In the top drawer of my bureau, I have a collection of rings in a Ziploc bag. It nestles against a not-particularly-useful jewelry organizer I purchased so I would cease to misplace my various bits of adornment. Nearly every piece of jewelry I own, including the bag of rings, has a story. I live amidst stories. My husband Charlie and I often comment that nearly every piece of furniture, art, barware, table and silverware, and carpets have come to us with their stories attached.
When I look at the oriental rug in our living room, for example, I see not only the carpet but also Charlie’s grandparents’ house in Marblehead where we lived amidst their storied furnishings for a year before the house was sold. On it, four generations of family trod through their lives. On it perched Christmas trees sheltering presents children scrambled to open, on it wine spilled during parties, on it Granny and Grandpa’s feet shuffled as they moved to view the morning sky or the harbor through the bay window. When I look at our green velvet chair, I see it not only as one of our most comfortable but also my grandparents’ apartment in Washington, DC. In it sat three generations of family. In it, my grandmother drank her coffee each morning and said her novenas on a mother-of-pearl rosary each afternoon. In it my grandfather sat reading The Washington Post and listening to Red Sox games. In it my mother sat as her father broke the news that he was dying of pancreatic cancer, and later as she visited her mother in the nursing home. These objects, and all the others we have incorporated into our lives, sit at the center of and also encircle the smaller circles of stories from each person who touched them over time. And so do the rings and the bag that holds them.
Stories are strange things—the words and pictures they evoke may remain the same, printed on the page or told by the teller, yet they shift and change in the receiver’s mind as we link our own experiences to what is told. There’s a clear neurological explanation for this phenomenon, as well as philosophical discussions about the links between objects and the experiences of their experiencers. What I’m thinking about today is these rings I keep without any reasonable explanation except that I remain enthralled by their stories.
The stories are a bit like those magic rings that often come in puzzle sets. The solver is meant to figure out how to unlink and relink rings that are, apparently, inseparable. Each of the rings I keep in the bag possesses its own stories, creates its own circle. My possession of them has created additional stories. Like the magic rings, they are separable yet linked in a now seemingly unbreakable way—through the zippered bag, and in my heart because each is a ring of connection.
Recently, I picked up a ring from the “give-away” pile at my in-laws’ house because they are moving to a much smaller home, and needing to pass on many things. It sat on a table amidst Christmas ornaments, picture frames, and small trinkets from their travels throughout the world. This is the ring that made a link in my mind to all the other rings I own, perhaps because its “story” was unknown to me at first.
After trying it on, I left it on my finger. The family—having finished another day’s organizing and de-accessioning gathered for dinner. The next morning, I took it off and held it in sunlight coming through my studio window. The sterling ring has a faded design like nested arrowheads around its circumference. It had obviously been worn for many years because the inscription inside is so worn as to be nearly unreadable. In the light though, I read it: To GC from JBN, December 6, 1931. My son’s initials are also JBN, and I knew it was a family ring. My husband confirmed it. I was wearing the ring given by his great-grandfather to his great-grandmother for their 50th anniversary. What I had so casually picked up in the cleaning out process, now has another story—his great-grandparents’, and my own. Each time I slip it onto my finger, it becomes a portal to stories of the past. I never met Gertrude or that particular John, but I’d heard stories about them and easily imagine him presenting her with a velvet box containing the ring, perhaps during dinner or at the breakfast table, to mark and celebrate their half-century commitment to one another. I imagine her sliding it onto her aged finger as an addition to her wedding ring.
When I wear it as I sometimes do, I put it on with my own wedding ring. It has become for me a both a celebration of the past as well as a hope for the future—that my husband and I will be blessed to spend another twenty-six years together and exchange gifts that mark our own half-century of commitment.
Another ring in the bag is my grandmother’s wedding ring, cut from her swollen, aged fingers, platinum and paper thin from the wearing of nearly 70 years, most of which she spent with my grandfather. In it I see them together, imagine them as young people—both born at the end of the 19th century—when the ring was bestowed. They were only a year older than my son is now. My grandmother, one of seven children, had enjoyed herself as a bit of a flapper (as much as one could be in rural New Hampshire) until she met my ever-so-serious grandfather—one of the eldest of nine children and the only to leave the Boston nest in order to pursue his law degree at Georgetown University. He took his new wife with him. I see them in their apartment, in the enormous blue Pontiac they drove, in the grocery store, on annual vacations in Ocean City, Maryland where they never donned bathing suits to swim, and in Maine visiting family. I see Gammie’s hands on mine as she taught me how to wash dishes, having pulled out a stool so I could reach the sink. I see her at Blessed Sacrament Church, head bent so her mantilla obscured her face, and hands clasped in prayer. I see her gnarled hands holding mine as she sat in her wheelchair greeting me and saying goodbye at the nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
I don’t wear this ring, but I like to hold it. My grandparents spent more than fifty years in a happy marriage until Grandpa died when I was twelve, and Gammie spent the rest of her life grieving the loss of him. I keep her ring, along with my grandfather’s fraternity pin, so I can remind myself of them in visceral way, a way that photographs can’t quite create. Like the magic rings, their stories are linked to my story through the ring and through my memories them and of my younger selves.
