Ring Cycle

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“Show us the rings,” we begged our grandmother. I see Baba now, sitting regally on her sofa, her two adoring grandsons at her feet. Baba was the most important person in my life. She was my Auntie Mame, showing me a world outside my beige Buena Park suburban existence. She took me to parties, cooked me French delicacies, and introduced me to opera. She dressed stylishly, had red hair, and spoke with a thick French accent. When she took us – me and my younger brother, John – to the movies, which she did frequently, she sometimes sang along. Annoying as that was, it made sense, because she had been a famous Parisian opera singer, and now gave singing lessons and judged competitions. She reluctantly obliged us in this oft-repeated scenario.

The two massive art deco rings were not family heirlooms or gifts from admirers.  She’d had them made for herself in Paris in the 1920s, one more symbol of her independence. Sometimes she let us hold them, but only if we’d just washed our hands. I examined the two rows of rubies framing a row of tiny diamonds, which Baba dismissively referred to as “chips”.

“And when I die, this will be yours, little Jimmy,” she often proclaimed. I didn’t really pay attention. I couldn’t fathom a time when Baba wouldn’t be here. “And this one will be yours, she said holding a bague with small diamonds and sapphires under my brother’s nose.

The jewelry, with real gemstones, that she took for granted fueled my fantasies. The only jewels I knew were at Disneyland: brought by the seven dwarves from the mine in the scary Snow White ride, spilling out a sunken treasure chest on the submarine ride, or hidden amongst the Pirates of the Caribbean’s loot in a secret cave. Baba’s jewelry was different. It was real, not like the matching necklace, brooch, and earring sets Dad helped us pick out for Mom’s birthday or Mother’s day.  Mom claimed to be delighted by the costume jewelry, but Baba was disdainful of anything but the real thing. She was disdainful of many things over the years, including my long hair, poorly polished shoes, even the tiny tab on my Levi’s jeans. I didn’t visit often enough or stay long enough or… Though I knew she loved me deeply, sometimes it felt that I could do nothing right.

Decades passed. My then partner Doug and I decided to live in Paris for a year. When I went to say goodbye to Baba in summer 1982, she acted as if she’d never see me again. Was she being, as usual, overly dramatic? Didn’t she realize she was the reason I wanted to live in Paris? Writing as often as possible, I hoped she was living vicariously as I recounted our Parisian adventures. It didn’t dawn on me that she wasn’t writing back.

One afternoon, a letter arrived from my mother mentioning that Baba had died on April 6, 1983. My beloved Baba had been dead for a week and I hadn’t even known it. No one had thought to call me or send a telegram. Not that there was anything I could do, but after all, I was still part of this family, even if I was thousands of miles away. Wasn’t I? I was immediately filled with anger. Rage at my mother and brother who had not forewarned me of Baba’s encroaching cancer. Sure, they’d said she was not doing too well, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for this. For days I was devastated, distraught, depressed. 

That August I returned to San Francisco for a job. Though I was disappointed to miss my sister-in-law, Kitty Ann’s, impending visit, Doug promised to show her a good time. During her stay, Kitty Ann told Doug a story, which he in turn relayed to me.

One afternoon Kitty Ann and John had been wandering through a Seattle shopping center, near where my mother lived. In a jewelry shop window, Kitty Ann noticed a pair of unusual rings, immediately recognizing them as Baba’s. Kitty Ann urged John in to the shop where he learned that my mother had placed them there on consignment. When John called Mom for an explanation, she confessed she had none, but he got her to agree to retrieve the rings from the store. Apparently my mother and brother also agreed not to tell me.

As soon as Doug relayed the story, I called my brother to ask about the status of the rings. He was surprised and annoyed that Kitty Ann had brought it up. I told him I was glad to know about what was going on. He said he’d talked to Mom and it was all taken care of.

“What,” I wanted to know, “does that mean?”

“They’re in a safe deposit box. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?”

“Don’t you want your ring?”
“I don’t really care that much.”

“Well, I want mine.”

“That’s between you and Mom. I wouldn’t bring it up right now. I’ve spoken to her about it and it seems to be under control.”

“Okay,” I reluctantly acquiesced.

The more I reflected the more frustrated I became. Baba had told me repeatedly the ring would be mine. My mother had no right to keep it from me. I was convinced she was trying to torment me, or controlling my posthumous relationship with my grandmother. The ring had become a symbol of the long-festering problems with my mother.

