(I work with little kids and they are always hounding me to tell them stories. This is a popular favorite. It is true.)
When my grandmother was a young wife and mother, she became sort of an unofficial hospice worker, a helper to those who were sick or dying and had no family to look after them. I think this happened by chance - she took care of a few old ladies and word got around that Persis was the one to call if you were old and bedridden and needed someone to bring you soup and tend the chickens. (My theory is that she was grateful for the chance to spend some time away from the crappy house, abusive husband, and two small daughters she was utterly unprepared to raise.)
She never asked for money. It was understood that when the sick got well, they'd pay her whatever they could afford. It wouldn't be much - a few dollars, a few eggs, maybe a piglet. This was a tiny farming community in rural Wisconsin where nobody had much. But she always received compensation, in one form or another, for her time and for the various unpleasant duties involved in tending very sick people.
Sometimes the sick got well, and sometimes they didn't. It was commonplace for my grandmother to inherit an entire estate, based on the words "All Left to Persis" scrawled across the back of an envelope. Not the sort of thing that would work today. This was a small town where people generally knew and trusted each other, in the 50s, and everyone knew what my grandmother did. No one ever contested these "wills" - it would have been silly, as what she inherited was usually just enough to cover funeral
costs. A ramshackle farmhouse, a few decrepit cows and chickens, an acre of barren dirt. Nobody else wanted it anyway.
Georgia and Annie Reynolds were spinster sisters. Annie had been proposed to, in her youth, but Georgia (the elder and bitchier) wouldn't allow it. She said they had to stick together as family. Annie said no, the young man went away, and the sisters grew old and bitter, together.
They lived in a slowly deflating farmhouse, some rooms made unusable by collapsed beams or sunken floorboards. They had a little farmland, which brought them barely enough money to live on and to pay the hired hands. They each had one dress.
(I have a torn sepia photograph of these two standing outside their farmhouse. Thin, severe women in dark dresses; crows. I can never decide whether they look infinitely fragile or sharp as steel.)
The Reynolds sisters were the official weirdos of the town. Prim and pinched, they sailed into town for Sunday mass, never speaking to a soul. They invited themselves to supper at strangers' houses without warning. They'd just show up on a porch, angle their way inside to the table, then sit till they were fed. They ate in silence, stood and filled their aprons with potatoes, bread, anything portable, and left without a word. It being a small town, no one wanted to become gossip fodder as the first one to turn away a hungry stranger, so Georgia and Annie's assuredly obnoxious behavior was never checked.
Georgia fell sick, and Annie took care of her until she got too sick herself. Neither of them could have been over 65, but they had very thin blankets in a very drafty house in a very cold state, and whatever bug they had, they were just not strong enough to fight. They sent for Persis.
My grandmother brought soup and blankets. She did the things she always did. Put wet cloths on foreheads. Read aloud from Revelations. Fed the chickens.
Georgia, the first to take ill, was the first to slip into sightless fever-driven delirium. She was seeing people who were long dead, calling Persis by all sorts of other names, raving and reaching out to spirits. My grandmother did what she could. Cool water and calm words. Eventually Georgia settled into a murmuring, half-dreaming state. She smiled to herself, hummed bits of hymns and lullabies, fell asleep, and died.
A few days later Annie worsened as well. Her fevered ramblings were louder and more insistent than her sister's. The tide, she kept saying. You must find the tide, the tide will take care of you and your girls! It will keep you safe, it's more than enough!
Cool water, calm words. Annie died.
As was her habit, my grandmother paid for the funeral expenses out of pocket, then set about sorting through the house to see what could be salvaged and sold to cover the costs. There wasn't much; the house was no more than an elaborate pile of firewood.
While she was cleaning out a closet full of old newspapers, my grandmother found a few incongruous boxes of detergent. A couple more in the linen closet. Six under the sink. More boxes of detergent in the broom closet. Tide detergent. They would all have been pitched into the trash, if one hadn't gone "clink."
My grandmother opened the box and found coins. Old ones.
She opened another and found silver certificates and war bonds.
Sapphire earrings, wrapped in silk. A pearl brooch shaped like a bird. A bracelet dripping with diamonds. Gold. Cash.
This all belonged to my grandmother now, by virtue of a little scrap of paper bequeathing the estate to her. No one had a better claim than she.
With a banker's help she figured out what to liquidate and what to lock up in a safe deposit box. She moved the family into a better house, bought everybody in the family a new car, and eventually sent my mother to Europe for the better part of five years. She bought her daughters each a college education (a first in her family), and rent, and books, and spending money. And some is still in the bank.
My grandmother was a poor farm wife, often yelled at by her bastard of a husband, appreciated only by strangers. She never had nice things. So she kept the jewelry. It did not go in the safe deposit box; it went around her neck and wrists. She wasn't ostentatious about it, but I'm told that for a good ten-year stretch she was always wearing at least one piece of incredibly expensive jewelry, whether waxing the floor or kneading bread.
This is the reason I own a pearl necklace (where am I ever going to wear that, but I love it). Who knew pearls were so heavy, or that they borrow the heat of the wearer's neck and grow their own smooth warmth? And this is why I own an emerald ring whose single stone is so big it looks gumball-machine fake. Lavish to the point of being completely useless to me, it's still my secret pirate treasure.
Who knows why the Reynolds sisters lived like paupers. Who knows where their wealth came from or why they kept it hidden from the world and from themselves. Why did they keep themselves hungry? Irregular meals and a freezing cold house weakened them and sent them to their graves too soon. It could have been postponed without spending even a fraction of their weird fortune. But they owned one dress apiece, lived off the cold potatoes of strangers, and never wore the beautiful jewels that lay sleeping in every corner of their crumbling house.
Except - and this is when, if I've planned my storytelling well, I raise my left hand and show the kids - except for this. This is the only piece of jewelry anyone ever saw either of them wear. It's Annie's high school graduation ring. A simple gold band with a curliqued " '06." She was wearing it when she died. I wear it often. I think of Annie, and the man she didn't marry, and I resolve to keep myself warm.