I’ve Got the Ring But Not the Story

It’s funny how a little thing can send you off on a tangent. This being National Poetry Month, I followed a prompt to write a poem about something precious to me. Seven pages and some online research later, I had no poem but a lengthy meditation on my grandmother’s engagement ring.

It’s a beautiful ring, which I never noticed before my father found it in an envelope in my mother’s nightstand after she died in 2002. In her perfect handwriting, Mom had written “For Sue.” The ring, which my research shows comes from the 1920s Art Deco style, has a large European cut diamond surrounded by sapphire “baguettes” mounted on filigreed white gold. The band was well worn, one of the sapphires was missing, and the ring didn’t fit my fat finger, so Fred and I took it to Diamonds by the Sea in Newport to have it resized and refurbished. I wear it when I dress up, always afraid I’ll lose it or damage it. Now that I have done some research, I’m going to be even more careful. Rings like the one pictured above sell for $4,000-$5,000 these days. (Read more here)

Holy cow. I have never owned any jewelry worth that much. Most of my jewels are cheap and quirky and won’t last much longer than I will. My engagement ring for my first marriage had such a small diamond you needed a magnifying glass to see it. When I married Fred, I said all I wanted was a gold band. There’s a story behind our matching rings, just as there is behind Grandma’s ring.

I’m bothered that I never noticed my grandmother’s ring when she was wearing it. Now I scour old photos trying to see her ring finger. I remember her dark eyes, her blue and black dresses, her thick elastic stockings, her flat shoes, and her voice—high pitched for children, low for adults, often lapsing into Portuguese—but I don’t remember that ring.

I want to know the story. Anna Souza and Albert Avina were both children of immigrants from the Azores Islands. Both lost their fathers when they were young. Both left school after eighth grade to go to work. I don’t know how they met, probably through one of Anna’s brothers or the cannery where Al worked, where all the women did stints cutting apricots and other fruit. They weren’t rich people. How could Grandpa possibly afford such a ring? Nobody had credit cards back in the 1920s when they were married. Did he make payments at the jewelry store in San Jose?

Was there a romantic proposal? Did they go on dates alone or with a chaperone, as was the old-country custom?

I have no memory of my grandparents kissing, holding hands, or even agreeing on anything, but I was child, a child who didn’t think much about such things. My own parents were visibly affectionate, but not my grandparents. Of course, they seemed old to me, and old people didn’t do that sort of thing. Actually, when Grandpa died at 66, he and Grandma were both younger than I am now.

As a child, I didn’t think about rings. My own small hands were usually stained with paint, ink, Playdough, food, or mud. For dress-up, we 1950s females wore white gloves. Was Grandma’s ring hidden under her glove? Did she wear it while cooking spaghetti or frosting chocolate cakes? Did the ring flash when she gave us a palmada—a slap—when we were being brats?

If only I could go back. I have so many questions. I wrote a whole book titled Stories Grandma Never Told. I don’t have many stories from my own grandmother. Now all the relatives from her generation are gone. A decade after she died in 1982, I took my questions to other Portuguese women, writing their stories and urging everyone to ask questions of their elders before it’s too late.

I don’t have children or grandchildren. If I did have a daughter, I’d like to think I would sit her on my lap and tell her the stories of my jewelry. See this ring? It belonged to Grandma Anna Avina, born Souza. Her husband, your Great-Grandpa Al, gave it to her when they got engaged to be married. They were poor, but he found a way to buy it.

Both of their families came from the Azores, beautiful islands in the Atlantic Ocean full of green fields, black and white cows, lava rocks and blue hydrangeas. It was hard to make much money, so people left for America to create a better life for you and me . . .

I wouldn’t tell just that story. I would move on to my parents’ stories and my own, down to my husband Fred’s romantic proposal and our life together. I would want my children to know I was not just “Mom” but a person named Sue who had a whole life of my own. Just as Grandma was a person named Anne who slipped this ring onto her finger and agreed to marry a tall curly-haired man named Al.

Dear friends, ask for the stories. Tell your own. Tell the stories of the rings.

