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The Ring and I

When my grandmother left me her engagement emerald, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Years later, I’m finally starting to understand its value.

By January 2014Comments

Illustration by Polly Becker

I was in my thirties when I learned that my grandmother had left me her engagement ring. The ring, from Tiffany circa 1929, is breathtaking: the art deco setting, anchored in a platinum band, holds a substantial emerald as deep in hue as an Irish hillside, flanked by two dazzling, emerald-cut diamonds. Though the stones hardly rival the Chiclet-size rocks I’ve seen on the hands of other Texas women, the effect is nevertheless striking. Despite warnings that emeralds are fragile and prone to chipping, my grandmother wore the ring every day of her life. It was as much a part of her as her radiantly toothy smile or the way she used to complain, incessantly, about bad drivers from behind the wheel of her Cadillac.

It was a piece of jewelry for a supremely confident woman, if not an extremely rich one—and I was neither. “I’ll never wear it,” I told my mother, immediately passing my inheritance back up a generation. “You should enjoy it.” I explained that my apartment had already been burglarized once, and I did not want to be responsible for losing the ring to a cokehead. That my mother was overwhelmed by my convenient, pragmatic act of generosity was an early lesson in the power of family heirlooms: in her mind, I’d offered proof that her relationship with her daughter was far smoother than the one she’d had with her own mom. From the time I passed it on, she wore the ring almost every day. 

The reality is, I wasn’t ready for it. We all have visions of ourselves, self-concepts that prop us up from the inside out. As exhibit A, I offer my own wedding ring, a thick, rough-hewn gold band with a heart-shaped sapphire tucked inside. As wedding rings go, it is understated almost to the point of self-deprecation. When it was purchased, more than 27 years ago, I told myself and everyone else that, as a reporter, I couldn’t go flashing a diamond anywhere and everywhere. While this was true, it was also true that the ring came from a certain legendary luxury retailer in Dallas and took a hefty bite out of my fiancé’s paycheck. Understated was okay, but ordinary was not—that was the message for myself as much as anyone else. That I also chose a ring that didn’t telegraph my new marital state wasn’t lost on me or, probably, my husband-to-be. Happy and grateful now, I was the empress of ambivalence when John put the ring on my finger.

Two decades later, when my mother offered me the engagement ring back, as a fiftieth-birthday present, I still wasn’t ready. She brought it during one of my parents’ frequent visits from San Antonio; we were sitting in the dining room of the Omni Houston Hotel, and even there, amid the burbling fountains and the rainforest of orchids and the relentlessly solicitous staff, the ring seemed too grand for its surroundings. As I worked it onto my finger, I accidentally broke the small metal piece she’d had soldered inside to size it to her own tiny finger. “You should get a safe,” she told me, giving the ring a sad, dubious goodbye. 

Maybe it was my slow, grudging march toward maturity that got me thinking more about the ring’s history. My grandmother had been on the rebound when she married my grandfather: she was a tall, formidable beauty who’d ventured from Cincinnati to San Antonio on a husband-hunting circuit set up by socially anxious members of the German Jewish community. At some point, she fell victim to a broken engagement—every once in a while she would mention that suitor wistfully—but my grandfather was waiting in the wings, a quiet man with elfin ears and a sly sense of humor, proffering a box from Tiffany. 

They were always a mismatch. Even as a child I sensed my grandmother’s impatience with her marriage. She wanted to be rich and glamorous; instead she found herself merely comfortable, her world circumscribed by traditional women’s work like volunteering for the Red Cross and the symphony’s ladies’ auxiliary. She made herself into one of those women who keep busy as a mode of self-preservation; my grandfather was shy and suffered from a melancholia that kept him well away from the dance floor of life she so longed for. That he would buy such a stunning ring just as the Great Depression was settling in and the family clothing business was faltering would eventually strike me as a rare act of extravagance and abandon. But I also wonder whether in proposing he’d hoped to transform himself into a man who embraced the kind of big, shimmering life his choice of ring suggested. He wanted that life and yet he didn’t, and that was how it went for many years, until the ring came to symbolize, for me, a certain persistence in the face of adversity for both of them.

And they did persist: Once, when she was in her seventies, my grandmother was held up at gunpoint in a Dallas hotel; she’d had the bad luck to land a room next to a stairwell, and just as she was opening the door to enter, a man came out of hiding, pushed her inside, and demanded money. “Give me just a minute,” she told him, probably applying the same imperious tone she sometimes used to silence her whiny, excitable granddaughter. Then, under the pretext of rummaging through her purse for cash, she slipped the ring off her finger while snatching a few bills from her wallet. I like to think that she risked her life for more than just the replacement value of that ring. 

Since taking possession, I’ve tried to wear the emerald with aplomb—on my right hand, in deference to my husband. More often than not, though, it resides in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Friends order me to retrieve it (“Wear it now, while your hands still look good!”), but I worry about getting robbed, or chipping the stone, or showing off at the wrong moment, even though that is probably impossible in Houston. Usually after a few weeks of taking it out for air, I end up entombing it again with the folks at Chase. My mother, who died several years ago, would shake her head if she knew. She would also find it unreasonable that I’m still slightly peeved that she replaced some of the platinum prongs with gold—shouldn’t she have asked me first?—even though a friend has pointed out that that very alteration is what most reminds her of my aesthetically rebellious mom. 

So we’ve come to an uneasy peace, the ring and I, as I have come to terms with my own notions of love and loyalty, age and identity. My son and only child, interestingly, has had no such problems. He’s always taken an avid interest in the ring, maybe because he and my mother, like my grandmother and me, enjoyed a close relationship at the expense of the daughter in the middle. I’d always imagined passing it on to him to give to a daughter-in-law-to-be, but then a few years ago Sam told us he was gay, and I had a moment, a long one, in which I saw my mother’s family line go the way of dust on a South Texas highway. 

Of course, that reaction just exposed the limits of my imagination. “I can get married!!” Sam texted me in June 2011, when gay marriage was legalized in New York, where he lives. It is the kind of dizzy, ironic plot twist my mother would have loved. As the months have gone by, Sam continues to check up on his ring, making sure I haven’t done something crazy like pass it on to one of my nephews. He wants it for the daughter he hopes to have someday. 

“Oh, no,” I tell him, “it’s still mine.”

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