When the first hole was punched, Cathryn looked as surprised and indignant as if I had pinched her unexpectedly. Before the pain could really sink in, the woman with the gun quickly and efficiently pierced the other ear, and then it was done. There was one gleaming gold stud in each ear. Cathryn held the hand mirror, pulling her hair back into a ponytail to better see each side. This small, deliberate gesture made her look older somehow, instantly more mature. At home, I stressed that the new piercings were a privilege and a re-sponsibility and that having them meant she was old enough to care for them herself. She needed to clean them with alcohol and she would have to put athletic tape over each earring when she played soccer, according to school rules. "You'll need to be responsible so they don't get infected," I said. "And that means cleaning up after yourself." Two days after Cathryn's ears were pierced, one of my then fouryear-olds, Nora, came stumbling down the stairs in a panic. "Claire threw up!" she screeched. "She drank some yucky water." Instantly, I knew. As I sprang up the steps, two at a time, I understood that Cathryn had left the rubbing alcohol out and the twins, ever curious, had investigated. Sure enough, Claire was in the bathroom looking miserable and Nora began to chatter about how she had gone to take a sip herself but had known something was wrong. "I warned you!" I turned on Cathryn with wild eyes as I dialed the number for poison control. Her carelessness could have resulted in her sister's hospitalization. It was a teaching moment and the remorse was instant; her eyes filled with tears. For one oddly triumphant, hollow second, all of my nagging, chiding, and warnings seemed to be vindicated. We laugh about it now, the "yucky water," but Cathryn learned a double sense of responsibility that day through the simple act of piercing her ears. Not only was she in charge of herself, but her actions had consequences. She grew up more right then from what happened on the inside than the little gold studs on the outside could ever indicate. Not long ago, I found myself on my bed with my three daughters and my jewelry box. It wasn't at all the box of treasure it had once been. I was missing the detailed history of myself prior to age thirty- four. But as I pulled out costume relics from the 1980s and '90s that had survived in a junk jewelry bathroom drawer, my girls had saucer eyes. There was the bolero leather tie with the clasp made from a cactus postage stamp that had seemed like such a good idea on a business trip to New Mexico. I pulled out strands of big chunky fake gold chains, tarnished and heavy enough to have served as manacles. I gave my daughters my garnet beads and bracelets of green malachite from street vendors in the West Village of Manhattan. The twins oohed and aahed as I offered them the cheap cloisonné bracelets that had survived after Bob's and my first year of marriage in China. I shed these pieces in part so that they could begin their own grown- up jewelry box, their own collection and catalog of themselves. Sooner, much sooner than I wanted to imagine, my little twins would be piercing their ears and joining the cycles of the moon and moving slowly, inexorably toward an independence that would place me in an outer circle, like one of Saturn's rings.
They would make their own choices about lovers and clothing, where to draw the line, and what jewelry to wear. Their bodies would be their own property, and with that would come decisions about tattoos and other piercings, who to let in, who to keep out. Someday soon they themselves would choose what they ate, what vitamins they took, and whether or not they wanted to be parents. And no matter what they chose, and whether or not I agreed with it, I would love them regardless and in spite of themselves.