Two days after my mom’s funeral, I realize the silver hoop I’ve had in my upper ear cartilage since 1985 is gone. Mom hated the line of six earrings I wore in my left ear. When I was in high school she said, “Talk to your gym teacher about what your ear will look like in twenty years.” It was a scare tactic.
At some point she got my dad involved. “What’s next,” he said, “a nose ring like a bull?” Almost thirty years later, he could not have imagined that nose rings would be fashionable. My gym teacher is a grandfather. My ear is fine. My mother is dead.
As I got older, I removed my tiny studs one by one. Eventually the only remnant of my wild youth was a single silver hoop I wore in my left ear. Before she got sick, Mom would often tell me I was too old for such a thing. You’re a mother now, she’d say. Then, You’re a college teacher. I didn’t think we had the sort of relationship that she’d understand if I tried to explain how this earring represented a fraction of the bold but impulsive and immature girl I used to be, like holding onto those faded jeans from the summer before college even though they no longer fit. I used to remember the story behind each piercing: who I was with, why we decided to do it—always at home. I will never forget the sound of a starter post ripping through cartilage like a scissors cutting cardboard.
Now it’s highly unlikely that this sort of hoop simply “popped out” given that I have to carefully pull it out of my cartilage each time I clean it. I tell my husband about my lost earring. I say that I’ve checked the bed and the area I dress near my closet. He eyes my mop of hair. “And I checked my hair,” I say. I realize that it’s possible a tiny hoop earring could be lost in my tight curls for days.
I tell him, “So the only explanation must be that my mom came and took it out when I was sleeping.”
“Only?” he says. He’s not usually a doubter. Bruce reads Ann Landers each day like I do, and he’s seen her columns featuring readers who write in with their “Pennies from Heaven” stories. Loved ones find pennies in the strangest spots—a car dashboard or sock drawer or displayed on a pillow like a mint—and believe these oddly placed coins are messages from their recently departed. I believe signs are everywhere, and we have to pay attention. Is my lost earring one of them? Maybe.
“You better watch out,” I say to my husband. “My mom never liked men with long hair. You might wake up without a ponytail some morning.”
Bruce and I both know the love story of Wisconsin’s famous magician, Harry Houdini, and his wife, Bess. Like many lovers, this couple believed they shared a body and mind meld, and Harry promised to send a sign to Bess from beyond the grave. After he died of a ruptured appendix at age fifty-two—fittingly on Halloween and perfectly timed, from an entrepreneur’s perspective—Bess did what any dedicated wife might do. She waited to hear from him.
The Houdini’s backstory is not so well known. After Harry sought help contacting his own mother from the spirit world, he spent much time exposing these same mediums who took advantage of grieving loved ones like himself. He wrote books on how to reveal mediums’ fraudulent tricks, including Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). Though he wanted to believe in spirit-communication, he was unable to find a medium who could offer him a message from his own mother with their pre-arranged code, “forgive.” This word is fitting for any parent and child, whether transmitted from the spirit world or simply spoken during a long distant phone call.
Harry also planned to send Bess a message after his death, and she originally reported that a medium relayed to her their pre-decided code, “Rosabelle, believe!” Harry’s pet name for his wife was “Rosabelle,” after the love song she sang to him in their first show together. She later retracted her statement, but experts and historians claim that this was, in part, so her social circle would not think her “a nut,” and so she could hold yearly séances on the anniversary of her beloved’s death. If Harry had not yet contacted her, Bess could continue to be in the limelight as Houdini’s grieving widow and reap the monetary benefits. The “true” story of Harry’s spirit-communication may never be known, though those of us who believe know that if anyone might do it, Houdini could.
I might easily wear another hoop earring. I don’t. Two weeks go by. My left ear feels bare, but I think that if Mom is dancing on the edge between this world and the next and she’s “talking” to me, then I won’t interfere.
One morning as I am getting ready for work, I look down at the floor, and there is my silver hoop earring. These past fourteen days I’ve swept and scrubbed and shook out clothes. No lost earring. I’ve walked by this very spot for days and didn’t see anything. Yet here it is, right in the middle of the room, waiting for me to find it.
I go immediately to the bathroom and guide my hoop through cartilage and secure it in my ear. I look in the mirror. Mothers and daughters share an ancient and intricate story told over and over. There is nothing to say; my earring was lost and now it is found. Still I can’t help myself. I whisper to my reflection—to my mother’s eyes and her crazy hair—“Oh, Mama.” It means everything I could never say to her.