Eastern sages and mystics tell us that we are all one, that separation is an illusion, that we are all connected, individual manifestations of the one creative source. Like the beads of a bracelet, we are connected, creating and created in the whole, a circle, the circle of life.
This story of one bracelet takes place many years ago. I’d traveled back to my hometown, New Orleans, to visit my family, and looked up from breakfast at Camellia Grill to see my high school friend Patrice smiling across the counter at me. I met Patrice in seventh grade at Cabrini Church where she sat in the pew behind me during confirmation preparations and teased me mischievously by tickling my back with a pencil. I’d turned around in annoyance to give her a dirty look or worse, but when I saw her crooked smile and her blue eyes squinting with laughter, I joined in the joke and we became good friends. We lost touch after high school, but over omelettes, waffles, and chocolate freezes, we celebrated our reunion.
Patrice loved the baby face bracelet I wore and was delighted to discover that I’d made it. Taking my arm, she studied the expressions on each of the ten face beads I’d created. She laughed when she came to the rascal with red hair and crossed eyes. “I have a kid just like that in my pre-school classroom,” she said. I sent her a bracelet, which she cherished and wore everywhere. One of her friends, Teresa, loved Patrice’s bracelet and ordered one for herself. Several years later, Teresa returned her bracelet for repair. It had been too tight for her originally, and after many years, the elastic had failed.
As I opened the package Teresa sent, I saw before me the bracelet as I had never seen one before. Only one elastic cord was intact, and the connected faces flattened out into a circle like a wreath. In the dozen years I had been making these bracelets, I had never seen one in this configuration, and it was very powerful for me to see my work anew.
I called Teresa who lived in New York City to ask about the size. She asked if it could be made somewhat larger. I noticed her last name, Riccobono and asked if she or any of her relatives ever lived on St. Anthony Avenue in New Orleans. I thought someone with that name lived next to my grandmother.
“No,” she said, “the only person I ever knew that lived on St. Anthony Avenue was my son’s babysitter, Mrs. Cochran.”
“That was my grandmother,” I cried in astonishment.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of your grandmother. She was such an inspiration to me.”
“Really? How so?” I asked. I pictured the grandmother I loved, a simple woman who quit school in the third grade to go work in a factory rolling cigars to help support her brothers’ education, a woman best remembered for her cooking, her patience, and her love of children. I wanted to see from someone else’s eyes the picture of her as a role model of strength and inspiration.
“Let me tell you a story,” Teresa said.
“My husband and I were going to dinner with another couple. Our boys were friends and I asked your grandmother to babysit the boys at the other couple’s house so we could go out together. My son was three years old at the time and a terror. Your grandmother called him a pistol. Well “Pistol” found a pair of handcuffs and locked one around her wrist. Fortunately, he didn’t cuff her to anything, but we returned around 11 p.m. and found her dangling the handcuff. After searching frantically for the lost key, we made a fruitless call to the police, and then headed to an all-night locksmith who also was no help. But another customer at the locksmith shop had a hacksaw in his truck, and offered to saw the handcuff off her wrist. You know what a large woman she was, and her skin was puffed up all around the cuff, but she sat there cool as a cucumber throughout the whole ordeal. She always thought it a funny story afterwards, and she always treated my son with kindness and love.”
I sat at the worktable in my studio in Upstate New York listening to Teresa’s story about my grandmother who’d been gone 20 years. I laughed with tears streaming down my face, and thanked her for her story, still stunned by this coincidence of meeting her and of the too tight bracelet and the handcuff. From New Orleans to New York, over decades and lifetimes our connections emerged. As I glanced down at the bracelet with its circle of faces, I thought of what I had always hoped to convey with this work—the interconnectedness of all people. I thought of the unique gifts we all possess and of the unknown ways we sometimes inspire each other.
Each bracelet like the wearer has a story to tell.