An earful from Mom

If you were to meet Joyce Niedenthal in the grocery store or at the mall, or most any other place around town, you would see why friends call her The Earring Lady.

Joyce never ventures out without earrings. Never. And not just any earrings, mind you. Most of hers are large, flashy, dangly, bold, sometimes downright crazy-looking earrings you probably wouldn't expect an 81-year-old great-grandmother to wear. Gold-metal bow ties 3 inches long. Huge sand dollars spray-painted silver. Shellacked Ritz crackers hanging from her lobes. She wears a different pair on every jaunt around town.

Joyce inherited her passion – and her earrings – 23 years ago when her mother died. Many of us are collectors, and we often collect as a way to create our identity. But what do you do when you inherit someone else's collection? How do you honor that person's love affair with a bunch of objects that might not hold the same sway over you?

At first, Joyce had no idea.

She knew her mother loved earrings. Whenever her mother visited, she brought along “mad money” to buy more. But Joyce had no idea how much her mother loved earrings. She didn't find out until her mother died in 1985 and Joyce went to clean out her mother's closet. Inside was a jumble of little cardboard jewelry boxes, arranged in no discernable order, earrings inside. Joyce opened each box and placed the earrings in groups on the bed. Antique earrings. Bright gold earrings. Dull gold earrings. Novelty earrings. Rhinestone earrings. Pearl. Crystal. Copper. Ivory. One pair after another and another until the bed overflowed with earrings, so many earrings she had to find another place to sleep.

One thousand three hundred ninety-six pairs of earrings, to be exact.

Earrings shaped like pink elephants and flying fish and a knife and fork. Earrings made out of mink and gold and silver and plastic. Clip-on earrings and screw-on earrings, not a single pierced earring. “When I was growing up,” Joyce confided, “only ladies of the night had pierced ears.”

Joyce doesn't know for sure, but she expects her mother's fascination with earrings began some time after 1947 when Joyce's father died. They were living in Kentucky. He was a teacher, and a disciplinarian, who never owned a car because he didn't want to ever be in debt. Earrings would not have been in the family budget.

“I don't know what turned her on to this,” Joyce said. “But, man, she was hooked. She was a woman in love with her earrings and glad to show them off,”

And now, 23 years later, so is Joyce.

“The difference is that I'm satisfied with what I've got,” Joyce said. “I don't go out and look for more.”

After Joyce sorted through the earrings, she tucked them into small plastic bags and tucked the bags into 59 small drawers in two metal file cabinets, each drawer labeled with the type of earring. Iridescent. Pastel. Nautical or Patriotic… . “I hate to say I'm somewhat of an organized person,” said Joyce, a retired schoolteacher. “I had to be, being a teacher, my goodness!”

After every pair was accounted for, then what?

Let's sell them at the flea market, Joyce's husband suggested.

Over my dead body, Joyce retorted.

Joyce was only 16 years younger than her mother, and the two were quite close. Joyce remembers playing together with jacks and paper dolls in the afternoons after Joyce came home from elementary school.

Because the earrings were so special to her mother, and her mother was so special to her, Joyce wanted to do something special with them. It would be her way of honoring her mother.

And since Joyce is so organized, the idea she came up with is organized, too. She follows several strict rules: She wears a different pair of earrings every day. She can't wear a pair again until she has worn all other 1,395 pairs. It only counts if she goes out where someone can see the earrings.

“I thought that if I did that in memory of my mother, why, that would kind of spread it out,” Joyce explained.. “Everyone would see all of them. If I only picked a few of my favorites, the others wouldn't be seen.”

When Joyce first began wearing the earrings, she was teaching home economics in Florida. Her students would beg her to wear a pair twice. The Ritz Crackers were always a favorite. Also the Shredded Wheat. Joyce refused. She had, she reminded them, 1,395 other pairs that needed wearing, too.

Where will they end up?

As organized as Joyce is, she still hasn't figured out what should become of the earrings after she dies. Her son's not interested. She's not sure if they're worth much; her mother probably paid only a few dollars for most pairs, more for others. Her stepfather made a lot of the novelty earrings such as the ones fashioned from crackers and cereal.

They're valuable to Joyce simply because of her mother.

If you ask her whether she's in love with the earrings the way her mother was, Joyce hesitates. “I am,” she said, “because of her. If it hadn't been because of that, I doubt I would be flaunting around 1,000-plus earrings for the third time.”

Since Joyce is older and retired and doesn't get out much, she's not wearing earrings as often as she once did. She wears them Sundays at Central United Methodist Church (no gaudy earrings on Sundays) and to Wednesday night dinners at the church (the biggest and craziest she can find). “If we go out to eat, I'll wear earrings, but I don't sit around the house with them on.”

So some weeks now, only a few pair get worn.

It's taken her 23 years to wear them all twice, and now she's about 900 pairs into her third go-round. She's racing against time, hoping to wear them all and then start over again.