My mother’s people were jewelers. This is almost the only thing I know about them. My grandfather died when I was an infant, and my grandmother, persevering until I was in my early teens, came into my life so infrequently that I can hardly recall her. All but one of my memories of her are fleeting and indistinct. The sole exception: her lying in a cot, at the far end of our living room, stretching out the last of her days. I don’t know how long she was there – a week, a month – before she negotiated the terms of her own end. But I recall that on every one of those days, a bottle of amber liquid lay on the floor within arm’s reach of her trembling hand. Now, in the light of my memory, the bottle glows with a russet sheen. By the color of steeped amber: this is how I remember those days (was it late autumn?). I recollect them as though looking through lenses tinted the hue of single malt whiskey.
The jewelry store had been closed by the time I was born, and there was nothing left of the stones except what remained in the family. The language of that trade, with its practical esoterica still echoing from the Kem, from the Hebrew high priests with their jeweled breastplates, was no longer spoken in our home. But my mother’s brother, the exile – he alone of his family who stopped drinking before it killed him – stayed in the business. He worked at a small jewelry store downtown, a place of hushed formality, as though the glint of polished metal, the shimmer of stones alive like eyes of every color, as though the wonder of those fiery fragments could be tamed and subdued with sufficient decorum. There was carnelian and ruby and opal. And lapis lazuli, stone of stones, and emerald and sapphire.
During my teenage years I visited him at the store each time I was downtown. I brought my friends to see him, my only maternal uncle, about whose life I knew almost nothing. He showed me all the stones. He named them in his soft, almost reverent voice. His movements were careful and measured, giving the impression, though he was not an elderly man, of pervasive fragility. His hand trembled slightly as he drew out a disk of jade from the display case. He seemed old and gentle, and the tenderness I felt toward him was entirely distinct from the conflicted intensity of my relationship with the only other member of his family that I ever really knew: my mother. It wasn’t until much later, when my professional life brought me into contact with those in recovery from substance abuse, that I finally realized the source of my uncle’s brittleness. He was a man snatched from ruin but forever burned by the heat of his struggle. He had redeemed himself from his particular shadows, but he would never again be physically healthy. Like my mother, he died young.