In 1985 Mom made a rare visit to San Francisco. We had stopped at Ghirardelli Square where I was blissfully enjoying my hot fudge sundae when I heard her ask, “Do you still want Baba’s ring?”

Caught off guard, I suspected a trap. I took another spoonful and didn’t say anything for a minute. “Yes, why do you ask?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking of having it reworked into something I might wear but I was wondering if you still wanted it.”

“Yes, I do,” I said cautiously.

“Okay, I just wanted to know.”

So I waited.

When John and Kitty Ann came to visit several weeks later, I naively hoped Mom might have given them the ring to bring to me. Not a word. I was beginning to feel manipulated again. When I spoke to John about it, he suggested writing Mom a note to ask her. A direct approach seemed a good idea.

In my carefully worded letter I said that I had been surprised by her question and wondered what her intentions were. I felt better having been straightforward as I waited patiently. Now the ball was in her court.

I never received a response.

Many months later the phone rang. My stomach tightened when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Hello, Mom.” I tried to be cheerful. We made small talk for some time. Idle chat that allowed us to pretend that there was a real relationship happening. Finally, after over twenty minutes of this pleasantly empty repartée, I summoned my courage and – knowing I was asking for trouble – said, “Did you get my letter?”

“Your letter.” She paused. “Oh, yes I did.”

“I didn’t know whether you’d received it since I didn’t get a reply.”

“Well I didn’t know how to respond.”

“So you didn’t respond at all.”

“I guess not.”

“Well, I wrote the letter and as directly as possible requested a reply. I’m disappointed I didn’t hear from you.” I was adopting one of her old tactics. Her “Jimmy, I’m very disappointed in you Jimmy,” had always struck me to the quick.

“I’m not sure why this has turned into such a big issue.”

“Neither do I, but it has, and I’d like to deal with it.”

“Okay, let’s deal with it.”

I could practically hear her putting on boxing gloves. Okay, mine were already on.

“I guess I don’t understand why, knowing that I want Baba’s ring and knowing she wanted me to have it, you can’t give it to me.”

“Why do you want it?”

“I don’t know. I just want a memento of my grandmother.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m not going to do anything with it. I just want it.”

“Well you wanted her posters and I gave you those. And you wanted the sheet music and I gave you that. Who’s to say that if I were to give you the ring, you wouldn’t want something else?”

“Well, maybe you’re right. But I can honestly say that at this point, I don’t think so. I have always wanted the ring. I have always said I wanted the ring. I appreciated getting the posters. I spent a lot of money getting them restored and framed and they’re hanging up and I’m proud of them.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“So what do you want me to do or say? I feel like you’re dangling this ring before me like a carrot. As if it’s the only thing to keep power and control over me. But it’s backfiring. I don’t trust you and I don’t want to have anything to do with you if I can’t trust you.”

“And I can only prove my trust by giving you the ring? I feel like I’m having to buy your love.” 

“Don’t flatter yourself. I may be many things, but I’m not a whore. My love is not for sale. I give it to those I choose to, but it can’t be bought. So don’t insult me.”

“Well, don’t get all worked up.”

“Don’t get all worked up? It’s damn frustrating trying to please you.”

“I feel the same way.”

“Why don’t you give me the ring?”

“How would I get it to you?”

“You could mail it,” I suggested, realizing that we were going around in circles.

“It might get lost in the mail.”

“If you wanted to, we could figure out a way.”

“If I gave you your ring, I’d have to give John his and he’d give it to Kitty Ann and one thing Baba was adamant about was that she didn’t want it to go out of the family.”

“But you were willing to sell it.”

“Well, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was still very upset at my mother’s death.”

“I see.”

“You keep thinking of these excuses,” I continued. “If you wanted to give it to me, you could. You have all these hoops for me to jump through to prove my love, or my worthiness, or something to get this ring. I’m tired of going around and around about it.”

“Me too. Let’s just drop it.”

“Why not drop it in my lap.” I thought I was clever. “Why don’t you go to see a therapist about why you can’t give it to me. I’d just like to understand.”

“Why don’t you write down our conversation, and why you want it, and why I should give it to you, and maybe that would influence my decision.”

Okay, I thought. I’ll jump through yet another set of hoops. “Will you follow my suggestion about seeing someone?”

