The only thing she loves more than jewelry is babies. That’s the running joke among my seven siblings and me—and the only one we dare make at our mother’s expense since we value our lives. “It’s true,” she’ll concede, with her very ladylike laugh.
Coincidentally, the first thing she does upon hearing she was bestowed a new (grand)baby is acquire more jewelry. (For those keeping count, she’s got fourteen grandchildren now, which is wonderful, but Kathleen Glavey already has twenty, and she only has five children.) It somehow materializes before the ink dries on a birth certificate: a flat gold charm of a baby boy or girl’s disembodied head, freshly engraved with a fresh Irish American moniker, which she gleefully fastens alongside its cousins. That bracelet alone must add two pounds to her tiny frame.
She jangles, audibly. You can hear her enter a room, like a house cat on whose collar hangs one of those teeny bells. In gold and silver, no surface goes unadorned; she has equal appreciation for earrings and necklaces and bracelets and rings and anklets. She even smells like jewelry—her perfume is called White Diamonds.
I couldn’t tell you how many pieces she has in total. Hundreds? She likes to collect and could be accused of going a little overboard—she claims to have wanted twelve children.
She occasionally references a day when someone else would wear her jewelry, one of her daughters or granddaughters inheriting this piece or that piece. But these are just accessories, she insists. “My children are my legacy.”
“But—you want children?” my OB-GYN asked me, incredulously. It was my annual well-woman visit, and she had just computed that I was thirty-five years old, single and childless. I slipped my socked feet out of the stirrups and slid forward.
“I do, yep.”
She paused, blinking quizzically.
“Then what are you waiting for?” she asked.
I consider snappy comebacks to be among my few God-given talents. But given the fact that I was preoccupied with keeping my paper gown closed, my reflexes were dulled, my defenses down. You best believe in the days that followed, with my attention undivided in the shower or on a subway train, I absolutely roasted this woman.
“It’s ideal to have children young, and naturally,” she continued, but if I was seriously committed to having a family, would I consider the possibility of egg-freezing? While in a perfect world, freezing would take place in one’s twenties—helpful!—cryopreserving my eggs as soon as possible would proffer the best chances that they would net a healthy baby.
Now, I come from a long line of baby-makers—I suppose we all do, technically—so procreation always seemed inevitable. As I watched my sisters deliver my mother charm after charm, I devoted energy to delaying pregnancy, with the assistance of this very doctor’s prescription pad. Motherhood’s day would definitely come, I was certain of that. I worshipped my nieces and nephews, with whom I felt so comfortable and natural. As their babysitter-on-speed-dial and rumored favorite aunt, each element of their childhood captivated me: the intoxicating smell of their newborn skulls, the scratch of their fingernails on the tray of a high-chair, their gravelly voices when they first woke up in the morning. I never tired of talking to them or playing with them; I’d happily volunteer for their parents’ less-favorite tasks, from diaper changes to dips in the pool. Pregnancy, though, still felt future state. But it would happen when the time was right. Right? Right.
The doctor handed me a pamphlet and said her goodbyes, yanking the modesty curtain around the exam area before exiting the room. This was our relationship up until this visit—brief and impersonal, in (all the way in) and out, see-you-in-twelve-months. I was never left with anything to contemplate.
Still clutching my paper gown, her words reverberated, like ultrasound waves bouncing back an image on a computer’s ink-black screen.
Then what are you waiting for?
I do not love jewelry. The gene skipped right over me, hopefully to the charm-bracelet contingent, for Pinky’s sake.
Pinky is her name, by the way—Maureen by birth, but Pinky to her innermost circle. It suits her: she’s a diminutive, dark-haired beauty with gray-blue eyes who is also never without a blood-red manicure. She was a change-of-life baby, born eighteen and seventeen years after her brother and sister, and thus the object of her immediate family’s unadulterated adoration. She was precious. “Father, mother, brother, sister, pinky,” she explains, counting off each family member by wiggling the respective finger.
