Aside from a few patches of white where the color has scratched off, the brooch is in good condition—a tiny painting on ivory, set in a gold mount. No jewels. It has been well cared for. The image is of a young man in black clothes leaning against a pedestal topped with an urn. Hair-thin lines make up his cravat, his face, the blades of grass at his feet, and the serifs of the pedestal’s inscription: Sacred be thy memory. He leans on his right elbow, his head resting on his hand; his left arm hangs by his side, holding an open book. Over the tomb, there’s a hint of tree branches, behind them blue sky. Around the edge of the pin, there are gold letters: Rebecca Wilkinson * nat * 7 May 1771 * OB: 23 JAN * 1793.
January 23—that’s my mother’s birthday, and the pin belonged to her. What was a sad day for young Rebecca’s family in 1793 was presumably a happy one for my grandparents in 1942. My mother, named Margaret Ridley after her mother and called “Ridley,” was their first child, born premature and apparently not pretty, both facts my grandmother would mention in a letter she wrote to her in-laws shortly after the birth. In this letter, she instructs them not to make excuses to people about why she’s had a baby in January when she was only just married in June. They are not to tell anybody she fell off a ladder or slipped in the tub. My grandmother knows the truth—her baby was born early—and, anyway, it’s nobody’s business. I doubt anybody said a word. She was only twenty-four, but people already knew better than to mess with her.
Julia Ridley Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in American Literary Review, Arts and Letters, Carolina Quarterly, Chelsea, Greensboro Review, Southern Cultures, and storySouth, among others; new fiction is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review. An associate editor at Bull City Press, she teaches fiction writing at UNC Greensboro.