I Spent Decades Thinking My Cousin Had Stolen a Priceless Family Heirloom From Me
I had to wait 40 years for my cousin Marie to die before I could get my grandmother Lucia's rosary back.
In 1900, as a pre-teen girl in Naples, Italy, Lucia made the prayer beads out of dried olive pits, four years before she took a three-week journey across the Atlantic in steerage.
She'd told me more than once that she'd used the rosary to pray that the boat would either sink or hurry up and get to America, as she was violently seasick the whole time.
The olive pit craft project—as well as a caramel-colored cameo pin and earrings set that the teen immigrant bride had worn on her wedding day—were really the only material valuables she had. It was understood that the cameos would later be owned by my mother, since she took care of Lucia in her later years.
I assumed this meant that the rosary was mine de facto; after all, I grew up with my grandmother in her Bronx apartment in the 1960s, when my newly single, stay-at-home mother moved us in with her. Lucia had had 13 children, and my mother was one of the youngest.
When I was 16 in 1974, Marie (who was around 40), dropped by during the day when my mom was at work. She left with the rosary, given as a token of thanks for the visit from our grandmother.
What my cousin understood as a loving gesture was actually the inception of Lucia's dementia.
She had started giving away our belongings to neighbors; usually, it was nothing valuable: a pillow, a pot, a perfume bottle. My mother would come home from her job, notice something was missing, and I would inform her to whom it had been gifted.
People in our 5-story walk up would ring our bell in the evenings to return what they had been given, knowing the presents were the misguided generosity of an old lady who was losing it.
Marie, however, saw the Italian olive pit rosary as a keeper.
Over the years—eventually decades—the resentment that she had "stolen" what I believed to be rightfully mine lived comfortably in the back of my mind, although I never discussed it with anyone, not even my mother.
I knew better.
Growing up in my family, I had seen that any comment could be seen as confrontation; confrontation could lead to a grudge, which could lead to taking sides, which then could lead to a full-on family feud. Regardless of my emotional attachment to this heirloom, saying aloud that I was throwing down over olive pits would sound too ridiculous.
Keeping my feelings to myself meant that I began to obsess over where the rosary would eventually end up: one of Marie's two children? Three grandchildren? Or perhaps she'd want to be buried with them. The older I got, the harder it became for me to repress my sadness that I might never see them again, especially since I lived in Manhattan and my cousin now resided in Florida.
But several years ago, after Marie passed away, a surprise came in the mail.
I received the rosary in a plastic sandwich bag. Also inside was an aged, dog-eared, yellowed note. It wasn't writtentome, butforme:
Grandma made these beads at 12-years-old. In 1974, the beads were 74-years-old. Give these beads to cousin Lorraine.
I sat and cried — for the loss of yet another family member, for the return of something meaningful, and for the time I'd wasted believing that she'dtakenwhat was mine. In reality she had every intention of making sure that, after her, I got my turn to hold on to what belonged to all of us: the memories of our grandmother — counted one olive pit at a time.
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