Also in the bag is a collection of my mother’s rings. For her 21st birthday, her mother gave her a gold signet ring that had been hers, engraved with her initials. My mother wore it always until the arthritis swelled her fingers so badly the doctor insisted she remove it permanently before she lost her finger. The ring was her connection with her mother, and she valued it in a far deeper way than her other rings. Along with the signet is a garnet and diamond “dinner ring” also passed down to her from her mother. When I was in my twenties, she gave it to me because she said she never wore it, and because garnet is my birthstone. Though she warned me to take care of it, the imprecation had more to do with monetary value than sentimental. She never said so, but I suspect the two rings represented the two aspects of her relationship with her mother, with whom she wanted a close relationship, but with whom she weathered years in a tempestuous and unpleasant way.
Finally, I have her wedding, engagement, and guard rings, platinum set with diamonds and sapphires. When I look at these rings, and the signet, I see my mother’s hands through the years as they grew into old age. I see them sporting a tennis racquet, holding playing cards for bridge or rummy, and moving the pieces in games I begged her to play with me. I see them polishing silver in preparation for parties, holding an old-fashioned glass with her favorite whiskey sour, and waving about in animated conversation. I see them dancing ballet and to the rhythms of the big bands. I see them fingering rosary beads for novenas whose intentions she never shared though I knew them anyway. And I see them reaching for me, constantly. I watched the wedding rings grow looser on her ring finger even as her knuckles swelled. A process like her understanding of her relationship with my father. While he was alive their marriage was fraught with tightly intertwined rage and resentment. After he died, however, the truth of it loosened, and she came to believe they shared great love and devotion through the years.
In the bag with these rings is my father’s large and heavy college ring, engraved with the Greek letters of his fraternity. He never wanted to wear a wedding ring, said this ring could serve. I suspect that for him, his ring represented a freedom from his birth family and a freedom he lost when he married. Just out of the Navy serving at the end of WWII, he went to college on the GI Bill, and worked for years as a lifeguard and jazz drummer until he met my mother. When I hold this ring, I feel my father—the literal and metaphorical weight of his tortured life, frozen amidst multiple paths and uncertain which one to follow. But I also feel the lightness of his pleasure listening to music, body surfing in the ocean, proudly sporting a shotgun in one hand, a brace of pheasants in the other, with faithful dogs at his feet.
Though my parents were married for more than fifty years, when I hold these rings mostly what I feel is hollowness inside. For me, they represent a marriage that ought never to have happened in the first place, much less continued until my father died suddenly at eighty. Yet they also hold the stories of the lives their wearers led, lives with far more nuance and complexity than my stories of them fathom.
A gold ring set with a small diamond is a recent addition to my bag. I found it while clearing out my uncle’s belongings. It was wrapped in a yellowed envelope mixed in with store receipts, bills, notes for sermons, and half used packs of matches. I nearly swept it into the trash bag along with other detritus on his bureau, but the apparent age of the envelope caught my attention.
This ring belonged to my uncle’s Aunt Louise, “Wee-Wee,” one of my grandmother’s sisters. It had been given to her by her fiancé when she was in her early twenties, and she wore it until she broke their engagement. I’m not sure why she didn’t return it to him; perhaps she hoped they might reconnect in the future. She chose not to marry at the time so she could continue living with and taking charge of her older sister, Bess, who was an army nurse and an alcoholic whose high spirits often landed her in tricky situations from which she needed rescuing. Wee Wee, a 5th grade teacher in Dorchester, MA, was the rescuer. It was clear to everyone, even me at a young age, that Wee Wee hadn’t planned to stay in that role over time, and had hoped to marry and have children. Before they died in their eighties, one quickly after the other, they were known as “the maiden ladies” in the small town in Maine where they settled in their retirement.
When I showed the ring to my daughter who was there when I found it, her eyes lit up with admiration, and she shared my surprised pleasure that I’d not tossed it along with everything else. It fit perfectly on her slender finger. It will be hers soon, but until then it lives in the bag with my other rings. It reminds me of Wee Wee who, until she became embittered by her life, was my favorite relative after my uncle. She possessed a wicked sense of humor and knew how to draw a serious and solitary child into antics that ended with gut-splitting laughter and made for wonderful retellings and renewed gales of giggles. She adored poetry (especially Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, and Ogden Nash), wrote delightful (and sometimes naughty) limericks, and baked the best peanut butter cookies I’ve ever eaten. Though she never wore it during the time I knew her, when I look at the ring, I see her hands holding her beloved cocker-spaniel’s leash, collecting money for raffle tickets at the church fairs and bean suppers she ran, sliding cookies off the hot baking sheet, and proffering to me, secretly, bits of chocolate or peppermint.