***

Speaking of stories, remember last week when I had trouble with the apple pie? A few days later, I decided to make the cookies from the recipe on the back of the whole wheat flour bag. Somehow, I mixed up my measurements. I was supposed use 1 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup brown sugar, but I put in 1 3/4 cup brown sugar, way too much. I didn’t realize it until I was about to mix in the flour. Now what could I do? You can’t unmix the sugar from the eggs and butter. I was out of butter so I couldn’t double the recipe.

Knowing I’d probably have to throw the whole mess away, I added more flour and another egg, shaped the dough into circles and baked them. Guess what? The cookies were delicious. A miracle.

Stay tuned for further misadventures in the kitchen.

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I am the Weeping Keeper of Past Lives

It had been a beautiful Sunday, yet there I sat sobbing over old photos as the first “Sex and the City” movie played in the background. Certain parts of the movie always get to me–when Charlotte tells Carrie she’s pregnant, when Miranda and Steve reunite on the Brooklyn Bridge, when Carrie and Big get back together–but it wasn’t just that. It was all the lives piled up on the card table.

Somehow, having survived the deaths of my husband, his parents and his younger brother, I have become the keeper of the archives, boxes and boxes of photographs, slides, and memorabilia. The more I sell or give away, the more there seems to be. Like me, Fred’s dad never went anywhere without a camera. I carefully compiled the first 20 years or so of our marriage into albums, but I have my own boxes of prints and slides, including the black and white pictures I processed in my darkroom-happy years. There are pictures from life with my first husband. It was a life with so many promises never fulfilled. There are my grandparents, my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, so many of them gone. I miss them all, and I weep. There’s the house we used to live in on Safari Drive. I weep.

There are the Lick photos, none of them properly stored, yet many surviving almost a century. It’s not the family I grew up with. I never met Fred’s grandparents. I never saw his mom and dad as young people or Fred and his brothers as little boys, yet here they are in countless photos. As Fred’s Alzheimer’s progressed and he forgot his history, I remembered it for him. Now that he’s gone, I look at that cute little boy with glasses and weep. I look his parents and weep. I look at pictures of Fred’s children, my stepchildren, as babies with their mom, and I weep. Some days I can’t believe I ever was part of this family, and yet it’s part of me. As I sort, I keep a few things for myself and I throw out the things that I don’t think will interest anyone anymore, but I keep sending boxes of pictures to Fred’s kids and his brother. It’s all paper, somebody’s click of the camera. Does anybody care? In the boxes from the storage locker, I also found love letters from Fred’s dad to his mom, the telegraph he received when he got his job at Boeing, and the one sent to Fred’s grandparents when he was born.These are precious, but who should have them? Surely not me.

There are other pictures that hurt because they emphasize the big chunk of Fred’s life when he was married to someone else. Wedding. Christmas. Babies. Crew-cut clean-shaven pix of Fred graduating from college, posing with his wife and his parents. He looks so different without his beard, yet I know that mouth, those eyes. I was 13 years old that year. I didn’t know Fred the way he looked then, and if I did, we could not have been lovers, but I still ache for him, for his smile, for his touch, his warmth.

Many of the pictures were taken on the countless cruises Fred’s parents took. Alaska, Panama, the Bahamas, Hawaii. While I don’t want to take a cruise, I miss traveling with my husband, and I wonder if I’ll ever get to those places on my unwritten bucket list. Do I want to go alone?

I find a framed 8 x 10 photo of a big black dog. I never met that dog, which belonged to my late brother-in-law, but I love dogs and plan to put this one on my wall because it makes me smile. There are 78 rpm records by artists I never heard of, and I have all the camera gear, valuable in its time, now nearly worthless because it isn’t digital. I don’t know what to do with these.

What will happen to all those pictures we’ve been taking in recent years, storing on our hard drives and tiny memory cards? Will they last long enough for descendants three or four generations down to spend an afternoon studying them, thinking about the people and places they depict and weeping while the E channel airs “Sex and the City” yet again? I worry that all of our memories will disappear, just like the stories I stored on floppy disks. Do we just put them on Facebook and then forget them?

I ended my cryfest with a glass of Portuguese red wine a friend brought to Nye Beach Writers Saturday night. That’s my heritage, and I could fill a room with those photos, too. I’ll probably cry. Cheers.

What about you? Do you have boxes of ancient photos? What do you do with them when the older generation is gone? Please share your stories.