My mother wears the tiniest of earrings in her lobes, tear shaped drop pearls or minute balls of precious stones coated in gold and held on thin gold tangles. Even now her earrings strike me as a feature of her aging, her determination to hold onto life and all its possibilities reflected in those jangling ornaments.

My mother did not always wear earrings or any other jewellery for that matter, apart from her wedding ring. She tells the story of how in Holland during the Hunger winter of 1945 a farmer tried to get it from her in exchange for some potatoes. She refused.

My ‘movie star mother’: no need for jewellery then.

I think back and I cannot visualise my mother wearing a necklace or a bracelet, certainly not earrings. There are no jewels on display in her photographs, no efforts at adorning her body with trinkets of beauty. Nor did she wear much makeup, other than her trademark smear of red lipstick whenever she went out – if only as far as the local shops – and the dusky pink of her compact powder. She dabbed the puff against her cheeks and on her nose, her hooked nose. Aquiline, she said, like an eagle, and a sign of aristocracy.

More recently my mother tells me her brothers used to say she was Jewish because of the shape of her nose, which I too have inherited, though perhaps not quite as pronounced as my mother’s.

It seems odd to reflect back on the meaning of such a taunt in those days, especially given what happened during the second world war.

There is some evidence that there was a Jewish grandmother in my family of the great great variety, going back several years but my mother does not talk about such things these days.

Still I enjoy the idea of hybridity. I enjoy the idea of having all manner of ancestors in my past, all varieties, multiple races.

Purity does not sit well with me. The notion of a pure breed. It feeds our tendencies to see ourselves as superior or inferior for no other reason than the colour of our skin, the shape of our noses, the nature of our hair.

I suppose I could add a touch of madness to the list of inherited tendencies. Not that I think madness is carried in our genes, maybe a predisposition towards it, but madness needs a certain environment in which to flourish. On top of which in the primitive recesses of our minds, in the dim dark corners of our dreams, I reckon we all sport a little madness, and a good thing, too. It adds to the variety and the creativity that make up our lives. Without a quirk of eccentricity, not too much, not too dominant, our lives would be all the more dull.

I was telling you about my mother’s passion for jewellery. Mine is greater. I prefer silver to gold, not just because of the prohibitive cost of gold, but more because of the blue in silver. Blue is my favourite colour. The blue in silver, its watery properties, its potential coldness, they all appeal to me in a way the warmth of gold does not.

I did not always have this passion for jewellery. It came on when I was in my early twenties, when I decided what a thrill it might be to wear earrings that hung free from my ears.

In those days I lived next door to a nurse. She offered to help me with the job of piercing each lobe with a thin sterilised sewing needle. There were not the signs in chemist shops then, signs that touted for business in the piercing of ear lobes. Most people – and there were not so many who wanted or wore pierced ears from my memory – took themselves to the doctor for the procedure, but as in so many other matters to which I take a fancy, I wanted my ears pierced then and there.

It is striking how quickly the pain of an event subsides and disappears from memory, rather like the agonies of childbirth. They say women need to forget the degree of pain quickly otherwise they might not go back for more babies after the first.

My friend the nurse cleaned my earlobes with methylated spirits and she plied me with alcohol. In those days I did not drink much by way of alcohol and my choice of the stuff was limited to the likes of crème de menthe and cherry brandy, sweet and hardly efficacious in the process of dulling pain, but I had taken what today are called shots of creme de menthe and waited to feel numb enough and drunk enough to withstand the pain.

It was over soon, but the nurse drove the needle crooked in one lobe and it forever causes me trouble whenever I try to attach an earring. In later years I had my ears pierced properly with a type of nail-gun in a chemist shop. My memory of that event is one of short and sudden, awful pain.

Why do we do it? Why do we inflict pain on our bodies purely for the sake of what some of us consider beauty? I cannot say. I only know that I would not allow my daughters to get their ears pierced until they could be certain of their capacity to endure pain. And all for the purpose of attaching baubles to their ears,in contrast to my movie star mother who waited until after her babies were born to be initiated.

58 thoughts on “Initiation”

  1. I am certainly a mongrel in terms of breeding. Which is fine.
    And earrings are my jewellery of choice. I have hundreds of pairs, and hang them on the bedroom wall so that they are decorative even when I am not wearing them.
    When I had my ears pierced at around ten my mother told me 'you have to suffer to be beautiful', a sentiment I have never heard elsewhere.

  2. Ah, jewelry, beauty, sense of worth, sense of status, all connected in a woman's psyche. I didn't start wearing jewelry until my 40's, and I see that my daughter is not fond of jewelry either in her 30's.

