A Column About Something Lost. And Found.


Chicago Free Press Masthead

Common Life
By Jennifer Vanasco

This is a Christmas story.

And it is true.

When my mother turned 16 on a cold day in January, her father gave her a
pendant, a large, smoky topaz in the shape of a heart. It was the size of a quarter
and the color of river water: greenish, brownish, sparkling, lively. My mother wore it
every day of my childhood.

I loved the topaz heart. I knew its weight and warmth, measured my growing palms
by the way the pendant shrank to fit them. When my mother bent down to hug me,
it would graze my cheek. The heart encapsulated all that was glowing and warm
and solid about my mother and about my grandfather. When my mother bent down
to hug me, it would graze my cheek.

My mother wore it every day because her father had given it to her and he was the
rock of our family. He was a good man. Generous. Kind. Honest. Expansive with
his love. When he died, joy fled for a long time.

My mother loved the heart and I did, too. I didn’t know my mother knew this, but
she must have. One year on my birthday, right before Christmas, she gave it to

I loved it so much I was afraid to wear it. “Necklaces are for wearing,” my mother
said. So I did. It felt like family love around my neck.

I held the heart in my hand during the entire flight home from New York to
Chicago. I vowed to wear it like my mother did, never taking it off.

A few days later, it was Christmas Eve. Jen, my then-partner, and I needed to run
some errands. We wanted our first Christmas alone together to be perfect and
there were things we needed to get. Peppermint ice cream from Baskin Robbins.
Egg Nog from 7-11. And something—I forget what now—from White Hen.

As we were getting ready to leave, I took a last look in the mirror. I held the heart in
my palm and tucked it under my scarf. I remember thinking how silly it was to wear
a jewel like this to run out to a convenience store. I almost took it off.

But of course I didn’t, or there wouldn’t be a story.
We drove to all three stores, clapping our hands to ward off the cold, delighting in
the new, Christmas Eve snow that was swirling past our headlights. We found, I
remember, none of the things that we needed. But it didn’t matter. We were home
again and cuddled on the couch, reveling in candlelight and Christmas carols.

Jen kissed me and then pulled back. “Love, your chain is open,” she said. “Do you
have your heart?”

My own thumping heart stopped. I felt at my throat.

It was gone.

We turned over the couch cushions, we walked with a flashlight slowly up and
down the walk to the car, shuffling our feet, now cursing the snow.

We retraced our steps. White Hen, 7-11, Baskin Robbins. We asked the
proprietors. No one had seen anything. I imagined what could have happened to it.
Perhaps a child picked it up and slipped it into her pocket, or kicked it merrily down
the street. Or maybe some lovelorn teenager saw it as the chance to tell his
boyfriend he loved him.

Jen and I went home and made signs offering a reward. Then we went back again
and put them up. Bells rang out from the local churches. Jen checked her watch.
“It’s Christmas,” she said.

When we lose something that’s beloved to us, it reminds us of all our other losses,
past and future. I grieved my grandfather again. I wondered how much more grief I
would feel when my own mother died. I saw my future regret at not having her
heart to remember her by. I thought of everything I could have done differently to
prevent this from happening; I raged at myself. In that moment, it seemed like my
life would be divided between the time when the heart existed and the time when it
was lost. I thought I would always feel the pain of it, like a slight headache behind
my eyes.

I started to cry.

“It will be OK,” Jen said. “I just don’t feel like your heart has left our life.”

When we opened the door to our apartment, the phone rang. We ran to it; was
someone claiming the reward already?

It was my mother, calling from New York. “I just got out of the midnight service,”
she said. “It’s snowing and it’s so beautiful. I just wanted to call and tell you I loved

And I was reminded that objects are just objects. What fills our real hearts are the
people who love us, who sift through the parking lots of convenience stores in the
snow at midnight on Christmas Eve; who call in the crisp air outside a church to tell
us they were thinking of us and we are loved.

On Christmas Day, the sun made the snow glitter. I walked to the 7-11. Someone
had cleared the parking lot overnight and I looked in despair at the piles of plowed

The sign was still up on the door.
I looked at it sadly.

A man pushing through the door moved around me. He snapped open a new pack
of cigarettes and nodded in my direction. He walked to his car.

Then he bent down.

“Hey,” he said. “That sign yours?”

I nodded.

He came over to me. “This must be yours, then.”

He held out his palm. My heart sat in the middle of it, glittering. The gold rim was
missing. It was slightly scratched. But it was whole.

Sometimes, we think that we have lost that piece at the very center of ourselves.
We feel the loss like a cold wind blowing through us and know that our heart is

Beloved objects—and beloved people—don’t always come back. But sometimes
they do. Once in a while, they do.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning syndicated columnist based in Chicago.