my family and was getting tired of the expense of New York. That June, I went to Michigan to visit my Mom and celebrate my 29th birthday.
She often took out her jewelry box when I was home, going through the pieces, sharing meanings, and laughing about the past. All the “good” jewelry meant nothing to her. She knew when my dad was having an affair based on the jewelry he decided to give her: the nicer the jewelry, the more serious the affair.
This visit she picked up a small opal necklace and asked me if I would like to have it as a birthday gift. I love opals and was immediately struck by the beauty of this necklace—a simple, small stone set in gold with a tiny strip of diamond chips in the setting across the bottom.
This was the first piece of jewelry that she bought for herself “after the divorce” and, while it wasn’t expensive or valuable, it meant something to her. She flipped it over, showed me that the opal was cracked and where she had it reset with the strip of diamond chips to cover the crack in the front. The back was left bare, in part because no one could see it and mostly because she believe it added to the beauty of the necklace.
Having this broken opal gave her control during a difficult time full of gossip and emotional pain. It was a problem she could fix, a secret flaw she could have under her control, and a symbol of not giving up even when she felt broken. I liked it even more after hearing the story behind it, so I thanked her for the necklace, said goodbye, and drove back home to Cleveland with the opal hanging proudly around my neck.
My Mom passed away unexpectedly just a few days later. It was June 19th, 1997 and she was only 67 years old. Even though it’s been over 20 years, it still always makes me cry when I think about it for more than a few seconds. I miss her. I wore that opal almost every day the first few months after she passed.
Almost every piece of jewelry I own belonged to my Mom and I feel she is that much closer when I have on a necklace or a pair of earrings that she owned. The opal is still the most special. I wear it when I want to share something with her or when I need to know she’s there. I wore it on my first date with my husband, when I go somewhere on vacation where I know she would have liked to see, or when I’m facing a new challenge, or conquering a fear. I wear it when I need to remember the strong woman that raised me, who gave me confidence and taught me how to face life on my own terms. And sometimes I just wear it because it looks good with my outfit. But I look at it every day and I think about its story and the lessons she shared with me:
- Never give up on something just because it appears to be broken
- You don’t have to trust everyone with your secrets, but know that those you can trust are truly special in your life
- Beautiful things have special flaws
- Everything is fixable
A strong woman isn’t defined by her career, her feminist view, her ability to choose the perfect mate, or the adventure she seeks. A strong woman is defined by her ability to take a difficult situation and turn it around. She can bounce back from the hard times and still know in her heart that joy is an option. And she understands that weakness is just a temporary perception and real strength isn’t always easy to see.