A Nola O’Grady Story
One week before my eleventh birthday, my father, Flann O’Grady, took me to visit a friend of his who owned a jewelry shop. Even though I was one of seven children, he always made a big fuss over our birthdays. We each got a special day with him, one child only, no competition from all the other kids for his attention. Before the special day, we were allowed pick out our own birthday present from a place he thought appropriate. That year, he told me, he was taking me to a jewelry shop, because double-digit girls should have a nice bit of flash, as he called it, to wear on special occasions.
After dinner we got into his pick-up truck and drove off. Since my birthday’s in November, it was already dark out. I felt extremely grown-up and important, getting to go out at night with my dad. The fog came in thick and made the lights of the traffic glow in misty pools of color. We drove from our house in San Francisco’s Excelsior district all the way across Twin Peaks, down Seventh Avenue and past Golden Gate Park to Divisadero Street. We turned up Diviz, as he called it, and drove what seemed to be a long way — several blocks past Mount Zion Hospital, or so I remember. He found a place to park on a side street, and we walked back down to the shop which stood between a used clothing place and an art gallery. Except for a laundromat a few doors down, all the other shops on that block were dark and shuttered.
In between two dark doors, the door into the jewelry shop glowed with yellow light. When Dad pushed it open, little bells chimed above us. The store itself was long and oddly narrow, not much wider than the doorway, or so I thought at first sight. When we walked in, the room seemed to have grown. There was plenty of space between a wall papered with a silver rose design and a long line of glass cases, filled with things that sparkled half-seen in dim light. Dad told me to go ahead of him.
Down at the far end an old-fashioned brass cash register stood on the counter. Behind it on a tall stool sat an old woman, grey-haired and wizened, wrapped in so many brightly colored shawls that to my child’s mind she looked like the sheep who owned a knitting shop in Through the Looking Glass. She sounded, however, like an ordinary old woman.
“Well, who’s this, Flann?” she said. “One of yours, no doubt about that, but which one?”
“Nola Rose,” Dad said. “Born right smack in the middle.”
I had three older siblings and three younger, the last of those just born the year before.
“Pretty child, and pretty name,” the woman said. “What would you like for your birthday, Nola Rose?”
“How did you know it’s my birthday?” I said.
“Your father phoned me earlier.” She smiled at me. “So I picked out a collection for you to choose from.”
Things, I figured, that Dad could afford — I might have been only ten going on eleven, but I knew that supporting a large family on his construction worker’s wages could be a pinch. The old woman stood up from the high stool and shuffled along on her side of the counter toward the front of the store. We followed. She stopped in front of a particular case and pointed. I rose on tip-toe and looked at a collection of rings, brooches, and pendants, all of them silver set with glittering stones, maybe bits of glass but lovely all the same. At the back of the case, however, lay things: a blue-green sphere the size of a baseball; a wooden bird’s nest containing a pair of dyed alabaster eggs, one blue and one purple; a silver letter opener like a small dagger; a little wolf carved of black stone, and an oval box about two inches high and four long.
“Does it have to be jewelry, Dad?” I said.
“No. It’s your birthday. You can have anything from this case that you’d like.”
“Could I see the box?”.
The old woman smiled and brought it out. When I picked it up, I found that it weighed very little.
“Papier machié,” the woman said. “Know what that is?”
“We made puppet heads out of it in Girl Scouts,” I said.
The box itself was shiny black. On the lid, a painting in glowing colors, mostly red and gold, showed an angel with spread wings spearing a curled and snarling dragon.
“Ooh, angels!” I said. “Can I have this, Dad?”
“You certainly may.” He smiled at me. “It’s a lovely thing.”
Yet I had the odd feeling that I’d somehow disappointed him. Even more oddly, I could never find that shop again, no matter how often I looked for it after my father suddenly disappeared — that happened a few years later. I searched as a teen-ager, as a college student, and even as an adult, but I never saw it again. Now, of course, that I’ve come into my own, now that I understand my family, I realize that it was never here in this world. Had I reached for the blue and green sphere, the action would have marked me as a world walker like the old woman, but that gift would go to my little brother.
As for the angel, without knowing it I’d picked out my life’s work and my worst enemy.