Alexis slammed the door in her best friend’s face, who was still talking, and dove onto her bed. “I’ll be down later!” she yelled. She loves Maia, but Maia is a talker. Alexis needed silence to read grandma’s next letter.
Since her 16th birthday, Alexis has cared more and more about these letters and less and less about parties. Her friends don’t get it, but she doesn’t care. All she cares about is reading the next letter. She sighs with pleasure as she opens the envelope, inhaling that now-familiar scent as it rises from the old pages.
I hope your 20th birthday is one that will inspire you to make brave choices – just like those our ancestors made.
The eldest of Charlie and Tyan’s great-grandchildren was Wei, a daughter. She was the direct female descendant of her great-grandmother Charlie and she had inherited not only Charlie’s spirit of adventure, but also her bravery.
Wei had become well-known in the region as the intended heiress of the family’s extremely successful silk farm. But, being wealthy in the time after the Han Dynasty ended, also meant you were a target. Her father was pressuring her into an arranged marriage and there was tension in the house; Wei’s brother Tang believed he should inherit the farm, not Wei. It went against custom, he said, for a daughter to inherit.
An urgent whisper from a cousin at a recent family gathering confirmed her worst suspicion. “Wei,” the cousin said, “the people say you won’t survive if you take over the business. Your brother wants blood. He has rallied the farm workers against you.”
So with her pearls sewn into a silk pocket on the inside of her dress, reinforced with hemp so that it wouldn’t tear, Wei set out on a stolen mare, Tallulah, in the dark of the night. Next to the pearls, sewn between the hemp and the silk, was a patch bearing a few hundred silkworm eggs.
Wei took a massive risk. The penalty for smuggling silkworms or their eggs out of China was death, but she had conceived of this plan in the year she turned 16 when her mother entrusted her with her grandmother’s string of heirloom pearls. The weight of the pearls and the memory of the morning that her mother put them in her hands, and told her the stories of the women who came before her, strengthened her spirit.
When she reached the port, she kissed Tallulah goodbye, selling her to a kind-looking horse trader, and she used the money to pay her passage to Japan. The time had come to meet up with the man who visited the farm in the year she turned sixteen: Akira.
Akira showed up on the farm shortly after Wei’s birthday, looking for the secret to making silk. She eavesdropped as her mother scolded him: “Go! Do you want us all to die? I don’t know what you’re talking about – we don’t know how to make silk!”
Wei knew it was her only chance. She slipped out of the farm gates and ran after him.
“I’ll bring you the secret,” she said. “But I’ll need shelter in return.”
“How do I know you’ll come?” he asked.
“I have no future here. My father intends me to marry someone I don’t know, who knows nothing about silk. And my brother wants to kill me.”
Akira still looked doubtful. “I’ll give you a clue,” Wei said, desperate to prove her reliability. “The secret is very small. And it will come in the winter, when the trees are bare.”
Akira nodded, still doubtful, and gave her an address – a marketplace. “If you make it, this is where I’ll be. I am a trader looking to learn more. I won’t stop until I find it.”
And here she was, in front of his tiny stall. He didn’t recognize her when she spoke. “I’m here,” she said. He frowned. Wei watched the confusion in his face change to astonishment, and then to respect. He smiled. Then his smile split into a big, wide laugh. “You made it!”
Wei fingered the pearls pressing against her side. Of course I made it, she thought. With these pearls by my side, how could I not?
We hope that this story inspired you. If you don’t have heirloom pearl jewelry to give to your daughters or granddaughters yet, visit our shop to start your own heirloom pearl tradition. Your girls can have something to take strength from, and that reminds them of how you overcame your struggles.