It was the first time my sister and I were both home for Christmas since we were kids. We’re both home at our parents' request because they’re finally preparing to move to a retirement community in Palm Springs.
“And we’re not moving with all of your crap,” my mother told me over a phone call back in October. While I doubted the teeth of her threat of putting my surfboard, dresser, and books on the curb, I didn’t want to test her.
So I’m here in San Carlos, shoveling through years of forgotten garbage. Together we manage to shove the pocket door open that separates our two childhood bedrooms. She plugs in the old stereo and lets whatever CD is in there spin. We wait for a tense moment, then smile when the sound of The Smith’s fills both bedrooms.
We spend the afternoon laughing as we purge and reminisce over the relics of our childhood. A mountain of cardboard boxes completely full of Beanie Babies. A massive talking teddy bear that now sounds possessed when he says “I love you…” Old diaries, full of Oscar worthy teen angst. I unearth an old black jewelry box, the vintage red-headed barbie winking up at me from the lid. It’s my sister’s. I open it to discover a treasure trove of random teenage keepsakes, old perfume samples, a greasy separated lipgloss, a silver wrist cuff neither of us would ever pluck up the courage to wear, and a small gold ring set with a single tiny white pearl way too small for either of us to wear.
I pause, considering the ring briefly while a bubble of rotten jealousy rises in my chest. I pull the ring from its resting place and present it to my sister. She turns and eyes it for a moment.
“Oh,” she says fondly, “is that the ring grandpa made for me?”
I confirm her suspicion and she looks on for a second and smiles. “I forgot about that…” she says, then my sister turns her attention back to the task, she pulls the lid off of a shoebox and examines the contents before tossing most of it aside.
I bristle at her reaction. She realizes what I’m holding, she just told me what it was. Doesn’t she want to look at it? To hold it?
Grandpa was a Jeweler
I was five the first time we made the drive from San Francisco to Helper, Utah. My grandparents had retired to the quiet little farming community, and were getting a little too old to make the drive to us.
“Is it a big house?” I ask my mother.
“No, but I’m sure they’ll make room for us.” I watch the red rock formations grow larger through the car window. The town emerges from the hot sand and dust unexpectedly.
She was right, it was not a big house. Just two small bedrooms with a bathroom between them. An old fashioned kitchen and a living room, practically wallpapered with photos of my mother and her siblings either dressed in pastels or bleached from the sun from years and years past. Off the kitchen there’s a mudroom and a sticky backdoor I can’t open alone. I spot a handle on a cut out section on the floor. It’s odd, I’ve never seen anything like it. My mother tells me it’s the door to their cellar and grandpa’s workshop.
“Grandpa was a jeweler.”
My mother explains this to me as grandpa leads us down the old cellar steps. It’s dark and musty in his workshop until he flicks a light on from the other side of the shop. He rests a funny set of glasses on his head as he ties his work apron behind his back.
“Here,” he says, holding out his hand to my mother. She produces a tiny pearl ring and places it in his hand. He made it for my sister when she was my age. Now she’s eight, and the ring needs resizing desperately if she wants to continue wearing it. With an expert nod, the glasses drop from Grandpa’s head onto the bridge of his nose, he begins examining the ring for any other repairs that might be necessary. I giggle softly to myself, Grandpa looks up, and makes a funny face as he gazes across the cellar workshop at me, buggy eyed behind his jeweler glasses.
“Looks like it’s in pretty good shape…” He discusses details with my mother about how he’ll size it a little big for her so she gets more wear out of it, but not so big that she’ll lose it.
I watch as he goes to work, filing the ring in half.
Zig-Zig Zig-Zig Zig-Zig
The file sings as he works, then then with a jolt, it breaks through the ring. He flips his funny spectacles up and grabs a little box from a nearby shelf. He takes a bit of gold from the box and steps over to me by the press. It reminds me of a pasta roller, until he turns it on. The machine whirls to live, making such a racket, I watch, mesmerized as the little lump of gold goes through the gold roller, a little flatter each time it goes through. Seeing my interest and feeling funny, Grandpa grabs my wrist and brings my little fingers dangerously close to the machine. He cries “DON’T PUT YOUR FINGERS IN THERE!”
I scream, and attempt to snatch my hand away. My five-year-old strength leaves me dangling by my wrist as the lights from my sneakers flash on the dirty linoleum floor. Grandpa lets go, as if surprised by my reaction and I retreat to the racks of sealed jars of grandma’s cannery.