Perhaps I see the ghost of this ring on her finger because there was always a hole in her life, a sadness deep inside, cleverly masked by her perpetual cheer. The cheer ended gradually, I suspect as she saw slipping away from her the life she’d hoped to have as a wife and mother—a life like her sister’s, my grandmother’s. In my hand, this ring’s story reminds me of of how the choices we make in our lives can make our path fork. We may think we can sometime find our way back to that original path, the one that leads to our fondest hopes and dreams for ourselves, but often we can’t. Robert Frost writes about how the two paths that diverged in the wood seemed “just as fair,” but Wee Wee’s weren’t. She sacrificed the life path she’d hoped to travel for one she felt responsible to take, and she continued to make that choice until she’d lost the opportunity to find her way back. The ring begs the constant question we face in life—when and for how long do we sacrifice our personal wishes to serve others? Of all the rings in my bag, this small one carries the weightiest story.
Lastly, the bag contains a gold claddagh ring, and my engagement ring (which no longer fits me because I’ve broken my ring finger too many times). These rings hold my stories and, like the other rings I’ve described, represent choices made in relationships. When I’ve passed on and the rings end up with my children, they will link their stories with mine through the rings.
My longtime college boyfriend gave me the claddagh, an Irish wedding ring with two hands holding a heart. The tradition is that the hands open out during engagement, and when the couple marries the ring is reversed so that the hands close over the heart protecting it. When he gave it to me, I thought it was an engagement ring. I might have accepted it though I really didn’t feel ready to marry. Perhaps he sensed my panic and uncertainty so quickly clarified that he bought it to signify our relationship and our shared Celtic heritage. Within the year, I ended up betraying him with another, a terrible man under whose spell I fell, and I put the ring away when my boyfriend began dating and soon after married a friend of mine. When I look at it, all kinds of memories of our time together emerge, and I reflect on what my life may have been had I married him. Though I still feel regret for the hurt I caused by my immature and ill-advised escape from that potential marriage, I am glad I did not commit my life to him. I still had “wild oats” to sew, and still needed to clarify what I wanted my life to be.
My real engagement ring, a diamond set between two sapphires like my mother’s except smaller, has its own stories. One is of transformation, for it was custom made using the diamond from Charlie’s mother’s engagement ring from her first marriage to his father. Though the stone came from the ring of a broken marriage, it now reflects the wonderful years of our marriage. Another of its stories is of choice–how things may have played out, and how they eventually did. Though we’d been together for several years, I rejected Charlie’s first marriage proposal. It was quite romantic as we stood looking at the Downeast sea on the ferry to North Haven, Maine. We were excited to be together on these favorite waters and for our upcoming sailing trip. He turned to me and asked me to marry him. For some bizarre reason, I didn’t believe he was serious because he didn’t have a ring to give me. I told him this, and I think my response may have brought the relationship to the brink of ending. Not long later, I moved to take a job in England where I quickly realized my folly when I found myself devastatingly homesick for him. When I returned to spend Christmas with my family, he joined us. I opened his gift to me, a lovely wooden jewelry box. Inside was the ring that is now in my bag—the ring I continue to hope might fit me again if my finger ever shrinks back to its former size. When I hold this ring, slip it partially onto my finger, I have only happy feelings and profound gratitude both for Charlie’s steadfastness and love, and for my own choosing of the right path that we walk together.
Over the past few years, Charlie and I have been helping clean out family houses as our elders pass on or transition to homes bettered suited to their advancing age. We are overwhelmed by the quantities of things that must be sorted. What gets kept? Donated? Trashed? Our house is looking more and more like a high-end flea market as we gather things with emotional significance we can’t stand to give up, and other things we want to save for our children. We’re conscious that it’s only because of past generations hanging onto things that our house ended up fully furnished—even down to cooking utensils! His Granny’s wooden spoon is my favorite for cookie-making, and we both still regret that I heaved her asparagus cooker.
Not long ago, as I browsed a small bookshop in New Hampshire, I saw a turned out book: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. The title made me laugh, so appropriate was it to our current challenges. A few days ago, I borrowed it from the library and read the opening pages. It was, of course, about choices. What do we keep? What do we release? And when? While I don’t want to saddle our children with the same cleaning out challenges we have faced, I’m also profoundly aware of the importance of objects—not for their material value, but for their stories that enrich our lives and connect us to those who have come before us.