My own fingers remain unembellished. Adding insult to injury, I lose the jewelry she gives me. For example: My siblings and I each received a silver claddagh ring—Irish jewelry is at the top of the hierarchy—for our sixteenth birthday. My mother has replaced mine three or four times now. Most recently, she presented me with a version that had a braided band. “I’m tying this one onto your finger,” she said, dramatically, as I unboxed. (She was big into community theater in the seventies; she has an Elizabeth Taylor vibe, sans the seven starter husbands). Eight or so months later, I slipped off the ring for a Monday night swim workout, and it was never to be found again. Many years prior, the diamond studs I received for my twenty-first birthday did not survive to see my twenty-second, likely stuck between the sawdust-covered floorboards of a college dive bar.
This tendency is a source of tremendous guilt—it’s not that I’m ungrateful, far from it. I appreciate it without appreciating it, I suppose. Because I am a tomboy, my body appears to physically reject any excessive costuming; I skew plain and it’s the only label I can wear proudly. When my sisters offer me their engagement rings to try on for fun, I squirm. I’m too acidic, I say, the gold will turn green.
Pinky’s gold is mostly supplied by a man named Charlie, the proprietor of a shop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where my parents have vacationed, alone, every August since the early 1980s. (This ritual is one of the few secrets they will reveal to their long and successful marriage.) St. Thomas has bays and beaches and frozen drinks called bushwhackers, but it does not have a sales tax, so for this reason, it is beloved by treasure hunters like my mother.
Charlie occupies a somewhat mythical role in our family, as the keeper of the proverbial key to our mother’s heart. The only man she’d leave you for is Charlie, we gently tease our father. Better than us all, Charlie knows which pieces she’s traded back to him, what would complete a set, what’s on her wish list. Infamously, a picture of our mother hangs in his shop in a frame inscribed ‘Charlie’s Angel.’ My sisters who have honeymooned to St. Thomas, attempting to access whatever marital bona fides the island has bequeathed our parents, made pilgrimages to this patron saint of our mother’s happiness, returning with photographic evidence. He’s real!
Charlie’s wife is named Sheila. Please let this sit for a moment.
I was in my late twenties when I learned this (!) courtesy of a Christmas card Charlie sent my parents, which was sitting right there on their kitchen counter for all to see. (Do other people receive holiday greetings from jewelry stores? Is this a thing?) As my mother’s fifth-born daughter, I have no delusions that my name is among her favorites since she had many opportunities to choose it before I came along. But…the jeweler’s wife?
I hypothesized this was an attempt to brand me with an appreciation for the finer, more sparkly things.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” my mother scoffed, denying the correlation with her dainty laugh.
“I have given up on you and jewelry,” she said, then lowered her voice to a whisper and squeezed my hand.
“But you definitely inherited my way with babies.”
The fertility clinic is just downtown from my apartment, about nine blocks south, sitting above a Bank of America on Hoboken’s busiest thoroughfare.
A poster hangs in the PATH train station, of all godforsaken places, advertising the practice: a gaggle of female doctors, dressed in symmetrical shades of silver and deep pink, flashing pearly-white smiles with their hands on their waists or casually placed on a colleague’s shoulder. “Empowered Women, Empowering You!” it reads, cheerfully. “We are SMART about ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology]!”
The subtext is less than subtle. Attention, millennial women of Hoboken [who also commute by train]: We aren’t regular doctors—we are the chic and modern kind who are very well-educated and probably watch Bravo! Freezing your eggs can be fun! Empty your savings accounts! And follow us on Instagram!
The seed that had been unceremoniously planted by my OB-GYN germinated for over a year, pushing through fast and furiously the next fall. Once October rolled around, I felt intense urgency: I wanted to freeze my eggs and I wanted it done as soon as possible.
My first visit to Dr. Thompson—the most Instagram-friendly of the fertility doctors, tellingly in the center of the poster photo—felt optimistic. I was now 36 years old, so more than slightly late to this particular party, but super healthy, a twenty-two-time marathon finisher and two-time Ironman triathlete. She was especially buoyed by the fact that I came from superior baby-making stock.
“Your mother had eight children?” she said, in disbelief. “Oh, you’re going to do great!”
I asked how soon I could start.
