I’m not a bling person, but I treasure jewelry that has sentimental value. My mother’s pearls, my wedding band, and my all-time favorite, my great-grandmother’s platinum, European-cut diamond engagement ring, which I wear all the time. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother (she passed away when I was 3), but my grandmother wore it every day. Often she would let me try it on, and I would claim to be royalty.
My entire family was scared to death of my grandmother, who stood 4 foot 11 and was opinionated and judgmental and not known for her sense of humor. In 1963, four years after her mother passed away and when her husband (my grandfather) died from cancer, she was consumed by loneliness and bitterness. She’d snap at everyone, including the local grocer–even a slightly bruised tomato would unleash a furor. Around this time, when I was 7, I started to accompany my father on weekly visits to her apartment. She was always angry. She’d complain that the podiatrist missed a hangnail; the teller gave her fives instead of tens; on and on. My father listened dutifully while I sat quietly drawing cartoons on scraps of paper from her desk.
I was never afraid of her. Maybe it was her size; I’m not sure. My grandmother must have picked up on this and soon asked me to come to her weekly art classes. She was an amateur painter of endless landscapes. Prolific is not the word; excessive seems better. Her many works hung all over our house and my father’s office. I later figured out that no one was brave enough to tell her “No thank you.”
She’d let me carry her blank 18-by-24 canvas–about half my size–into class. I took great care weaving through the other easels as I followed my grandmother to her place. When the other adults would steal glances at us, she would bellow, “What are you looking at?” I smiled politely. I sat there for three hours every Saturday, doodling away. Occasionally she’d ask my opinion. “I don’t think water looks like that, Grandma,” I offered once. The entire class fell silent. She turned to me and asked, “Do you think it needs more green?” For the first time, I saw what it was like to lift the sadness from a person. She was different around me, and I liked that she found me worthy of accompanying her.
When my grandmother died, 28 years later, my dad gave me the ring. I became the keeper of something whose value could not be measured: There was magic in that ring, and it was my turn to wear it. The thought that I’d pass it on to my daughter one day took on almost spiritual overtones. Putting it on flooded me with memories of my grandmother’s affection.
Nowadays I make a point of keeping the ring shiny, because that’s how I remember it on my grandmother’s finger. One night last spring I took it off, cleaned it, and left it to dry, wrapped in a tissue on my bathroom counter. The next morning I tidied up the bathroom and swept it into the trash along with an assortment of Q-tips, tissues, and an empty mouthwash bottle.
Moments later, I heard the garbage truck rumbling down the street. I dashed through the house emptying trashcans and dragged the garbage to the driveway. Twenty minutes later, when I woke my son for school, he let out a tremendous sneeze. “Ewww,” I said. “Use a tissue.” And with that, I looked at my finger and stopped in my tracks.
“What’s wrong?” my son asked, but I couldn’t speak. I ran to my bathroom and looked at the counter. Clean. I looked in the wastebasket. Empty. I looked out my window at the trash bins. Tipped over. The blood left my body.
There was no time for tears. I immediately called the carting company. I gave a succinct but passionate summary of what had occurred and begged the dispatcher to radio the driver. I would pay any extra costs, but I had to recover that ring. The dispatcher, a lovely woman named Lillian, heard the distress in my voice. “Hang on,” she said. I did not breathe until she got back on the line. “How fast can you get to the transfer station?” she asked.
“Four minutes,” I lied.
“He’ll meet you there,” she said, “but don’t stop for coffee.”
In The Bag
I got to the transfer station in five minutes and 30 seconds. A guard led me to a huge building where several trucks were dumping trash into a cavernous compacting pit. He told me that I’d need to wait for all the trucks to finish dumping, after which my truck would disgorge its contents onto the floor of the garage, where I could sift through the entire load. I asked my driver how many more houses he’d stopped at since mine. He said 12, which meant about 120 bags were on top of my 10. I put on my gloves. I sifted through my mind for a strategy. I remembered that I used white plastic bags with red ties. My garbage man backed his truck into the enormous shed and unloaded its contents. My heart sank. Half the load was white garbage bags with red ties. Does everyone shop at Costco?
I asked the driver where in the heap might be my street. He pointed to the middle, and I jumped in. The bags were compacted, so I had to shake them to get them to expand. “Rip them open and check the addresses on the junk mail,” an attendant said. “If you find your street, you’re in the right place.” That gave me hope.
I tore open bag after bag. I saw things I can’t even repeat. Suddenly I came across a soiled envelope with my neighbor’s address on it.
“My street!” I screamed. Soon I had exposed my entire block’s garbage. That’s when I saw the compressed white bag with red ties and the outline of an empty mouthwash bottle inside. My hands were shaking. I opened the bag and recognized my garbage.I squeezed each balled-up tissue until I felt it. There, in all its shiny glory, was my great-grandmother’s ring. I burst into tears. Hysterical, sobbing tears. I placed the ring on my finger. It glistened in the morning sun.
The sentimental value of things can never be measured, but I hope that one day, when this ring belongs to my daughter, she will have an even better story of how she kept it alive.
This article was reprinted with permission from WOMEN’S HEALTH MAGAZINE.