Style, substance and sentiment…
Aunt Ruby pierced my ears the first time when I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t remember exactly when she did it, but I remember the setting vividly. I sat at the end of the kitchen table in the house on Arnold Street. She rubbed my earlobes with alcohol while Mama looked on, probably expecting me to change my mind at the last minute. After each earlobe was sterilized, Aunt Ruby took a blue ballpoint Bic Stic pen and marked a spot on one ear and then the other, making sure they were straight and even. After this, she sterilized her sewing machine needle with alcohol and poked holes in my lobes as quickly as possible, (she never bothered with trying to numb them using ice cubes) inserting a pair of her own 14-karat gold stud earrings as my starter pair. She had cleaned them with alcohol as well, and instructed me to twist the posts around several times a day and to dab more alcohol around them daily to avoid infection while they healed. I was not to remove or change earrings for 6 weeks, again, to minimize the risk of infection.
I remember that it hurt a little, but it was not too bad, and there was only a tiny little bit of blood. Most of the shots I’ve had in doctors’ offices have hurt worse than getting my ears pierced. I couldn’t wait for my Daddy to come home from work so I could show him my newly pierced ears. I felt very grown-up and sophisticated, like I had taken a step toward adult ladyhood.
Mama always joked that her body would reject anything that was not at least 14-karat gold, and she always wore good earrings because her ears were sensitive. And she insisted on my wearing good earrings as well to avoid irritation and infection. She began to build me a small but good quality jewelry collection and taught me how to appreciate and care for good earrings, rings and necklaces. Once I got older and realized that my ears were less sensitive than hers were, I ventured into the world of fashion or “costume” jewelry. I’ve even been known to wear colorful thumb tacks in my ears if they matched an outfit!
When I left for my freshman year of college, I received 2 pairs of earrings as gifts. From Dad I received a pair of gold ball studs to go with the add-a-bead necklace Mama had been adding to for me (they were all the rage at the time). And my brother, Reed, gave me a pair of small, beautiful pearl stud earrings almost exactly like the ones of Mama’s that I had borrowed so many times for dressy occasions.
Summer after my junior year of college I had Aunt Ruby pierce my ears a second time. I was engaged and my sweet husband-to-be had given me 2 pairs of earrings while we were dating, and I knew I wanted to wear both pairs on our wedding day. Once again, I sat at the end of Aunt Ruby’s kitchen table with alcohol, Bic Stic pen, and sewing machine needle at the ready, the accoutrements of the familiar ritual of piercing and bonding. Again there was a sting and a bit of blood, and the familiar instructions for keeping my new piercings infection-free. This was June of 1985. I remember the date because a friend from school got married the next week and she noticed my new piercings at the reception.
Flash forward 20 years to 2005. It was October and the weather was cooling off. Aunt Ruby was 80 years old at this point and her eyesight was failing. I’d been wanting one last piercing in my left ear for quite a while and I figured I’d better go ahead and have her do it before she got to the point that she couldn’t anymore. This last ritual did not take place at the kitchen table on Arnold Street. Aunt Elaine’s husband was dying with cancer, and Aunt Ruby was staying with them for comfort and moral support. So my last piercing happened in Aunt Elaine’s bathroom. It was, I am positive, Aunt Ruby’s last piercing as well. She didn’t have the hand strength she had enjoyed when she was younger, and she had a little more trouble getting the sewing machine needle through my earlobe. Again, a little sting and a bit of blood, piercing and bonding.
I am very sentimental about my piercings because of the stories behind them. Aunt Ruby pierced countless ears of family members and neighborhood girls (and the occasional boy). Each earring has a story as well. Some were Mama’s, some gifts from The Aunts, some from Jeff, my sweet husband.
And you might ask, why 5 piercings and not 6? It’s a good question. The best answer is that I’ve always felt a little bit askew, like nothing about me really “matched”. The 5th piercing reminds me that it’s OK to be a little off-center, a little quirky. Aunt Ruby loved me, quirkiness and all.