When I was little, I loved to look through my Grandmother’s jewelry box. It was an ornate wooden confection, adorned with velvet lining and cunning little drawers with tiny knobs, and on the top there was a hidden compartment that never ceased to amaze me. In that hidden compartment, my grandmother kept my favorite of her jewelry pieces, because they were the ones that had the stories. Whenever I visited for an afternoon, or stayed overnight, we observed the ritual of the jewelry box. Each piece was taken out of its tiny cubicle, caressed, and held up to the light, and then my grandmother would tell each piece’s story.
Some of the stories were short: your great aunt wore this on her blouses – this about a heavily shellacked Dachshund pin that felt smooth and almost soft to the touch. Some of them had been her mother’s or were favorite finds at the local flea market where she shopped religiously. My favorite, though, was the cornicello.
The first time I can remember seeing it in the box, I thought it looked like a chili pepper. I didn’t understand why my grandmother had it, but the box was full of bizarre and mystical treasures, so I assumed it was an acquisition from some adventure in a far off land. One of my collection of great aunts and great uncles, all with improbably long and flowery Italian names, had been a world traveler.
It took a few rotations of the jewelry box ritual before I asked about the cornicello. I remember plucking it out of the box, feeling its surprising heft and coolness against my palm.
“Ah, yes,” my grandmother said. “That’s our little Italian horn, our cornicello.”
I must have looked perplexed, because she continued. “That was your great-grandmother’s. She wore it when she came on the boat from Italy. It’s to protect you from the mal’occhio – the evil eye. Very good for sea voyages, and for moving to new places.”
She closed my hand around the charm. “Someday it’ll protect you, too.”
I don’t consider myself a superstitious person, but when I went away to college, the cornicello went with me. When I flew on an airplane for the first time, the cornicello came too. When I visited Italy, the cornicello returned to its homeland, if only for a few weeks. Now, I as I walk up the stairs to the tango studio, someone asks me, “What’s that around your neck?”
I smile, and touch it, and think of my grandmother. “The cornicello,” I reply. “My little Italian horn.”