When I travel, I never pack anything of great value. If it wouldn’t look right at home in the aisles of Target — or, if I’m honest, on a collapsible card table at a garage sale — it’s probably not going in my bag. Even the bag itself is just a battered old suitcase held together with duct tape and hope. After all, who’s going to steal that off the luggage carousel?
But, there is one very precious item that I’ve taken with me everywhere for years — a delicate sliver of a silver charm. I’ve no idea what it cost, but it was worth more to me than almost anything else I’ve ever owned.
On one side, it bears my name. “Amy,” that is. “Laughinghouse,” as you might imagine, would be bit unwieldy. The other side is embossed with three hieroglyphics which supposedly signify my name’s meaning, but which I suspect were actually chosen because they resemble the letters themselves. It’s elegant, unusual, and most importantly to me, a gift from my sister, Kimberly.
She passed away nearly five years ago, but wearing that pendant, hooked around my neck on a slender chain, I felt that Kim was there, seeing the world with me. I could imagine her wicked cackle of a laugh, the expressive arc of her eyebrows, which communicated her thoughts like semaphores, and the hilarious stories that she could have woven from even the most commonplace event.
So, when I happened to notice the chain dangling, unhooked and bereft of this tiny treasure while on a jaunt around the tangled maze of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic quarter last autumn, I felt the weight of a loss much greater than the actual mass of that feather-light talisman.
We didn’t travel much as kids. Back in those days, flights were too expensive for a middle-class family of four. Our mom and dad were only able to take us as far as four wheels could carry us. That meant long drives to the beach and yearly visits my grandparents 14 hours away, sometimes with three highly vocal Siamese cats in tow.
Their yowling, however, was nothing compared to the arguments that erupted from the back seat. “Kim’s on MY side of the car!” “Amy’s touching me!” How my father resisted the urge to direct our powder blue station wagon right over the side of a cliff, I’ll never know, although it probably had a lot to do with the geographical dearth of cliffs on America’s Eastern seaboard.
I think it was the necessarily limited scope of our adventures that birthed the travel bug in both my sister and me. We knew there was a big world beyond Panama City (Florida, that is), and we wanted to see it.
Every time I fastened that oblong ornament around my neck, I knew there was some risk I might lose it. But, what was the alternative? To leave it lying in a box like a lonely relic? No. I think Kim would have loved to go many of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit (though she might have raised those dark eyebrows at a few), and I was determined to bring her with me however I could.
I wandered the streets of Barcelona that afternoon, eyes glued to the pavement, my heart leaping at the sight of every silver gum wrapper. Still, I knew it would be a miracle if I found the charm.
I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean there might not be a happy ending to this story after all.
Maybe that adventurous part of Kim’s spirit, which the pendant symbolized in my mind, was as inexorably attracted by the warmth and energy of Barcelona as I am. Maybe, as I stood in some lively old square, where laughter and chatter wafted from the buzzing cafes, she slipped quietly away, dropping her kid sister’s hand to explore for a while on her own.
At Christmas last year, on what would have been Kim’s 47th birthday, I opened a small white box from my mother. There, glinting on a bed of snowy cotton, was an almost identical pendant. This one is perhaps doubly precious, because it was a gift from my sister to our mother, engraved with my mother’s name — and she was entrusting it to me.
As the next chapter of my travels begins, I’ll wear this necklace now for both of them.
Am I afraid I might lose it? Absolutely. But at least if I do, I’ve realized that I don’t need a symbol over my heart to carry the people I cherish with me, wherever I go.