Aunt Sew

My mom’s family is full of collectors. Collectors of art. Collectors of natural objects. Collectors of impossibly specific categories of memorabilia (e.g., 1933 World’s Fair commemorative merchandise; pre-Colombian pottery from the banks of the Mississippi River; antique miniature canoes). I once saw a sign at an antique store that read: “We Pay Top Dollar for Old Things,” and that resonated as a potential credo for my family.

No one’s collections speak to me more than those of my dear Aunt Sue, who is my mom’s middle sister:

Image may contain: Sue Ayres Roberts, smiling

Aunt Sue is one of the most creative and crafty people I know. Her passion for sewing earned her the nickname “Aunt Sew” when I was a kid. Her house holds many wonderful treasures, not the least of which is an actual English pub in the basement where my Uncle Tom watches football games and helps himself to PBR from the built-in tap. She also has a small powder room covered in drawings of pin-up girls from the 1950s, and a giant vintage Double-Mint gum box in her kitchen. But her best treasures of all are her hundreds of pairs of earrings. And that’s no exaggeration. Here’s but a small sampling of her inimitable collection:


I interviewed Aunt Sue about her incredible collection. Here’s what I learned:

  • Her jewelry is all costume jewelry, and 90% vintage. She’s not interested in the fancy vintage brands, like Miriam Haskell or Weiss. Instead she prefers earrings of the kitschy variety. (Note: she has a ton of vintage brooches, too.)
  • In my observation, she has never worn the same pair of earrings twice around me, and her earrings always match her outfit impeccably.
  • She had never previously counted her earrings until I asked her to estimate how many pairs she owns. She counted 370 in her personal jewelry chest, but she also has a separate stash of jewelry she purchased specifically to re-sell (she frequents estate sales in the Quad Cities, where she lives, and often scores unbelievable deals on vintage items that she then sells through her Etsy shop–check it out).
  • In terms of storage, she organizes her earrings in the plastic trays that come in boxes of chocolates. Before returning to graduate school later in life to become a special-education teacher, Aunt Sue worked at a popular candy store in Rock Island, Illinois called Lagomarcino’s. While working there, she realized that the chocolate trays the store threw away were perfect for earrings, and so she started saving them.
  • She has never had pierced ears and has never wanted them. All of her earrings are clip-ons or screw-ons.
  • [My favorite tidbit:] She keeps a spare pair of earrings in her car for times when she forgets to put them on in the morning. She admits to returning home many, many times in the past when she has forgotten earrings and was without a spare pair. She “feels naked without them.”
  • Early on during the pandemic lock-down, she eschewed earrings for a while as she wasn’t leaving the house. Now that her grandson (my awesome cousin, Xander!) is coming to her house daily for remote schooling, she has resumed wearing earrings so he will “respect [her] as his teacher” and not just see her as Granny Sue.
  • In college, she wrote an ode to her favorite pair of snake earrings.
  • When I asked where her love for jewelry originated, she recounted this memory: “The family two doors down from us growing up had a flashy mother. The daughter and I went up to the mother’s bedroom one day and checked out the jewelry she kept in a bureau under the eaves. I vaguely remember taking something. Maybe I put it back. I don’t remember whether the daughter took something too. This experience made me want jewelry and to have my own drawers full of it.”

So it seems that extreme love for jewelry runs in my blood. I can’t wait until the pandemic is over and I can not only see Aunt Sew again, but also rifle through her drawers to marvel at her amazing collection in person.

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling
The Crazy Collector Crew.

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