It would have to be a secret, obviously. My Catholic parents could and would not know I was doing this; I’d confide only in my twin and younger sisters. For as much collective feminine energy that courses through our family, privacy is paramount and boundaries idiosyncratic. We grew up clustered in shared bedrooms and nevertheless managed to become prudish. And our sisterly dynamics are complex: something you’d confess to Kate and Megan, you might not tell Maura and Erin.
After an exam and a consultation with the financial coordinator—this is the true bloodletting in this process, let me tell you—I returned to the doctor’s office, where we chatted like gal pals about fitness. She too loved to run and had recently competed in her first triathlon. I considered asking if she swam in the tears of women who just spent over twelve thousand dollars on her empowering process.
And just over a month later, I found myself back in Dr. Thompson’s office.
“If you can stomach it,” she said, without looking away from her computer screen. “I’d recommend doing a second cycle.”
I slumped, in silence. Incidentally, my stomach was still distended and speckled with tiny purple bruises from weeks of thrice-daily hormone injections. The retrieval surgery had been the Sunday prior, yielding seven eggs, which was three short of the ten the doctor had hoped to procure. As it was explained to me, ten eggs constitute a baseline insurance policy, statistically—you want at least ten eggs to solidify your chances of one healthy, someday baby.
I had chosen to believe I would cruise through this part of the process since according to pretty much everyone, including this reproductive endocrinologist, I descended from the Michael Jordan of fertility. Belief is powerful. But nestled deep in the back of my mind—and I guess my ovaries—was worry, which can overpower belief, if you let it.
Truthfully, motherhood was becoming slightly less discernible in general. They used to appear to me in dreams, these someday babies: a boy with big blue eyes, a little girl with a shock of jet-black hair. But within the last year or so, my subconscious began to fumble for the details, for their distinctions, the way I suspected strangers had a hard time telling my siblings and me apart. Forget my biology—even my imagination was losing confidence.
“We’d do a stronger drug regimen, and probably have you give injections for a few more days this time around,” Dr. Thompson continued. I had leftover meds, which could offset some of the cost. Her practice also extends a discount to second-timers—a depressing consolation prize, no? If I wanted to feel like I had done as much as I could, it became clear I would need to do this again. Which would require more weeks of early morning bloodwork and ultrasound, more evenings with alcohol swabs and syringes and Q-caps and my new friends Follistim and Menopur, all for the possibility of having something that had, for most of my life, felt like destiny.
Then what are you waiting for?
Just weeks after my second retrieval surgery, this past Christmas morning, seven small gray boxes sat beneath my parents’ basement tree.
As grandkids ripped through metric tons of wrapping paper in the background, she distributed them, one for each daughter. Inside, a pink pouch containing a flat gold charm on a thin gold chain, engraved with our first initials. There were Ms for Maura and Megan, Es for Erin and Eileen, a K for Kate and a T for Tara and an S for Sheila. Pinky’s proprietary alphabet, memorialized in her preferred medium.
“I got one to match all of my girls,” she said, once back in her rocking chair and sipping from a coffee mug, clad in her signature silk pajamas. Around her neck hung an M, for Maureen, or Mother.
With my nephew Henry napping on my chest, I turned over the charm with my free hand, gliding it between my forefinger and thumb. I looked up to see my mother looking directly at me, smiling.
“Don’t you lose that, Sheila Marie.”
I have nineteen eggs frozen, in total, and now I dream about them: blue circles encrusted in ice crystals that sparkle like diamonds; they’ve replaced the blue-eyed babies who used to visit. In the dream, I’m usually panicking—are they still there? Did I lose them? Did I forget to pay the storage bill, since I refuse to check my mail? (I absolutely loathe the mail.)
Did I lose them? I lose everything of value.
Sometimes when I think about the eggs, I think about my mother. She doesn’t know they exist, and maybe I’m selling her short, maybe she’d like to know about them. Perhaps she would be proud. After all, they take after her, already—she also sleeps in a very cold room. Will they someday materialize, evolving from microscopic orbs of potential to beloved gold charms that she carries with her, everywhere she goes?
I certainly hope so.
Her children are her legacy.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Barta V