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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Old photos: Sneaking a Peek into the Past

Fred 1940BThis weekend, still babying my sprained ankle, I took a journey into the past. I spent several hours scanning old slides and photos that have been piled up in boxes and envelopes for ages. The inheritor of my husband Fred’s family archives, I have sent boxes of pictures to his brother and his kids, but there were many photos I wanted to keep copies of for myself. Plus, having been a photographer most of my life, I have tons of my own pictures to digitize.

The weekend’s photos were a blend of my own life and Fred’s. Many of the pictures were old black and whites of Fred as a baby and little boy. Quite a few showed his parents, Al and Helen Lick, when they were young. I found pictures of Fred’s mother’s parents and THEIR parents, the Waltons and the Townes, below. I never met those people, but as the pictures went farther and farther back in time, I got more and more excited. Fred’s mother as a child, her mother and her mother’s mother. Her father, bottom right. I donG W's folks MM Clinton Towne’t even know his first name, but I want to know his story. The settings took me back to my 1950s childhood and farther back into the years just before I was born. Look at those old cars, the baggy pants, the braided hairdos. Imagine living in that house.

I loved looking at how Fred changed from that baby to that cute little boy (upper right) to that gawky teen to that handsome Navy man to my wonderful bearded husband. I could see the arc of his whole life in these pictures.

There were others, photos from my own life. One showed the whole family that I used to have when I was marriedGr Walton & Teeny 1948 to my first husband. There I was with my long hair, minimal makeup and big glasses, surrounded by the Fagaldes and Barnards. Me, in love with a man who was not Fred—before the divorce. Other pictures showed Fred and his kids, my parents, my brother, my cousins, my grandparents. School pictures, holidays, trips.

I can only look at so many of my own pictures before sadness and loss overwhelm me. So many of my loved ones have died; so many of the living are far away. Maybe that’s why it’s so fun looking at Fred’s family photos. I never met most of these people. I didn’t know Fred and his brothers when they were kids. It’s like piecing together a story that goes back through nearly a century. Some of the photos are turning brown. Some are scratched, torn or bent, but each one captures a moment, opening the shutters so I can peek in.

And now, with computer technology, I don’t have to decide what to keep or who to send the pictures to. We can all have copies. Magic! (Kids and cousins, I will email you copies.)

I’m grateful for Fred’s mother writing information on the back of many photos. Too many of mine say nothing or just offer first names. Other people might not know who they are. Preserving old photos is an art. Maybe all of your pictures are stored on your computer or phone, but most of us still have some actual photographs hanging around. I know I could do a better job of preserving them. Maybe you could, too. The following links offer some advice on what to do with them.

Continue reading “Old photos: Sneaking a Peek into the Past”