    I began to equate pieces of jewelry with how much my husband valued me, and somehow, when I didn't receive a piece, even though I was not wearing any jewelry on a regular basis, when I didn't receive a piece, I felt disappointed, almost betrayed.

    Funny how this piece brought back all kinds of histories.

  3. Some mothers have their baby daughters' ears pierced – I can't imagine why,though it seems to have something to do with religion. I had my ears pierced when I was 18 – I went with my future mother-in-law – and I don't remember it being painful at all. Our ear lobes were numbed with some local anaesthetic and the job was soon done. The more painful part came afterwards, making sure, with surgical spirit, that infection didn't set in.
    As to why we adorn ourselves with piercings (mine are just in my ears) I suppose they fill some need to appear sophisticated.

  4. Back when such things were fashionable on men (oh, maybe they still are) I had an ear pierced at a chemist with a gun. I went into shock afterwards and had to sit down for a good while.

  5. My mother, too, looks like a movie star in photos from the forties and fifties. I cannot even begin to imagine these two in jeans and sweatshirts! I never saw my mother sloppily dressed, not even around the house. They were elegant….Has elegance gone out of style?
    The nuns nipped any tendencies towards adornment I might have had in the bud when a young [and very beautiful] nun took the library book I handed to her, then caught my hand for a closer look. Looking at the barely there, clear nail polish I was wearing, she curled her lip and asked me if God's work was not good enough for me. Certainly cured me of wearing nail polish!

  6. I've always been fascinated by the culture of adornment as it seems to exist in nearly all times and all cultures. I wonder what it is in the human brain that seeks out adornment — and, for that matter, art — all the things that are not necessary to actual survival but perhaps, in the end, are.

  7. I think there is something at a cellular level that pulls women (and some men) towards adornment. The attraction to beauty, to artfulness is not a thing of vanity. It is the visionary within saying, "I can make things beautiful. I can configure crude elements into art."

  8. My mother wanted to pierce my ears as a baby, it's done as the baby is breastfeeding so the instant comfort of feeding negates the shock quite quickly, but my dad refused to let her. He always said I could have it done when I was able to pay for it myself. I had them done at a chemist with my very first paypacket. Since then, I've had another set of piercings in each ear and now wear two pairs of "sleepers". I have earrings, but very rarely wear them. I just can't be bothered with choosing and changing.

  9. What a poignant post. I've never been able to bring myself to have my ears pierced, I'm not sure why. I had no idea it was so painful. I used to search for clip-on earrings, which became harder and harder to find, unless they were antiques. Jewellery is an interesting subject, and you have brought your mother very present in this post.

  10. I love jewellery and never go to work without something around my neck. It is all cheap costume jewellery but who needs to know what I paid for it? If it's cheap, I can discard and replace it with less guilt.
    We were robbed once and I lost everything of any value ie wedding, engagement rings and a precious bracelet of my grandmothers. I couldn't bring myself to replace them if it meant there was a chance I could lose them again. I now have only one important piece left and that never leaves me!
    Unfortunately though, I seem to have a sensitivity to cheap metal (amongst other things), but it still doesn't stop me wearing it and this is why I praise the benefits of cortisone cream.
    (I also have pierced ears but gave up wearing earings because of the sensitivity.)
    And you really don't want to know about my bastard genealogy. No, really!
    Karen C

  11. it is a cultural habit here in Brasil to pierce a baby girls ears around the time of the baptism.
    pure breeds…. in dogs and in the English and FRench courts bred some famouse idiots…. literally.

  12. I agree that the vast majority of us go mad at times. I know I do and it probably does us good.
    Body-piercing of any sort is not something I understand. Ear-rings are quite OK I guess but even then I think you can get 'clip-on' ones which seems better in my view.
    When I see what SOME men and women do to their bodies it horrifies me. I cringe at the thought of all the pain they must have endured when a belly-button or nipple(s) or suchlike has been wounded for some 'enhancement' of the body. Yeuk!
    Still, whatever the reason I guess it's up to the individual – and maybe that's what the idea is?

  13. I'm part Polish, Slovak, Irish, and Hungarian, none of which I take too seriously. By that I mean, unless you come out of the womb with another country's language and folk customs intact, it's all learned bahavour, and your only true nationality is the place you grew up in. As such, I am an American (nothing, I realize, to brag about, given some of our antics on the world stage since 1945.) Actually, we're all, no matter our race, descended from either Adam and Eve, or a couple of apes (hey, maybe a couple of apes named Adam or Eve!)

    I don't know that there's any madness in my family in the stereotypical "they're coming to take me away, ha, ha" sense of the word, but there's an awful lot of alcoholics on both my father's and mother's side. Plus, I have one relative that I know of who once attempted suicide. Something to watch out for.

