It’s a small rather crudely carved pendant … one of the mass-produced serpentine ornaments the Chinese somewhat spuriously like to call “new jade.” But the woman who pressed it into my hand thought it was the genuine gemstone and it was her precious gift to me for a small favor I could hardly remember.
If it hadn’t been for her daughter, clinging to her arm and staring somewhere beyond me with a vacant but absolutely serene expression on her face, I wouldn’t have remembered the incident at all. It had been well over a year .
Customers from all over the world stream into my little shop in a Waikiki hotel and I have trouble remembering whom I spoke to in the morning when they return in the afternoon to have another look before deciding whether or not to buy. I often have to cover my embarrassment at not recalling a face by commenting that a simple change from a travelling outfit to a sarong and bathing suit is quite enough to throw me off the normal recognition track. And sometimes I even stoop so low as to claim an entirely new psychological crutch, only recently formulated expressly for people like myself.
I’m suffering from “facial recognition syndrome.”
But these two women I did remember. The mother was dressed almost exactly as she had been on her previous trip … wearing an old-fashioned cotton printed dress, loosely fitted with buttons up the front. What my grandmother used to refer to as a “house-dress,” and which she insisted must be stiffly starched to make up the sartorial discrepancy between suitable garb for the kitchen and the outfits she wore when even putting a toe outside her front door. Grandmother had very strict ideas about proper attire and locale. And she merely tolerated house-dresses.
But this lady had made no pretense of either starching her dress, applying a rudimentary touch of lipstick or even apparently combing her hair, which surrounded her head like a halo of Spanish moss. She obviously had other priorities which included her severely handicapped daughter who clung with both hands wrapped around her mother’s arm. The daughter had Down syndrome and must have been in her thirties … or even more. It was hard to tell because of her characteristically smooth complexion and air of absolute innocence.
On their visit over a year ago, the mother had glanced over the jewelry display, pointing out the colors she liked and trying to engage her daughter’s attention. But it was clear that the daughter wasn’t responding. After a few moments I had asked the mother a few standard tourist questions. Where was she from ? Was she enjoying Hawaii? Did she see the sunset last night? And finally urging her and her daughter to sample shave ice, a local concoction of ice and syrup available at a tiny kiosk a block or so away.
As always I tried to make sure when she left the shop, she had a smile on her face. That was an inflexible personal rule. The hotel where I’d worked for so many years had been incredibly good to me and the least I could do was make sure my customers had a few pleasant moments with me, whether or not they purchased anything. So I had become very adept at chit-chat on a myriad of levels. From children, whose names I would translate into Hawaiian … to visitors from Asia, for whom I developed a pantomime routine worthy of Marcel Marceau. And for those customers who were genuinely interested in Hawaiian culture, I was a veritable mine of local lore, secrets and historical oddities. I loved it all.
As the mother and her daughter had turned to leave, I had given them the shaka sign with thumb and little finger extended and a big smile as I called “Aloha” after them.
Then I remembered the butterfly pendant. I’d had bought several base metal butterflies in a bag of assorted charms and had finally incorporated a couple of them into a simple pendant design with a small red glass hibiscus as an accent. They were very inexpensive and I’d hung them on a velvet display board near my desk for last minute purchases. The sign above them read “Mini Treasures … $10 Only”. It was one of my few concessions to rank commercialism.
I quickly unpinned the butterfly from the display board, picked up a silk jewelry pouch from behind the counter and followed the two women across the lobby towards the elevator. I held out the pouch to the mother and the necklace to the daughter.
“Here’s a Hawaiian butterfly for you with a hibiscus to keep it company.” A little smile started to dance around the younger woman’s lips and made its way into her eyes for a moment as I hung the pendant around her neck and gave her a hug. For a few moments she was unresponsive and then I could feel her arms coming around me. We stood there in the middle of the hotel lobby giving each other a hug as her mother beamed. Then I waved them a last Aloha and went back to my shop.
And forgot about the incident.
But here they were back again in Waikiki. Both ladies smiled proudly as the mother handed me a small box. “This is for you. We remember you so often and Lucy loves her butterfly.” She paused for a moment and whispered, ” It’s jade ….”
I opened the box. Nestled in a thin scrap of cotton was a roughly carved serpentine trinket attached to a colorful braided silk cord. It was a generic faux jade necklace identical to those which graced the counters of almost every small shop in Chinatown.
But it was a butterfly.
I felt my throat contract and the tears begin to gather in my eyes as I reached my arms around both women. I could hardly find my voice as I thanked them. ” It will be my treasure … my own jade butterfly ….” I lifted it out of the box and put it around my neck and bent to let Lucy adjust it.
As the ladies turned to go, we waved the traditional Aloha to each other while the younger woman began her slow shuffling gait across the lobby, both hands firmly gripping her mother’s arm. From time to time the mother stopped to steady them both before taking another step. I looked at them, the mother who had probably spent her entire waking life in company with her child, and the daughter who would always be a child and forever need that arm to lean on. The span of years was overwhelming. Thirty … probably closer to forty years of constant care.
And yet, even from my vantage point across the lobby, I could see that mother’s love. When I turned to go back to my shop, I had to fumble to find my place behind the counter. My eyes were veiled with tears.
Several years have passed since that day. The little butterfly eventually lost its silken cord and I tucked it between my business cards in a in a small box on my table. But as I touch its smooth surface every time I riffle through the cards, it reminds me what love truly is. And that a little serpentine butterfly is more valuable than gold.