When I was a teenager, still navigating the alien world of a Catholic high school, in between devout, frozen November masses and rebellious summer afternoons spent skipping P.E. lessons to lay on short, discolored grass banks, I asked my friend a question.
She was much more religious than I had ever been. Her family went to church every Sunday. She could receive communion. She knew the Lord’s Prayer before we were made to recite it every morning.
“Why do you wear a cross around your neck every day?”
I still remember her answer. I knew nothing about what it meant to be faithful at the time, but I’ve heard these same words repeated across different denominations, different religions, to explain all different shapes and sizes of vestures.
“I wear it because it’s a constant reminder of my faith. Sometimes when I’m just getting through the day, I forget, but at some point or another I feel the necklace around my neck and I’m reminded of how I’m supposed to be living, of where I belong, of what is most important in my life.”
I’m still not religious in the same way that most of the girls at my high school were. It means something very different to me. But sometimes I wear a little amber cross that I found at the bottom of a Polish salt mine, and whenever I hang the colorful, wooden rosary beads that somebody once brought me back from Lourdes above my bed, I understand.
Perhaps I don’t practice these little rituals every day because religion is not the most important thing in my life. I don’t wear a cross every day because the curves of my collarbone are occupied by a very different kind of reminder.
It is one shared by three different generations of my family. Four silver chains shared between three different houses, two different cities. Simple, small. Just below the notch of my neck, one gold, and one silver circle permanently linked together like a Chinese puzzle.
They were all bought by my grandmother, a Scottish woman with a big heart who shares my need to feel connected to the past and present histories of our shared blood. One for herself, one worn by me, one by my mother and another by my aunt.
My parents were very young when I was born. I left the hospital to be brought up in a beautiful Roman city no one really felt the need to leave. Because of this, I was raised, not just by a wonderful mother and father, but by the collective efforts of a very loving family. Aunties felt like big sisters and a big family felt like the only thing in the world that I needed.
We never stopped being so close, but at some point, things stopped being so easy. Moving away for university, only to be blindsided by bouts of depression and constant anxiety can wreak havoc with your emotions, and any relationship becomes a lot more difficult. Your once clear cut path turns into a sidewalk of eggshells.
There have been arguments. Small ones, big ones. Arguments that I have regretted as soon as the words fell out of my mouth and ones that I felt we could never return from. But we always did.
If I was to sum up my family’s philosophy in just a few words, it would be one of never giving up on each other. There are always second chances. Family is always there. Family is often the only thing that is always there. Through the good and bad. Through the happy and depressed. The successes and the failures. The riches and the debts.
I was not like the girls I spent lunchtime breaks with in high school. Religion is not the most important thing in my life, family is. I am reminded of this when I feel those little silver and gold circles around my neck. That no matter how far away we are, no matter how different our circumstances, we will always be linked by one thing.
There’s rarely a weekend at home we don’t see each other. The matriarchs, the mothers, the daughters. We might be arguing, we might be laughing, we might be going out or we might just be going to the supermarket, but every now and again, we sit around the table wearing the same sparkling chains. We are together.
There are days when we are not together, and a deadly cocktail of anxiety and depression play games with my mind. I am convinced I will never go home. I am convinced I will never be welcomed back. I am convinced that I am hated and that everyone is better off without me.
But, eventually, I lie down, and I feel the cold metal of our shared necklace pressed against my cheek. I remember what notorious liars these illnesses are. Like my friend who wore her cross, I am reminded of how I am supposed to be living, of where I belong, of what is most important in my life. I am reminded that my family is never more than an arm’s reach away, that I am loved, and that we share an unbreakable link that I carry with me every day.