    As for self-adornment, well, when you're a male, I guess the only socially acceptable form is the tattoo. I change my mind far too much to consider that. I know some feminists occasionally complain about make-up, but, hey, it's an advantage females have that males don't. Unless you can afford plastic surgery, a man is stuck with the face that he has, even on a Saturday night.

  14. Beautiful post Elisabeth. I can imagine you mentally rummaging through your jewellery boxes as you write this, slipping on a ring, jangling a bracelet, hanging a necklace or swinging a pair of earings, all the while comparing your treasure to what your mother wore. I wonder if as daughters we always, if subconsciously, hold up our sparkles to our mother's sparkles?

    Dog breeders speak of 'hybrid vigour' against pure blood lines. I suspect most humans, even the ones who consider themselves 'pure' are mongrel mixes – which is what keeps us healthy. And as for madness – the whole world's mad except for thee and me, and sometimes I wonder a bit about thee …

    Best wishes Isabel x

  15. I'm not sure I agree with your mother that you have to suffer to be beautiful, Elephant's Child. It borders on the masochistic, but I can imagine someone thinking that. As if it's not fair to be seen to be beautiful without coming to it through some sort of suffering. The logic of these things continues to defy me.

    Your earring display sounds lovely.

    Thanks, Elephant's Child.

  16. Jewellery is imbued with memories for many of us, Rosaria. In our family with all the girls, we often fall back to jewellery as the ideal present. Not expensive jewellery, mind you, but fun stiff.

    I wonder did your your husband buy expensive pieces for you? If so your expectations and disappointments may have been high indeed.

    Thanks, Rosaria.

  17. a mother in law at 18, Janice. It sounds as though you married young. As for the babies whose ears are pieced so early in the piece, I expect it's cultural or as you say religious.

    I know what you mean about the aftermath of piercing your ears. When infection sets in it can be devilish getting the holes to heal.

    Thanks, Janice.

  18. Despite here elegance in this photo, Molly, my mother did not always maintain her standards over the years, not when she had nine children to care for, but she always tried, especially with her lipstick. I cannot imagine my mother in jeans or t-shirt either.

    And certainly the nuns could wash away any aspiration towards vanity in a young girl with one simple frown, though many of my contemporaries rebelled. Not I, though.

    Thanks, Molly.

  19. Adornment may well be essential to survival, Elizabeth, as you suggest.

    Maybe it's about getting a response, rather like peacocks. Or is it more basic, like a baby who needs her cries to be heard or her smiles to be acknowledged? If we can at least attract a response, and the bigger the better, the more likely we are to get the help we need to survive.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  20. I think you may be right, Kass, this pull to adornment, this pull to the aesthetic, this effort to create something pleasurable even of our bodies and for others to admire, may well be a cellular impulse, and not purely one of vanity.

    Thanks, Kass.

  21. A touch of eccentricity as insulation from the the world for our poor brains. It sounds like a terrific, though perhaps somewhat eccentric, notion, Windsmoke. Though I'll buy it.


  22. The choosing and changing of earrings can be a hassle, River. I tend to restrict myself to the same pairs day after day. Like you perhaps I resent too much fuss in thinking about all the varieties possible.

    As for the idea of breast feeding while the infant has her ears pierced. It'd be enough to put a baby off breast feeding for life, though that's not true of course. Babies are amazingly resilient. It'd only be a problem if it happened regularly.

    Thanks, River.

  23. Clip on earrings can be such a hassle, Juliet. In my limited experience, they pinch.

    I'm glad you found the post poignant and that it brought you closer to your memories.

    Jewellery can be an evocative subject – for some pleasurable and for others not.

    Thanks, Juliet.

  24. What a tragedy, Karen, to lose your wedding and engagement rings and that precious reminder of your grandmother. No wonder you're into the cheaper versions. I am too.

    I could not bear to walk around sporting expensive jewellery. I have a friend who has a huge diamond ring that she wears with the stone pressed against her hand when she's on outings for fear she will get mugged.

    What's the point? She'd be better off in dress jewellery and leave the real thing locked in a safe, though at the same time what's the point of having such a beautiful thing and not being able to see it?

    And the contradiction for you with your 'bastard genealogy that does not allow you to wear cheap imitations easily. It can be a cruel world.

    Thanks, Karen.

  25. Interbreeding can give rise to damaged people, Ginger as you say. So we look to royalty for that. And I have heard that people in some mediterranean countries like to pierce the ears of their female babies at baptism, as a matter of course. And so it is in Brazil.

