The Story of the Red, White, and Blue Sailboat Clip-On Earrings


I knew that my mother wanted a pair of red, white, and blue sailboat clip-on earrings to wear on the Fourth of July, so my boyfriend and I decided to make it our mission to find them that day. It was June of 1991, and we were visiting from Germany, where I had been living for nearly two years. Having no car, we relied on buses to get us to and from my parents’ house in Palm Harbor, Florida. There was a bus stop on the main road within walking distance, and we set out on our quest early that day.

First, we decided to go to the Countryside Mall, which was about 10 miles to the south. It was a huge mall with an indoor skating rink and it housed several of the big department stores like Sears and JCPenney. We visited every single store that sold ladies’ jewelry, from the big chains to the novelty shops that littered the indoor walkways. It was next to impossible to find anything that was clip on, much less anything resembling red, white, and blue sailboats. There were red sailboat earrings with perky white polka dots, dangling sailboat earrings carved from driftwood, and blue sailboat earrings with yellow plastic sails -- all for pierced ears. My mother did have pierced ears as a young woman, but one of her earrings had gotten caught on a sweater, causing a small tear in her earlobe. Since then, she had only worn clip-on earrings. 

We decided to keep searching, and try our luck at the struggling competition to the south, the Clearwater Mall. It was a straight shot by bus, and they had a Dillard’s as well as a Montgomery Ward department store. Once there, we combed through every single store but once again came up empty-handed. We truly believed we had seen it all, but little did we know that the best was yet to come.

By 4 o’clock, hungry and discouraged, we decided to go back to my parent's house. By this time, we were tired of buses and we thought that it might be nice to walk at least part of the way, even though there were no sidewalks along the busy four-lane boulevard. The fresh air, however humid, was somehow invigorating.

The weather had changed while we were inside, and the sky was now heavy with dark, low clouds. We were naive to the fact that the Florida summers meant late afternoon thunderstorms that arrived like clockwork. There was a bright flash of light immediately followed by a booming thunderclap, and with that, it began to pour. The rain pelted our bodies with warm water, but we were more concerned about our safety than getting soaked. We spotted a small strip mall on the same side of the boulevard where we had been walking, and we opted to take shelter under the awning of a store next door to a luggage repair shop. 

While we were trying to figure out what to do next, wondering if we should break down and call my parents for a ride, I looked behind me and could see into the window of the shop we were standing in front of. It was a beauty salon, and you could see the rows of hooded hair dryers, and the pink Formica counter by the window. It was dark, but you could still make out a lot of detail. There was a rotating wire carousel on the counter right next to the cash register. The carousel was filled with jewelry items, earrings mostly. It was no more that a couple of feet from my face, and in the middle, there was a huge, glorious pair of red, white, and blue sailboat earrings. They were unique, with gold stars and crisp white sails made from fabric, not plastic. On the display card, the words I had longed to see all day were clearly written -- “Clip-On.”  I began to laugh, because there they were at last -- but the store was closed. For a split second, I imagined smashing the window with my fist and reaching in to grab them. Needless to say, we went back to grab them properly first thing the next day.

My mother was thrilled when she opened the gold foil gift box that the beauty salon had so kindly decorated with a coiled silvery bow. From that day on, she would proudly wear the red, white, and blue sailboat clip-on earrings each Fourth of July, along with her red, white, and blue pants suit and a matching silk scarf that looked like an American flag, tied around her neck.

I moved back to the States two years later with my boyfriend, and we eventually married. I had not known him very well before the summer of 1991, but our relationship deepened during that visit to Florida, and now we are parents ourselves. Every once in a while, when late night conversation turns from conventional patter to the more odd and unexplainable paradoxes of life, I will tell this story. After so many years, it has taken on the quality of a dream. I felt connected to something greater than myself that day, as if I was being shown by some unseen hand that I was in the right place at the right time. It was pure magic.

Sadly, my mother passed away in 2010, leaving us her dog, Fritzy, her cat Misch, and, yes, the red, white and blue sailboat clip-on earrings, the earrings that had found me. On the nights when I miss her most, I take them from her jewelry box and gently arrange them on my hand. I now realize it was our bond of love that created the magic.





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