the birth of an heirloom

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A couple of months ago, an unexpected package appeared on my doorstep. When I took it inside and opened it, a large cross pendant was inside.

I turned it over, and suddenly a door opened.

So, I did some research. I think the figure on the left is the archangel Michael — notice the wings on either side of him, and he’s holding a sword — apparently, the archangel Michael is the only angel customarily depicted holding a sword in Christian imagery. The figure on the right, I’m guessing, is the prophet Daniel. It turns out Michael is mentioned three times in the biblical book of Daniel — he appears to Daniel in visions; also, while Marcus was looking at this cross, he remarked that it looks like there’s a floating eye in front of the figure on the right. If he’s correct, maybe that floating eye might symbolize the gift of prophesy?   But it’s only a guess. If anyone out there is Ethiopian Orthodox, I’d love if you’d let me know if I’m wrong!

So, I did some research. I think the figure on the left is the archangel Michael — notice the wings on either side of him, and he’s holding a sword — apparently, the archangel Michael is the only angel customarily depicted holding a sword in Christian imagery. The figure on the right, I’m guessing, is the prophet Daniel. It turns out Michael is mentioned three times in the biblical book of Daniel — he appears to Daniel in visions; also, while Marcus was looking at this cross, he remarked that it looks like there’s a floating eye in front of the figure on the right. If he’s correct, maybe that floating eye might symbolize the gift of prophesy?

But it’s only a guess. If anyone out there is Ethiopian Orthodox, I’d love if you’d let me know if I’m wrong!

Inside was a vibrant painting of two religious icons.

I looked in the package to see if there was a note, and found one — the gift was from my sweet friend Jeannine, who used to work at the ONE Campaign, and who was one of my travel companions on my trips to Ethopia in 2012 and Malawi in 2015. Since leaving ONE, Jeannine continues to devote her life to advocacy work, including being the cofounder of Feed Our Democracy, a movement to create a national network of activists who work for causes that underpin American democracy.

I immediately gave her a call.

“Jeannine! This is beautiful. But … why?”

I could hear Jeannine’s smile on the other end of the phone. “I bought it when we were in Ethiopia,” she said. “And I’ve had it just sitting there all these years. And I thought of you the other day, and suddenly I wanted you to have it. You know, to celebrate your new home, and having Hurricane Harvey behind you, and all that.”

I was overcome. “Jeannine, this is really generous of you, it’s so beautiful. Thank you.” Then I paused. “I’m … I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. I mean, it feels like it's a pendant, but then there’s the door … and it’s so heavy, I’m afraid that a simple chain might be too fragile. What do you think?”

“Yeah, I wondered about that too,” Jeannine responded. “I mean, maybe you could put it on a leather cord, or something?”

As soon as she said that, I thought of my friend Cheryl, who handmakes the most beautiful leather bags in an amazing factory just outside of Houston. Like Jeannine, Cheryl also does amazing things for her community, including often supporting women who have hit hard times, by training them to become leatherworkers, and giving them a skill and gainful employment as they get back on their feet.

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “And I know exactly where I’ll get the cord. Jeannine, thank you so much. I’m so incredibly moved.”

“Of course,” she replied.

A few weeks later, I dropped in on Cheryl’s store, Curate, in Round Top, Texas, on the off-chance that she was there. She wasn’t, but her store manager, Chris, was incredibly warm, especially when he found out I was a friend of Cheryl’s. “I know exactly who you are,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you!”

“You too!” I grinned. “Listen — I brought something.” I unwrapped the cross.

“Whoa,” he breathed.

“I know,” I nodded. “I was just looking for a simple black leather cord — maybe something that had an adjustable clasp of some kind — you wouldn’t happen to have anything like that here, would you?”

He slowly shook his head. “No … I don’t think so.” And then he brightened. “But if you don’t mind leaving it with me, I’m happy to give it to Cheryl the next time I see her. I’m sure she'll come up with something.”

So I did. And a few days later, Cheryl called me. “This is incredible,” she said. “What were you looking for?”

I said, “Oh, Cheryl, seriously, just something simple. An adjustable black leather cord. And I’ll drop by whenever to pay you.”

“No….” I could hear her thinking. “This needs … I don’t know. What’s your favourite colour?”

“Um … blue, I guess? I like blues and greens — they remind me of the Caribbean Sea. What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know yet,” she murmured. “Okay. Leave it to me. I’ll come up with something.”

And then, last night, Cheryl and her husband Paul came over for dinner. And she handed me a box. I opened it, and this is what was inside.

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Holy shit, Cheryl,” I gasped. “What did you do?”

“Well, you know I collect antique beads, right?” I slowly shook my head.

“Cheryl, I was just expecting a cord! That’s it!”

“Well, no, I decided to pull out my beads. Because I wanted to see which ones spoke to me. So, I chose the blue ones — they’re called Hebron beads, and they’re made using salt from the Dead Sea. Eventually, they made their way into Africa, and became used as currency. I know you’ve been focusing on your heritage recently, so I wanted to include these. And then the red beads are coral, as a nod to your Caribbean heritage.”

I kept shaking my head in disbelief.

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“And then,” she said, “once I’d chosen the beads, I realized that they worked really well with the colours of the paintings inside the cross. I hope it hangs low enough …”

“… it’s perfect,” I signed. “It really, truly is. How much do I owe you for this?”

“No charge.” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “My gift for you.”

People. I can’t even tell you how much this gift, from these two fierce, principled, determined-to-make-the-world-a-better-place women, means to me. I will tell you that this has become the most priceless piece of jewelry I own, and possibly will ever own. I’ll tell you that not only because the pieces that comprise this necklace are old and have their own stories, but also because the women who gave them to me put such thought into this gift, means that this is absolutely the most soulful piece of jewelry I own, and possibly will ever own. And because both of these women are people who represent the sort of courageous, strong, full-of-integrity people I aspire to be, I hope that this piece of jewelry will be handed down to my my daughter and her daughters and granddaughters in the future, forever-and-ever-amen, in honour of these strong women.

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So thank you, thank you, thank you, Jeannine and Cheryl, for collectively creating this amazing work of art, and work of heart. I so hope one day I can introduce you two to each other. With the magic that you’ve made without even knowing each other, I can’t imagine what might happen when you do.