A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the second of a four-part piece, divided so as to keep each entry short. To begin at the beginning, go here.
Perhaps the emotional plate was just too full then. After all, ours was quickly becoming the House of Hormones. Though still in her early forties, Mom was beginning to go through the early stages of menopause. Martha was well on her way to adolescence, and I was just beginning to flirt with its whiplash.
So while Mom confronted hot flashes and other assorted symptoms over the ensuing years, my sister and I confronted our own burgeoning beings. Not surprisingly, our confrontations were as different as the two of us. Martha’s response to the simmering crockpot of adolescence brought to mind Sarah Bernhardt – weepy drama played to the hilt. My response was more in synch with the times – denim-clad rebellion in search of mind-altering drugs.
When Martha turned eighteen, Mom gave her the emerald and diamond ring. And, I’ll admit, there was nothing at all about the gesture that seemed inappropriate. There was something about Martha that already seemed middle-aged at that point, and for that reason, she always struck me as a bit of an anachronism. A cocktail ring – so clearly representative of another era – fit well on her hand. It also would fit well on the campus of the Southern women’s college that she would attend (not coincidentally, the very college where our father taught).
My turning eighteen was another matter altogether. I would not be celebrating the big milestone with my family in Virginia. Rather, I’d be five weeks into my college adventure – in Morningside Heights, just south of Harlem. And while sending the ring via UPS or something of that ilk was certainly an option, Mom decided instead to give it to me early. With no fanfare, she presented it to me in New York, the late August night before our harried day of getting me into my freshman dorm at Barnard.
I remember the look on her face when she handed me the box with the ring in it. The look was hesitant. Tentative. It was a look that said, “If you lose this, or if you sell this for drugs, I will never forgive you.”
I took in that look, and I responded with what had become my trademark, my weapon, and my armor: merciless sarcasm. “Thanks, Mom!” I said, smiling. “And I love it that the blue of the sapphires goes with my jeans!”
She didn’t have a comeback, but she also didn’t need one. She was clearly the stronger party in that scene. By entrusting me with that ring, she had demonstrated that, between us, she could be even more of a risk-taker than I.
I immediately slipped the ring onto my finger. And since that day, I have worn it always.
At the time, my rationale for wearing it was this: if I wait until I have an occasion to wear a sapphire and diamond ring, I will never get to wear this ring. Complementary reasoning went as follows: if this ring is not on my finger, I cannot honestly say that I know where it is.
And so I justified wearing the ring.
But, God, it must have looked awfully silly on me those first several years.
I still have the first college ID that I was issued (the picture probably was taken a day or two after I slipped that ring on my finger). I have kept the ID because I always want to remember the person in the picture. My facial expression then revealed a curious combination of anger and sadness. To go with it, I had short, androgynous hair, no make-up, and the hints of a tee shirt that made no statement whatsoever. Oh, and there were the zits, too. Not a happy camper.
I was an unlikely candidate for a sapphire and diamond ring, and in retrospect, it is no wonder I was never mugged for that particular piece of jewelry. Probably, any mugger who saw the ring then looked at the rest of me and thought, “Nah, those stones can’t be real.”
Yet, I continued to wear it. Ultimately, I grew into it.
And during that decade of shedding anger and sadness, and replacing them with grace and enthusiasm, something else happened: I became friends with my mother.
to be continued on Wednesday, May 18th.