The little robin on the windowsill announces the new day with an urgent chirping. Alexis opens her eyes slowly to give them time to adjust to the light. Beyond the little bird, the sun is streaming brightly through the trees, and the little bees and butterflies are doing their rounds from flower to flower. It’s a beautiful day – perfect for Alexis’ 17th birthday.
With a bit of nostalgia, Alexis remembers her last birthday when she received a precious heirloom from her grandma – a pearl necklace – accompanied by a letter telling the fascinating story of her ancestor and the first owner of the pearls, her namesake, Alexys.
Alexis can’t help but wonder how any birthday would be able to top her 16th.
There’s a soft knock on the door, and her mom’s smiling face – hardly visible behind the loaded breakfast tray – appears through the doorway. She has a twinkle in her eye as she gives an envelope to Alexis. The handwriting is unmistakable. Another letter from Grandma?
My dear Alexis,
Last year’s story was only the beginning. Throughout the centuries, our family has been blessed with remarkable women, and I can’t help but think that the string of pearls has something to do with it. Today, I want to tell you about your ancestor, Cassima.
Cassima was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, where the family had resided since the days of Alexys. Cassima was an intelligent girl. She was the oldest of her six siblings and used to tell them stories and explain to them how things worked, even surprising her parents with her knowledge. On market days in town, the village children liked to hang around her and pepper her with all kinds of questions. It became almost like a tradition.
On one such day, she was telling the children about the stars. A tourist from Rome overheard the conversation, and as always, Cassima’s knowledge impressed. The tourist, a young woman in her twenties, approached Cassima when she took a break from the constant questioning. She introduced herself as Drusilla, a young mother of two little children. She told Cassima that she wanted to give them the best education possible, but being quite busy herself, she was wondering whether Cassima would be interested in becoming their tutor.
At first, Cassima was eager to accept, but to become their teacher, she would have to move to Rome. Cassima had an adventurous spirit, and she had always wanted to explore the world beyond Thessaloniki, but, to pack up and leave her family for good? She asked Drusilla to give her a few days to decide.
The next day was Cassima’s 16th birthday. According to tradition, her grandmother entrusted her with the pearl heirloom necklace. Cassima’s grandmother was wise, and Cassima could always discuss difficult decisions with her. She told her grandma about Drusilla’s offer and her fears of leaving her family. She wondered whether leaving her little brothers and sisters to feed her own adventurous spirit was selfish. Her grandma told her to do what she felt in her heart was the right thing to do for her – her family was strong and they could look after themselves. Drucilla’s children may need her help more than what her own family did. Her grandmother told her to take strength from the pearl necklace and let it guide her.
Later that week, Cassima departed for Rome. She enjoyed working for Drucilla, who was kind and generous, and they soon became fast friends. The little children were a joy to look after, and Cassima was always patient when answering their thousands of questions.
Drucilla had a younger brother, Nerva, who was an exploratore, or scout, in Julius Caesar’s army. While he was on leave, he assisted his father in the family shipping business. In the short periods that he was home, Nerva and Cassima enjoyed each other’s company. Nerva proposed to Cassima a few years later.
One of the best exploratores at the time, Nerva did very well. He bought a plot of land with an olive orchard for Cassima as a wedding gift to remind her of home. Cassima and Nerva’s children were practically raised under the olive trees, and she became known as the ‘olive goddess’ as she produced and cured the best olives in the area.
A while later, Drucilla and Nerva’s father died. They inherited their father’s shipping business, but since Drucilla was ill and Nerva was away at war most of the time, the responsibility of running the shipping business fell on Cassima.
With so many things to juggle, Cassima struggled to keep the business afloat at first. But as time went by and she became more experienced, she transitioned into an excellent business woman. She expanded their shipping routes to new territories and even secured a lucrative contract with the army to ship their rations and equipment to military bases throughout the Roman Empire.
People often asked Cassima why she was so successful. Without hesitation, Cassima credited her string of pearls as giving her strength and being her guiding light. She said that the coolness of the pearls against her heart helped her to calm down, and thinking about her strong-minded grandmother and her ancestors gave her courage to confront any challenge thrown her way.
I hope that, as you enter adulthood, your heirloom pearls will be your guiding light and bring you success in whatever you approach.
The coolness of pearls is said to calm nerves – Dowager Cixi, the famous Chinese Empress, used to hold pearls in her hands to calm her down when making difficult decisions.
Get in touch if you want to find out more about pearls or visit our shop if you want to start your own heirloom pearl tradition.
(Read Chapter 1 here.)