    Thanks, Ginger.

  26. The photo was probably taken by a professional, David- Glen. And yes, you're right i reckon, people these days do not often bother to pose for such beautiful shots.

    We just click away on our digital cameras and hope for the best.

    Thanks David-Glen.

  27. I suspect that body piercings, like tattoos, Philip, are an attempt at individuality or some such thing. Earrings are most likely more main stream. And as I said in an earlier comment if you'd tried those clip on things yourself you too might venture into pierced ears. The clip on ones can pinch.

    Thanks, Philip.

  28. I'm Australian, Kirk, though I often don't identify as such, rather like our feelings about being American. We are such hybrids and all of us as you say hark bak to the common roots pf a shared humanity.

    As for tattoos, I'm not into them. It seems to me they have a permanency about them unless they are well hidden that might become a problem in years to come. And yet my daughters tell me everyone is wearing them. Tattoos, that is. Body piercings seem to be less popular these days as far as I can see, but that's an anecdotal observation. People still go for pierced ears though.

    As for madness, I sometimes think much of it is in the eye of the beholder unless it's florid psychosis and that can come and go but is undeniable when it takes hold.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  29. You've been travelling through my recent blog posts, Syd, or so it seems.

    I'm glad you like the photo here, too, and can see the merit of those beautiful ear piercings, the ones connected to gorgeous earrings. Thanks, Syd.

  30. 'Hybrid vigour', is a good way to put it, Isabel. And a good argument for diversity. As for us women/girls comparing our baubles and sparkles to those of our mothers, I suppose it's inevitable to some degree. When we are little we tend to model ourslves on them, though not always.

    As for madness, is it the thee or the me, or maybe a little of both, of us as well as the others?

    Thanks, Isabel.

  31. Dear Elisabeth,
    lovely thoughts to ponder as always.
    I too love jewelry and particularly silver, but I luckily did not had to endure pain of piercing my ears – or at least I do not recall this, as in my country of origins it was a tradition to pierce the ears on baby girls, when they were only a few weeks old.;)
    Pain is a strange subject to discuss and I guess has vital role to play in our lives, if it is only to learn from it.
    I think your mother is a natural beauty, looking lovely without an ounce of make up on that image.;)

  32. and can you believe, elisabeth, that at 40 i went and got a monroe piercing, over the lip? and it was done wrongly and poorly and i turned green and hovered around throwing up or passing out. it was pain i could not endure and so i had to stop the procedure. it reminded me of the intense pain of childhood, except that perversely i had choice. some months later i went to a more notable shop and had it redone. the pain then was minimal.

    why did i do it? to adorn myself, to say, i am different, i am unique in the sea of all the others who have done the same thing. ha! but perhaps it was to tell myself that i am, at least in part, master of my body. yes, this is an element of it, too. plus i simply like the silver glint above my lip.

    i sell jewelry and i watch women time and time again believe they are transformed by putting a necklace around their neck. i think this is the crux of it, this (false) belief in power and transformation. we are but skin. your mother is right, just a smear of red which indicates both our life and death. what more are we? just our momentary glint.

    an interesting post that can continue on in countless directions.

    i remember, too, when i first pierced my ears. i sat on my friend's toilet and my hands shook as i pushed through a pin toward a bar of soap. i was maybe 12. there was, of course, no alcohol. apparently i have always been able to look pain directly in the face. this is interesting, isn't it? it has remained with me in character, although i did lose sight of it a bit in my marriage. i am glad to have it again.


  33. My mother would have taken it as a compliment to be considered Jewish, she always wanted to be a Jew. She was in love with their history, culture, and with so many individuals she knew in New York City.

    Alas, I can no longer wear earrings, as one of my lobes has a little cyst near the hole, and so it gets inflamed if I put an earring in. Ever since I was a little girl I loved dangly earrings. When little, I used 2 bobby pins joined and hung them on each ear.

    I wish you strength, patience, and serenity in these days, my friend.

  34. I can see that you too enjoy jewellery, Zuzanna from your profile image in which you wear such lovely earrings. So you are one of tose whose ears have been pierced from earliest days, with no memory of the pain.

    I don't suppose you have trouble with infections at the site. Babies are so quick to heal, their physical wounds at least.

    Thanks, Zuzanna.

  35. erin , thanks for your thoughts here. The sight of you green with the pain is one I can't quite get out of my mind now, nor that flash of silver above your lip. I understand the lips have many nerve endings and e highly susceptible to pain.

    I suspect you may be right about our ability to tolerate pain, and even to inflict it on ourselves as a wish for some sort of control and transformation, alongside the transformative power of wearing a piece of jewellery that sets us off, just like the red smear of my mother's lipstick.