After reassurance that grandpa was just playing I resigned to pout a bit longer at my mother’s side at the corner of the workbench. Grandpa tinkers with the ring, slips it down the sizer, then tinkers with it some more. When he’s satisfied he places the ring in a vice, the tiny purl dipped in a small dish of water. Before he ignites his torch, he turns to my mother and me.
“Don’t look at the light,” he advises, and the torch sparks to life and my mother puts her hand over my eyes and draws me closer to her thigh. Apparently not to be trusted.
He shapes, buffs, and polishes the ring until there is no evidence that it had ever been split.
Once it’s cool enough, he hands it to my mother for inspection who thanks him. She passes it to me and I slip it onto my own finger. My mother gasps, embarrassed, and my grandpa, amused, laughs. “Now now, little one, that’s your sisters isn’t it? Not yours.”
We climb up out of the gritty cellar workshop and I watch as he returns the right to my sister. She beams with pride at the tiny purl, and throws her arms around our grandpa. She holds her hand out, fluttering her fingers at me, showing off.
“Can I have one too Grandpa?” I ask timidly.
My mother mutters a soft admonishment, Grandpa just smiles and scoops me up into his lap.
“Let’s see…” He scratches his chin. “Krissy was born in June…” He says, “Jessie was born in July?”
I shake my head.
“April,” my mother provides.
He screws up his face and sighs.
“Just like your mother,” he smiles sadly. “I’m afraid you’re gonna have to wait, little one.”
“Wait?” I ask, like it’s a foreign concept.
He’s good natured so he laughs.
“Yes, wait! Wait until you find a boy who wants to marry you. When he does, you tell him come see me.”
“Why?” I’m five, and not the best at picking up his subtlety. He laughs again.
“Because, Grandpa will make you a diamond ring. Like he did for your mama, and your grandma.”
I sigh. Sensing my disappointment, he begins to waver.
“Or maybe…Grandpa can find something small that would work…”
“Dad…” My mom says warily.
“Don’t worry Gloria, I’m talking more along the lines of diamond dust than a stone.” My heart leaps at mental image, diamond dust, I repeat inside my head. “But it might be a year or two…” Grandpa tags on, trying to appease my mother.
“That’s probably for the best,” my mother comments. “We want to hold off on more precious things until you’re a little more responsible with less precious things.” She raises an eyebrow, and immediately I think of the three lunch boxes, two sweaters, and thermos that went missing last year from daycare.
I start to protest, but the argument is lost before it even starts. I don’t have a leg to stand on and even I know it, so I go for the single most sacred oath a five year old knows.
“Pinky promise?” I hold out my tiny little pinky. He chuckles and nods. Wrapping his pinky around mine.
“I promise,” he says firmly.
Grandpa was Strong
The following summer was hot. The day we arrived in Utah is not different. In fact, it so so hot that my sister and I were surprised to see Grandpa working hard, painting the one side of their old weather beaten home. Grandma comes out of the door front door waving to us as we trundle up the driveway.
We aren’t there long when the sun begins to set, and my sister and I are forced inside. The grown ups had made plans for the following morning, and we are sent to bed shortly after that.
The following morning, we rise early and all six of us pack into the Toyota Camry. It had been almost two hours in the car, double buckled with my sister to make room for my grandparents. I was snoozing against Grandma’s shoulder, when my sister’s voice wakes me.
“How much longer?”
She dares to ask. I watch our father’s eyes flick upwards in the rearview mirror, a smile crinkles the corners of his eyes before he brightly says, “Five more minutes.”
Our grandparents chuckle. My sister sighs sullenly, before casting her eyes out the window. It didn’t matter if it was five minutes, or five hours to our destination, dad’s answer was always the same.
“It’ll be worth it,” Grandpa reassures us from the other side of the back seat.
Half an hour later, when we finally parked and piled out of the car at Moab National Park, we weren’t disappointed. The massive rock structures, the red dirt, and of course, the arches.
We spend all day chasing each other around the valley floor. Clouds of dirt and dust, the only marker for our grown ups to know which way we went. That afternoon we made our way up the trail to Corona arch.
On the cables my feet slip against the rock. The farther ahead my sister gets, the faster my heart races, urging myself to keep up, knowing I’m losing ground. Just when I’m about to call out, I feel his shoulder under my bottom.
“Need a little boost, Jessie?” I smile as Grandpa continues hiking the cables, supporting my weight. I giggle, leaning back until my body is perpendicular to the rock wall, dangling slightly from the cables as he carries me upwards.
Once we’re atop the arch, the entire valley is laid out in front of us. My sister, and I crowd around him as Grandpa points out familiar formations across the valley, places we would have to see, next time.