“I’ll think about it.” There were a few moments of uncharacteristic silence. “I have an offer,” she proposed. “Why don’t you come up for a weekend, we’ll see a counselor together, work on our relationship, improve our communication, and at the end of the weekend I might give you the ring.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I exploded. “I refuse to be manipulated by you to that extent. Why don’t you go and figure out why you can’t give it to me and then we’ll discuss the possibility of me coming up.”

“And in the meantime you’ll write down what the ring has come to symbolize and why you want it.”

“Yes, and you’ll make an appointment to see someone.”

“Well…,” she hesitated.

“Forget it. Let’s just not have anything to do with one another. I’m not interested in a relationship with someone I can’t trust.”

“Okay, to hell with you,” my mother said.

“Wait a second. I don’t think either of us want that. Let’s back up a second. What happened to the place where you went to get help?”

“I don’t need to figure out why I don’t want to give it to you. I don’t want you to have it! There!”

“Well, that’s a step toward honesty. Why not, do you think?”

“Oh god. I don’t know, Jimmy.” By now I could hear her sobbing. “Why can’t everything just be okay between us?”

Though by now she was getting to me — and she knew it — I refused to be taken in by her tears.

“I’d like that too. That’s what I’m working toward. In my therapy and in my life. But it’s not easy.”

“It sure isn’t. Well, I’ll think about it.”

“Okay, let’s think about it.” I was emotionally drained by the time I hung up. Why did we put ourselves through this every time we spoke? What was the payoff?

So some months later I flew to Seattle for a weekend of what I sarcastically called “couples counseling.” I had allowed Mom to choose the therapist, one with whom she’d been working for some years, in hopes she would be more comfortable with someone familiar. I even agreed to pay for our sessions, trusting that my insurance would cover the costs. To make the most of my short time in the area, we scheduled a two-hour session on Saturday, and another double session on Sunday.

In the therapist’s office Mom immediately commandeered the situation. She placed a box of tissue on a nearby table. “This will come in handy,” she predicted. Then she pulled a photograph of her mother from her purse, setting it in a place where Baba could oversee the proceedings. “I just know she’ll come up in conversation,” Mom announced, “so I thought I’d bring her out now.” Despite Baba’s efforts to ameliorate my relationship with Mom, the relations between the three of us had often been fraught. I hoped that the next thing pulled from her purse would be the ring, but no.

The four hours ended up being an exercise in frustration and futility. As we approached the last hour on Sunday my mother exclaimed, “It’s just not worth it.” I translated this to mean, “You’re just not worth it.” I felt that I had been rejected. There seemed nothing more to do or say.

I was surprised when the therapist allowed my mother to continue beyond the session’s time limit. I had never seen that happen. I was maddened by what I saw as my mother’s manipulation and the therapist’s inability to maintain boundaries. I was also angry that after all my efforts I was leaving without the ring.

I moved on. For the next two decades I had as little to do with my mother as possible. Over the years brother reported, intermittently, on her situation. I wished her well, but couldn’t cope with her toxicity.

One day John called to say that she had cancer, which had been worsening. If I wanted to see her I should do it sooner rather than later. I had been awaiting this call for years. I immediately called Mom, and quickly made plans to visit. My boyfriend, Allen, who had never met my mom, had heard my many horror stories. We flew up and John drove us to north Seattle, where she lived. After she ushered the three of us into her cluttered apartment, she scurried off.

“I have something for you,” my mother reentered the room. She was holding a book and some papers as she walked toward where I was seated on the end of the couch. I didn’t have time to wonder what it might be when suddenly I felt something hard hit my thigh, then heard it thud onto the carpet. It appeared as if she’d thrown it at me or perhaps it had accidentally slid off the pile. I reached down, picked it up, and brought the object into my range of vision. I recognized it instantly. Inside a miniscule zip-lock bag was my grandmother’s ring.

I looked up at my mother.

“I always intended to give it to you,” she said. “I just didn’t want to mail it.”         

I didn’t trust myself to respond so I said nothing.

“Like a joke,” John quipped from across the room, “it’s all in the delivery.”

I looked down at the ring and back up at my mother. “Thank you.”

There was no apology from her, no further appreciation from me. It was as if the unacknowledged quarter-century dispute had never existed.

 “While I’m up,” Mom said to my brother, “do you want yours, John?’

“That’s okay,” he said. I couldn’t quite comprehend his disinterest while I was so desirous.