    Thanks, erin.

  36. Davide, thanks for your kind words here.

    The course of this narration to me is somewhat unwieldy but hopefully it has a flow. I'm glad you at least thing so.


  37. Thanks for your good wishes, Ruth. Lord knows I need it. As for the image of you as a little girl with those two safety pins caught together and hanging from your earlobes, it's wonderful.

    I also know something about your mother's imagined pride were she Jewish, Ruth. I have often imagined it would be wonderful to share that cultural heritage.

    And Germaine Greer's comment in her book about her father, 'Daddy we hardly knew you' has always stayed with me.

    Greer writes about the way certain Australian girls of her generation wanted to be Jewish almost in an attempt to ameliorate their guilt over the holocaust. It's an interesting notion, and one to which I resonate.

    Thanks again, Ruth.

  38. Elisabeth: An older nun said to us, with a chuckle, "you must suffer to be beautiful." Maybe Elephant's Child's mum had it passed on to her in such a way. Perhaps it was more pertinent in those (my) days of cotton bras with little stretch, roll-ons, suspenders, sleeping in hair rollers and so on. Or earlier, with tight lacing and such.
    Perhaps dieting fits there. And of course the Brazilian waxes: now that must be real suffering.

  39. I was allowed to get mine done when I was fourteen; with the 'gun' at the hairdressers'. She 'shot' one a little off line so, like you, one of them gives me a bit of difficulty occasionally, especially if trying to slide in fine hoops or hooks.

    Sapphire begged to get hers done when she was eight and, wisely, the hairdresser gets an apprentice to do the other ear at the same time. Sapphire didn't cry; the thrill at seeing two tiny gold studs was far more interesting.

    My mother got hers done when she was fifty five and tired of wearing clip ons. I've been relieved ever since because it means I can give her earrings for birthdays and Christmas! LIke you, she prefers silver jewellery because, in her view, now that her hair is silver, it matches.

  40. I agree Frances, the history of women's fashion, and perhaps men's too, has its moments of extreme cruelty in the name of beauty. I think of Chinese foot binding and of corsets.

    As for the new technologies, the botox and liposuction, and nose jobs of today to name but a few, to me they're just as ghastly.

    Thanks, Frances.

  41. I reckon earrings are a terrific present, Kath, for folks with pierced ears. It's always harder to find those clip ons.

    To me the clip ons are like a manual car as opposed to the automatic: better in many ways but so much more tedious.

    You post is testimony to how much longer it took us to do things than todays generation, your mother at fifty five, you at fourteen and Sapphire at eight. Sapphire's children might cop the earrings at birth or the cycle might revert again.

    Thanks, Kath.

  42. Your philosophy Laoch, appears to be the reverse of others, here. But most of the comments are from women who are perhaps more inured to the idea of pain, though hopefully not to much for its own sake.

    Thanks, Laoch.

  43. I love this piece, Elisabeth. The looping narrative of yours and your mother. She IS beautiful – as are you. I never thought to compare the pain from ear piercing to childbirth, but you're right. In the best cases it's painful but quick. The ending came too soon – I really could read you for 300 pages.

  44. Your mother is beautiful. She does not need adornment to make her attractive. Ah Elizabeth, I am so sorry to hear about your brother-in-law. I offer you my condolences. May your family find comfort in the sweet memories. So glad to see you again.

  45. Thanks for your kind words here, India. It still amazes me the number of connections we can make between seemingly disparate things or events, like ear piercing and childbirth, but once we do they become evident.

  46. I am sorry for your loss, too, Ces. We should not make comparisons. It was hard to lose my brother in law, but I cannot imagine losing any of my sisters. The grief would be almost too much. Thanks Ces. It's good to see you here again, too.

  47. Racism is alive and well in the world, Dave. It always was thus and probably will always be. I suspect it has something to do with our fear of difference and also the idea that certain groups might be better off or worse off than us, which predisposes a certain superior/inferior attitude that's not helpful and can be downright dangerous.

    Thanks, Dave.

  48. This was very beautifully written, Elizabeth. And your mother sure is lovely.

    I've never had my ears pierced and probably never will. I used to tell myself that it's because my hair is long and would hide the earrings, anyway. Now I know I just don't have the interest in wearing them. I prefer other jewellery .. plus my hair is still long. 😉

  49. I wear huge earrings when I can, Hilary, simply because I enjoy them and also because my hair, which is relatively long and quite bushy would otherwise conceal them.

    The good thing about not wearing earrings, like you, is that you can make a big deal of your neck adornments.

    Thanks, Hilary.

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