excerpt

Prologue

The Half-Heart Charm

To a Life Where We’re Never Separated

July 4, 1953—Lolly

Fireflies blinked, illuminating the stepping-stones to Lost Land Lake. “You see that, Lolly?” my mom laughed in the twilight. “Mother Nature is giving us a preview to the fireworks.” I smiled and inhaled.

My whole world smelled of summer: Suntan lotion and sparklers, barbecues and pine needles.

By our ears, dragonflies fluttered, as if an orchestra of violins had been sent, just for my mom and me, as we walked to our dock.

I had just blown out the candles on my tenth birthday cake, and my dad was busy building a bonfire for s’mores. He had given me his gift, my first fishing pole, so I could spend Sundays with him, but now it was time for my mom’s gift. And she always gave it to me at the end of our dock.

In the quickening dusk, I felt for her hand as we walked, our wrists colliding, setting our charm bracelets jangling. I giggled. Out of habit, I began to feel for her charms, trying to guess each one by touch rather than sight. It was a game I had invented years ago.

“My baby shoe!” I said excitedly.

“To a life filled with happy, healthy children,” my mom said. “A key!” I yelled.

“Because you unlocked my heart,” she said. “Snowflake?”

“Yes,” she said. “To a person of many dimensions.”

My fingers kept flying, and my mom had a story and explanation for every charm. I knew almost every one by heart, and I spun my fingers until I found my favorites, the ones I always played with: The grand piano with the lid that opened and closed, the turtle with green gemstone eyes whose head moved back and forth, and a wishing well with a moving crank.

“To a life filled with beauty, a life filled with slow, meaningful decisions, and a life where all your wishes come true!”

As we neared the end of the dock, my fingers felt a charm I couldn’t identify.

“What’s this one, Mommy?” I asked. “I don’t know it.” “That . . .” My mom hesitated, and her voice broke. “Are you okay?”

“That’s my rocking chair,” she explained. “What’s it for?”

“It’s for . . .”—again, she stopped, catching her breath, as if she had just finished a long swim across the lake—“. . . a long and healthy life.”

We took a seat at the end of the dock, and dangled our feet in the water, just as the fireworks started.

“Ooooh!” I said, as much for the chill of the water as for the fireworks. “Woooowww!”

My birthday fell on the Fourth of July, just like our nation’s, and I was a child of summer.

“All those fireworks are really for you!” my mom would always whisper, the explosions booming overhead and echoing off the water. “The world is celebrating your uniqueness!”

Every year, for as long as I could remember, I received a charm from my mother on special occasions: Christmas, trips, school accomplishments. And every birthday, my mom would add another charm to my bracelet.

This year was no different.

“Happy birthday, Lolly!” my mom said, pulling me into her arms and kissing my head. “You ready to recite our poem first?”

I shook my head no.

“Why not?”

“Mom! I’m getting too old.”

“You will never be too old. Let’s do it together then!”

This charm
Is to let you know . . .

My mom’s face lit up as she started the poem. Suddenly, it was like jumping into the lake on a hot day, I couldn’t resist. So I joined in:

That every step along the way,
I have loved you so.
So each time you open up,
A little box from me
Remember that it really all

Began with You and Me.

My mom hugged me, radiating with joy. “Here you go,” she said, pulling a small package from the pocket of her jacket.

I ripped open the tiny box, and, as usual, there was a silver charm sitting atop a little velvet throne.

“What is it, Mommy?” I asked, squinting in the darkness. “It’s half of a heart. To a life where we’re never separated.”

I pulled it out of the box and studied it, rubbing my hands over its delicate outline.

“Where’s the other half?”

“Right here,” she said, showing me her bracelet, which was as heavy with charms as our Christmas tree was with ornaments. Then she took my wrist, added the charm and placed my hand on her heart. “And right here. You will always be a part of me.”

I smiled and leaned into my mom. She was warm, safe, and smelled like a mix of peonies and Coppertone.

“See, when you put our charms together,” she said, connecting the two halves of our heart, “they read mom and daughter. They complete each other. So no matter what happens from now on, I will always be a part of you, and you will always be a part of me. Will you promise me something, Lolly?”

“Anything, Mommy.”

“Promise me you will always tell our story and you will always be you.” “I promise, Mommy,” I replied.

My mom smiled and looked out over the lake as fireworks illuminated the night sky, and put her arm around my shoulder, drawing me even closer. “I will always be with you, Lolly. Especially when you wear your bracelet. It will always be filled with memories of our life together. No one can ever take that away.”

She kissed my cheek as the fireworks exploded overhead. “I will always love you, Lolly,” she said.

“I will always love you, too, Mommy.”

A breeze rushed across the water and over the lip of the dock to jangle our bracelets.

“You know, some people say they hear the voices of their family in this lake: In the call of the whippoorwill, the cry of the loon, the moan of the bullfrog,” my mom whispered. “But I hear my family’s voices in the jangling of my charms.”

The way she said that gave me goose bumps. It was so beautiful, I had to look at my mom. Flashes of light from the fireworks illuminated her curly, blond hair and the freckles on her rosy cheeks. It was as if a million cameras with a million flashbulbs were taking her picture, so I’d never forget how she looked at this moment.

I looked even closer, and it was then that I noticed tears streaming down her face.

A year later, my beloved mother would be gone, dead of cancer.

July 4, 2013

 Fireworks boom overhead, knocking me from this memory.

I am now seventy. My mother and father are long gone. My husband is dead, my daughter, Arden, grown and on her own in Chicago five hours away, my granddaughter, Lauren, is in college. For too many years now, I have celebrated my birthday alone. And yet when I look into the night sky, I am still mesmerized by the simple beauty of summer fireworks, overwhelmed by memories.

As my head tilts upward, I can feel tears trail down my face.

My mother may have taken half of my heart with her, but I got to keep all of her charms, and she was right: The charm bracelet is a constant reminder of her love for me.

I vowed to myself I would share our family stories with Arden and Lauren because none of us ever really dies as long as our stories are passed along to those we love. I started to tell them about our family when they were both little girls but then they got so busy, and life—as life does— quickly skips away like a flat piece of shale across Lost Land Lake.

I try to remind them of our history and traditions through the charms I still send, but my daughter has shrugged off our past and me, as if we were a jacket she no longer likes to wear. And her absence stings, like the first frosty day in October.

So while I pray they will return home, I continue alone: I still read my mother’s poem out loud to the lake on my birthday every Fourth of July as fireworks explode. And, without fail, the wind will rattle my charm bracelet—now even heavier than my mom’s ever was—and I will shut my eyes, and listen to the charms.

Happy birthday, Lolly, I can hear my mother say.