“Oh, and I have been saving this for you,” she continued, handing me a large-print edition of an Audrey Hepburn biography, as if the two gifts were of equal importance. I thanked her for her thoughtfulness, even though I was pretty sure I’d already read it. She showed me photocopies of various articles or cartoons that had reminded her of me. She seemed to have been collecting these offerings for some time.

The conversation continued around me but I felt disoriented, lost in my thoughts. I opened the plastic bag, took out the ring, and slipped it onto my little figurer. A surge of sadness started to sweep through me. I thought of how many years had gone since Baba had died and before her ring had finally come to me. Looking at the ring on my finger, I recognized that my relationship with my mother had finally shifted. Something had begun to thaw. A chunk of an iceberg had broken off, and I was holding it up to the light.

I quickly removed the ring. This wasn’t the time or place to deal with my strong emotions I slipped it back into its bag and put it in my pocket. It was time to leave for the restaurant where John had made lunch reservations. We got lost on the way, but everyone laughed good-naturedly until we eventually arrived.

Later I sensed that my mother hadn’t actually handed the ring to me. Baba’s spirit, I believed, had intervened to bestow it, sending it sailing across the room to land at my feet. 

When my mother died, some months later, it was in her apartment, surrounded by her beloved tchatchkes. Reportedly she listened to recordings of her mother singing, recordings I had made for her, lifting her arms as if conducting a celestial chorus. I was surprised I never shed a tear. I was filled with gratitude she had as she wished, peacefully and painlessly at home.

Friends were impressed when I showed them my grandmother’s ring. Someone suggested it might be valuable and recommended that I take it to be appraised. I learned about a free appraisal clinic offered by Bonham & Butterfield every month. The first Monday morning in February I walked down the hill to the auction house with the ring in my pocket. When I turned the corner I saw that there was already a long line of hopefuls waiting for the doors to open. It reminded me of the time Allen and I had stood in a similar line in the hopes of appearing on Antiques Roadshow television program. Allen brought several objects from his “Ferdinand the Bull” collection and suggested I bring two of Baba’s smaller posters. The point, he explained, was not really the value but getting ourselves onto the program.

Standing in line by myself this time at Butterfield’s I saw that people had brought a similar assortment of treasures. With their family heirlooms or flea market finds — vases, paintings, wagons of tchotchkes – everyone was there in hopes of learning they had found a fortune. People around me were kibitzing merrily, while I remained silent, contemplating the possible value of my newly acquired ring. Perhaps it would be worth thousands and I could buy a house, or – I caught myself before my fantasies ran too wild.

Finally the doors opened and the line started moving, slowly. When my turn came I was ushered into a small room where a middle-aged woman conducted the jewelry appraisals. I presented her with the ring and held my breath. She studied it carefully with her loop, noting that there was no craftsman’s mark and that none of the small stones were particularly distinctive.  That sounded right, Baba had referred to them as chips. Then the appraiser said it was worth “forty six hundred dollars.” At least that’s what I thought I heard. I was disappointed: $4600 was considerably less than I’d anticipated. Then I realized what she’d actually said was “four to six hundred dollars.”

That’s all? I could scarcely contain my shock as I picked up the ring and put it back in my pocket. The appraiser smiled sympathetically before beckoning to the next hopeful.

As I exited the room, I laughed. At least now I wouldn’t have to worry about insuring it, or even consider the possibility of selling it. Not that I would ever have been able to bring myself to part with such an important symbol, but if it had been worth thousands I might have been tempted. Even in my disappointment I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to evaluate the ring’s sentimental versus its monetary value.

I created an altar of family heirlooms, and Baba’s ring became its centerpiece. I showed it to friends and mostly ignored it.

One day Allen asked about it. When I went to look for it in its usual place it wasn’t there. Had I put it someplace “special”? Had someone taken it? But who, when? It didn’t seem likely.

I was proud of myself for not having a major meltdown. I was upset, curious and disappointed, but I didn’t rage and cry and wail as I might have. It was gone.

Some weeks later, during an acupuncture treatment, I was lying on the table wearing nothing but my boxer shorts when I felt the presence of my grandmother. It wasn’t the first time she’d “visited,” so I took it in stride. After an initial “conversation,” I asked about the ring. “I took it back,” she said. “It was needed elsewhere.”  However cryptic the response, somehow that’s all I needed to know. The ring had come full circle.