My family had a lot of things once. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, my grandfather amassed a small American fortune: a white-pillared Colonial mansion with land, guest houses, and even a river running through. Stone walls encircled his empire of walnut trees, lawns, and rose gardens—and at the front, a big iron gate. He employed a cook, maids, and a secretary to help him write his books. He could walk to the old Southern university where he taught sociology and my mother studied art.
My mother was a spoiled child, the youngest of four daughters. She took acting lessons and dressed in Antebellum gowns with matching gloves and slippers. I have an old photo of her, reclining against one white pillar by the beveled-glass-encircled entrance. A floppy straw hat with veil and flower perched upon her head, her long blonde hair draped her lacy shoulders with puffy sleeves, sashed waist, and big ballooning skirt. She smiled, as always in those old photos, tilting her face to its best angle, one hand held up to balance her hat.
Her hand was graceful, and a gold chain with bangles dangled from her wrist.
That picture was in black and white, but I know the bracelet was made of gold, for as a child I found it tucked into her jewelry box. I used to sneak it out and watch it glisten in the sunlight while my mother slept.
A tennis racket, a lucky horseshoe, a telephone, a pair of high-heeled shoes, the cursive letter “L” with crystals, and a tiny pair of sunglasses were among the charms that dangled from the golden chain.
Someday this will be mine, I thought before I set the bracelet back.
That wish would never be. The bracelet, like the old white manor house, my grandfather, my mother—all were lost. For me, the American Dream worked backward.
But I have the photograph—a whole box of them—a record in faded ink on shiny paper. I share them with my daughters, and we paste them into books.