Stories from Your Jewelry Box

The power of heirlooms.

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Fish through your treasure trove for hand-me-down pieces. You might not find anything that would score a payday on Antiques Roadshow, but your grandmother's locket or father's ring are still precious. "They're physical reminders of your family's stories," says Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., director of the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University. Her research suggests that people who connect with their heritage may be more self-confident and resilient, and the seven women on this page agree. Find out how their cherished heirlooms link them to the past and brighten their future.

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"She left me a legacy."

I've always felt connected to my grandmother Hazel, though she died before I was born. So her locket is very special to me. She was a strong woman. Her father was black and her mother was white, and they were ostracized by some family members. Hazel was the first woman in our family to graduate from college, in 1917. At the time, that was unheard of! But it started a pattern: My mother went to college, and I went to law school. I was inspired to take some bold steps that maybe I wouldn't have otherwise.

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Throughout my life, that's anchored me. In ninth grade, for example, I was one of four black kids who integrated a school on the east side of Detroit. At that age, the only thing you want is to be accepted, and nobody would talk to me. It was the worst year of my life. I remember coming home after two weeks, in tears, and asking my parents, "Why are you making me do this?" And my dad said, "Because somebody has to."

That's been in my head anytime I've taken a risk since. I have a family legacy of people, like my grandmother, who did what they needed to do. The locket lets me carry that determination with me. —Karen Batchelor, 64, Detroit

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"It helps me hold my dad close."

This ring is my good luck charm—every time I wear it, I swear something unusually fortunate happens! My father bought it after he moved here from Ecuador, saving up money from his first job. He'd let me try it on sometimes when I was little. My mom worked an evening shift, so it was my dad who took me to music classes, ballet classes, the park. He was a huge part of my life. When he passed away suddenly from a heart attack five years ago, I was beyond devastated. Today, my mother lets me borrow this ring anytime I want to feel closer to him—especially on important days, like when I'm presenting a huge project at work. It always reminds me of how much my father loved his family. No other piece of jewelry could mean more to me than that. —Maria Azua, 23, West New York, NJ

Take Two

My grandmother left my mother a fantastic ring—a dome of green chrysoberyl cabochons, with a diamond in the center. But it's important to know that my grandmother was someone no one particularly liked. My mother, on the other hand, is wonderful, and she wore the ring before passing it along to me. So I decided to think of her when I wear it. The ring is objectively stunning. And now it's been emotionally laundered. —Sloane Crosley, 37, author of The Clasp

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"I needed my mother back."

In 2010, during a big decluttering, I asked a local jewelry designer to come over to see if she wanted to buy some pieces I never wore. We came across my mother's wedding ring in an old jewel box. It was the only thing I had left of hers: She died when I was 15 after being bedridden for years, and after that, nobody really talked about her—not my siblings or my father, who remarried. It wasn't until decades later, after my father died, that I learned she'd actually committed suicide. Shame had erased her from our lives. So when the designer and I found this ring, I said, "I wish there were a way that I could wear this," and she said, "Let me try something." Weeks later, she came back with this beautiful pendant. I just couldn't stop crying; it was like my mom was there again. I wear it daily now. When my daughter got married, she pinned it inside her dress. My son's bride wore it in her hair; she said she could feel my mother's presence. It's like my mother has been brought back to me. —Debra Uyesaka, 62, Santa Barbara, CA

"I'm awed by her strength."

My grandmother was a nurse, so it was important that she have a watch on her at all times. But she'd been born in Mississippi in 1905, and in her day, it was considered "improper" for women to wear wristwatches. Plus, she was already self-conscious about being 6 feet tall. She got made fun of all the time, so I guess she didn't want to draw any more attention to herself! That's why she got this watch necklace. When my parents asked about a year ago if I wanted any family jewelry, I knew this was the piece. The watch reminds me that my grandmother had to go through things that I've never had to, and she found a way to endure it all so gracefully. Years later, when I grew into her tallest grandchild, she taught me to be proud, keep my chin up, and never to slump. She was a pretty cool lady! —Katy Mitchell, 36, Savannah, GA

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Always with Me

Coming from a large clan in the Dominican Republic, I only received one piece of the legacy jewelry in la familia, a medal of La Virgencita de la Altagracia, the country's patron saint and my name saint. She came with me when my family fled the dictatorship for Nueva York, pinned to my undershirt. Together, we learned English, got into college, wrote my books, and found my true love. Now I'm at that stage of life when I'm thinking of who will get my own jewelry. But there is one piece I'm going to be taking along on my last big life change. —Julia Altagracia Alvarez, 65, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

There in Spirit

My daughter, Daisy, was thrilled at age 8 when Grandma gave her a diamond-and-sapphire flower pendant that had been an anniversary gift from my dad. I was less enthused. Daisy could hardly keep track of her left shoe, let alone a valuable heirloom. I let her wear it whenever she wanted, though (I figured anyone who saw it would think it was a gumball-machine fake), as long as it ended up in my jewelry box at the end of the day.

Amazingly, she never lost it.

Daisy is 12 now, and my parents are in their late eighties. For the past few years their entire focus has been on staying healthy enough to make it to their granddaughter's bat mitzvah. They live half a continent away from us, though, and it's become apparent that they can't make the trip. I won't pretend this has been easy. But on the day in our culture that my daughter takes the symbolic first steps from childhood into womanhood, she will do so with that sapphire-and-diamond flower sparkling around her neck. In that way, truly, my parents will be there, watching as their granddaughter blossoms. —Peggy Orenstein, 53, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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