Even though I’ve been married—twice actually—I never got an engagement ring. Nope, never got one of those sparkly things—saved for, perhaps slaved for—to help pop the question. Nor did I ever get a bended-knee proposal of undying love professed through worried eyebrows over hopeful eyes. You know what I’m talking about? Compared to the proposal extravaganzas posted on social media nowadays——in hot air balloons, on sunny beaches, over Wrigley Field on a Jumbotron, across pop-up murals on city buildings, in Venice or Provence or halfway across the Great Wall of China—mine paled. No ring. No proposal.
Which led me to feel that somehow I was not worthy, that I was a this’ll-do burger on a ho-hum menu.
So, for years I took the second place finisher spot in an also-ran race of my own creation. Oh, OK, not every day, but whenever the subject of a proposal, or the display of some young girl’s rock, came up, I felt diminished. Perhaps it started far back in the day, when we sang the song in our sorority circle passing a white handkerchief waiting for it to stop on the one. Her cue that—yep—she was engaged. Getting that ring brought a glow to her exalted, if temporary, status. When it was my turn to grab the hankie, all the sisters rushed over to get a look at what I wore on my left hand. Which was bare. ‘Cause I didn’t have one. “We’re getting one…later,” I stammered. “But I…I wanted to tell everyone that, well, we’re engaged!” Oh, the forced enthusiasm I put into my voice that afternoon still rings in my ears. The thinly veiled disappointment that flared through the circle still flashes through my dreams.
So, I never felt that glow.
Forward to ten years ago, well past both of those marriages, well into my golden years, I sat at the side of my mother’s hospital bed. She’d been checked in, weakened by pneumonia and, at the age of eighty-nine, had decided to take herself off all meds. “The nurses applaud my decision, even though the doctor told me, ‘You realize this will probably kill you.’” She nodded her head as she explained. Feeling disbelief, I started encouraging her to take her pills. “No, this is what I want,” she countered in a soft voice. And I know she watched my face crumble. “I look upon my death with joy,” she assured me.
My mix of emotions was palpable. Proud of her that she was in control of her health, very, very sad that we were looking at her end, guilty that she wouldn’t take those meds even though I tried my hardest to convince her to do so.
“No, I’m done,” she repeated as I sat roiling in sorrow.
Then she surprised me by saying, “Here. Take these.” She worked the wedding and engagement bands off her gnarly ring finger and handed them to me. “Keep these for me.”
I was too choked up to say anything. Instead, I slipped them on my finger—safest place I could think of—and nodded my head.
That engagement ring has always loomed large in my childhood memories. Her hand—ever adorned with it—contained the promise of my mom and dad’s deep love for each other, the conch-shell power of her authority over all direction and pursuit, the whisper of history in its rich, familial provenance. Because, you see, this engagement ring had come from my dad sixty-seven years earlier, its solitaire stone given to him by his father, reset in platinum and surrounded by a coronet of pavé diamonds. Dad, ever funny and up to his usual self, proposed at a Halloween party as they danced, she in a jailbird’s outfit, he in a ballerina costume complete with décolleté, tutu, red lips, black wig and a long necklace which fell inside the bodice.
“C’mon, Jane. Reach inside my chest and pull out the gold chain.” Mother, never being one to do anything she didn’t want to, insisted, “I will not!” But after much goading, she did. And there on the end of the chain was the ring.
A few weeks after Mother’s hospital stay, we sisters watched as she passed into semi-consciousness, then unconsciousness, and finally into a last raspy breath to the universe’s call. When it came time to divide her jewelry among us, Sally, my big sister and executor of Mom’s will, said, “She gave these to you. That’s good enough for me. They’re yours.”
At first, I didn’t wear either of them because it felt like sacrilege. Nonetheless, I’d put on the engagement ring occasionally and watch for signs that my hand looked like hers. It never did, however, because it was my hand. After a while, however, I realized this this beautiful engagement ring needed to shine its light and not be kept under the bushel basket of my jewelry drawer. So, I began wearing it. Yes, on the ring finger of my left hand.
I’ve worn it now for most of the twelve years since my mother died. And whenever I look at it, I first see her face but then I see her hand held out in affirmation of all things artful and worthy.