She gave me a ring; rose gold, with a Celtic Cross made of turquoise, a diamond at its center, this woman whose name I can no longer remember.
I saw her sitting there, on a bench in a dark corner of a popular eatery in St. Simons. The to-go line. She wore a veil of lonesomeness. Widowed? Divorced? Or just deflated?
I smiled as I passed by her on my way to the bathroom. She smiled back when I came out.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She seemed to have anticipated the question. “Join me?” she replied.
We climbed into her black Lexus, and drove to her island home. There were people there, waiting for the food. Not family, the kind of people who hang around the very wealthy and evaporate once the money is gone. They took the boxes of food and wandered off to other rooms.
We talked about island history, her history. She was in the midst of a divorce. A bitter one. She raged and wept, intermittently, the way the grieving do, tossed between regret and remembrances.
It occurred to me more than once that she was not right in the head. Or perhaps I had not been. Why had I gotten into a car with a forlorn stranger and allowed her to drive me to her home? No one knew where I was. I didn’t even know for sure. Was I auditioning for a Dateline special? What had drawn me to this woman with the blond bob and sunken eyes?
The grief police, that’s a label someone attached to me once. The remark was intended to demean me and it did. It made me withdraw in a way that very few slurs ever had before. I began to doubt myself: Was he right? Was my reaching out to those in grief more about me and less about them? Did I think I was the high priestess of grief? Did others mock me for that?
But this was long after that night at St. Simons, back when I believed every encounter was ordained by the Great Poet. A time when I trusted others and myself.
Careless, my mother, the prison nurse, called it, although, I never told her about the island encounter. “You’ll end up dead somewhere, someday.”
I suppose we all do, one way or another.
She drove me home, the woman whose name I don’t recall. “Hold on,” she said, as I reached to open the car door. “I have something for you.” She dug deep into her black Hermès purse and pulled out a small plastic baggie. “I want you to have this.” She placed it in my lap.
“No, I can’t,” I said, and handed it back to her, unopened.
“I want you to have it,” she insisted.
Mama Burke had chided me once when I was a teen: When somebody does something nice for you, don’t fight them on it. Learn to say thank you instead. Sometimes they just need to do it. It was a lesson I taught my own children later: Let people be a blessing to you. Learn to say thank you.
“Thank you,” I said, slipping the ring out of the bag. It was an unusual ring, reminiscent of the tombstone crosses I had seen earlier that day while wandering through the island’s ancient cemetery collecting stories.
I never told my own mother about the ring the woman gave me, not even when she lay upon her own deathbed awaiting her time.
“Is there anything of mine you want?” she asked.
“Just one thing,” I said.
“The Mother’s Ring Daddy gave you.”
The last gift he had given her before departing for Vietnam. It had been destroyed twice. Once when I was a freshman in college, it had slipped off Mama’s finger into the garbage disposal. She retrieved it before it was completely obliterated. I snuck it out of her jewelry box and took it to a shop to get it repaired.
“It would be cheaper for you to replace it,” the shopkeeper said.
“I don’t want it replaced,” I said. “I want it fixed.”
I paid for it out of my own school funds and gave it back to Mama that year for Christmas. She never said much about the gift but she wore it daily. Years later, she would damage it again, and once more I took it to the shop to get it fixed and returned to her. She thanked me.
Throughout the months she was dying, Mama sat on the side of her bed and told me to go over to her jewelry box and retrieve the ring. So I did as I was told. I searched for the ring.
It was gone.
“It’s not here, Mama,” I said.
“Where can it be?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
This scene would be repeated almost weekly. She would tell me to go look again for the ring that wasn’t there. I would look through all the piles of jewelry, only to come away empty-handed. Both my siblings knew the story behind the ring. I knew they would never have taken it.
“I wonder what could have happened to the ring?” Mama would ask.
I tried not to think about it.Even now, I try not to think about it. But it is as Tim O’ Brien said: “The thing about remembering is you don’t forget.”
The last time Mama instructed me to go search for the ring, I told her there was no need. One of my siblings told me she had already given the ring away, that first night she came home from the hospital. Mama had known all along that the ring held meaning for me, a symbol of sacrifice and restoration, something that marked our entire relationship as mother and daughter. Yet, for reasons inexplicable to me, she gave the ring to another family member.
I don’t begrudge the receiver. I love them. That’s what I told my mother the last time she encouraged me to go look once again for the ring she knew was no longer there.
“I know you already gave it away, Mama.”
Her face registered a bit of childlike guilt and a bit of adult-like gotcha. Had she enjoyed the mockery of making me search over and over again for the thing she wanted me to know was hers to do with as she pleased? Was this a game that entertained her? She clearly had been purposeful in her choice to give the ring away and in her prodding me to search for it.
“What are you going to do about it?” Mama asked.
“Do?” I replied. “Nothing. I’m not going to do anything about it because I love my family, but we are never going to talk about this again, okay?”
“Okay,’ she replied, and we never did. After all, the value of any ring is not found in the gemstones from which it is constructed, but in the story the ring-holder possesses. I still have the stories of the ring.
Eight years ago this very week, I received the call from my brother telling me that our mother was dying. From the night of that call until she died the day after Christmas, my siblings and I were at our mother’s side, nursing her, tenderly and with respect, the way she had nursed thousands of patients throughout her long career.
Sometimes, I slip on the ring the woman whose name I can’t recall gave me. It had been a gift from her grandfather, she told me.
“Don’t you want to keep it?” I asked. “You really should keep it.”
“No,” she said. “I want you to have it.”
I thanked her and eased out of the car, never to see her again.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).