I thought we’d run out of stories, but I was wrong. I should have realized that anyone who’s been on this earth for 95 years, as my grandmother has, will always have one more story somewhere inside.
This time, it was the ring that raised the story. I was visiting my grandmother at her assisted living facility, and I’d finished filling her in on all the news of the day. I was trying desperately to come up with a new conversation topic, one that wouldn’t bring up the painful subjects of her failing eyesight or loss of independence, one that ideally would focus on happier times.
Then I noticed a glint of gold among the welter of long necklaces she loves to wear. “Is that your high school class ring on that chain?” I asked.
“It is,” she affirmed, raising the ring closer to her eyes.
The sight inspired a vague recollection in me. “Didn’t you lose it a few years ago? When you were out and about somewhere, and you barely got it back?”
She confirmed that she had. “Your aunt and I were eating at a restaurant,” she explained, “And it slipped off my finger. I was frantic. Luckily, somebody found the ring, but he wouldn’t give it to the restaurant owner; he said the owner would have to come to his house and pick it up in person. Your father had to drive all the way to Jim Falls to get it back for me.”
This struck me as both strange and inconsiderate. I immediately assumed there was an ulterior motive involved. “Did the finder ask for a reward?” I asked.
“Oh, not,” she exclaimed vehemently. “He didn’t want anything except maybe to see for himself that the ring was returned to its rightful owner. There ARE good people in this world, you know.”
I nodded and assumed the topic of the ring had been exhausted. Then she added, “This wasn’t the first time I’d been separated from it. I had to pawn it when I was living in New York.”
This was news to me. I knew that she’d gone to New York in the late 1930’s, fed up with the brother-in-law who begrudged her every moment under his roof after her mother’s death. I knew that she finally took off one day, that she hadn’t even bothered returning to her sister’s house for her clothes, that she just had a little cash in her pocket, and that this was an especially gutsy move considering that the Depression was still gnawing at the nation. I knew she found jobs but had to work hard to make ends meet. But I hadn’t known about the ring being pawned.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“There was an advertisement in the paper,” she said. “A couple wanted a companion for their daughter. I needed subway fare to get to Brooklyn to apply, and I was out of cash by then. The ring was all I had, so I pawned it for $5. That was pretty good money back then, you know. Anyway, the couple took me right away. They wanted somebody to stay with their eight-year-old daughter. It was a good deal because it was free room—no board technically, but they always had food in the house—and I could keep my day job.”
“The one working at the ice cream counter in the drug store?” I asked.
“But why would they hire you as a companion for their daughter if you were going to be gone all day?”
“They wanted me to stay with her at night,” Grandma explained. “The father was a cop who worked a lot of night shifts, and the mother liked to go out with her friends to play Mah Jong. Are you familiar with Mah Jong?”
I’d heard of it but had never seen it played.
“Anyway, I stayed with Marion at night while her father worked and her mother played Mah Jong. That’s how I got to know my husband’s people.”
It turned out that the mother, Doris, was the sister of Maurice Daniel Harris, the man whom my grandmother would eventually marry, the man who would become my grandfather.
Maybe my grandmother would have met him anyway; her memories at this distance are fuzzy, but she has the impression that it was an employment agency that placed her as a secretary in his office—he was a doctor—rather than a direct referral from Doris. But maybe they wouldn’t have married if she hadn’t already, in some sense, become part of his extended family. Maybe they wouldn’t have had my father. Maybe I wouldn’t exist.
I looked at the ring with new appreciation. “I owe you a lot,” I thought.
The ring just winked.