Grandpa was Sick
The following summer rolls around as does our annual trip to Utah. As we make the drive through the Nevada desert I daydream about what we’ll do. More hikes, rock formations, this year may even be the year grandpa makes me my diamond dust ring.
When we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I immediately notice the place is different. I discover it’s because grandpa isn’t living at home with grandma anymore.
He’d begun having trouble with his memory. On several occasions my Grandpa had apparently called the police, and told them there were children being murdered in the street. He left the house in the middle of the night, when local police picked him up, he told them he’d just escaped a POW camp in Rheinberg and he had important information the US military needed to know.
Of course, being the tender age of seven, I wasn’t privy to all this information. Instead, my mother simply said,
“Grandpa is sick.”
I feel my eyebrows knit together at this insufficient explanation.
“Well then…he should be home resting, right?”
“Oh honey,” she says with the hint of a sad smile on her lips. “This is a different kind of sick. Do you remember last winter, when Krissy got the flu and had to live in the hospital so they could take care of her for a few days?”
I nod, still frowning.
“Grandpa is in a special type of hospital, where they can take care of him. But don’t worry, we’re going to see him tomorrow.”
The drive to the assisted living home is short, and I’m the first to point out that it doesn’t look anything like a hospital. We get inside, and while it still, doesn’t look like a hospital, there’s a smell. The numerous floral arrangements in the entryway mask it, but I can’t ignore it. The nurse at the desk helps us to the memory care unit. She tells my parents the code and the door buzzes, to let us through.
“Room 224.” I hustle down the hallway and find the door to the room in question is open, Grandpa sitting at a table, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I beam at him from the door way, he looks up sensing my presence, then turns back to his meal.
“Grandpa…” I say, he looks toward me again.
“Are you talking to me?”
I laugh, thinking it’s a joke.
“Yes, Grandpa! Who else would I be talking to?”
He looks around, as if trying to find an answer.
A moment later my family catches up.
“Charles,” my mother calls to him. He looks up, she’s gotten his attention.
“Yes?” He says curiously.
“It’s me,” she puts her hand on his shoulder. “It’s Gloria, I’m your daughter…”
I watch my grandfather sit up, look my mother right in the face, study her for a moment then he shakes his head. Worry passing over wrinkled face.
“No…” he sounds confused, he knows Gloria, he knows who she is but this person right in front of him, is not her.
I’m confused, wrestling with the impossibility of a father forgetting his daughter, when it dawns on me. If he doesn’t remember her, of course he doesn’t remember me.
All at once I’m crying. My sister takes my hand. She’s older, there’s something here that she understands that I won’t for years.
“Jessie…” she says my name as she tries to lead me out of the room. The sudden uptick of emotions disturbs the practiced tranquility of the room, and the tears just keep coming. My grandpa registers that I’m upset, he looks at me, befuddled, then offers me the other half of his uneaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I dare to look up into his eyes, he’s staring down at me, curiously, there’s no recognition there.
“Can you take her?” I hear someone suggest, my father scoops me up.
“No…” Grandpa says again.
“It’s ok, Dad,” my mother argues.
“No…little girl!” He calls after me.
But we’re down the hall in a matter of seconds and through the keypad door. I hear a loud thump and look up over my father’s shoulder, Grandpa’s face framed in the single pane of glass. When the door doesn’t give, there’s another thump as he tries opening it again. I watch his confused distressed face for as long as I can, but we turn the corner, and he’s gone.
It wasn’t long after that we would be making an unexpected trip to Utah. We would bury him six months later.
Grandpa was Gone
Fifteen years later, I’m with my sister again in our childhood bedrooms, and I’m still holding the same small pearl ring out to her as she continues with her work. That rotten jealousy and frustration for her disregard mix uncomfortably in my chest. She realizes what I’m holding and just goes back to work? We spent half an hour talking about Beanie Babies, but we can’t even pause for this? Don’t we owe our grandfather at least that?
You’re being a little ridiculous, I think to myself.
All these emotions over a bit of gold over a teeny tiny pearl. But as I stare, I have to confess to myself, that the ring is so much more than the sum of its parts. I selfishly think that the pearl ring means more to me than it does to my sister. The cruelty of the thought gives me pause, I don’t want that to be true, or how I feel. To my sister, the ring is a gift our grandpa made her when she was a child, it belongs to her. But to me, it’s a reminder of a promise, and my grandfather would never have the chance to keep.
I close my fist around the ring and think about pocketing it. It’s just been sitting in this box for years, would she really miss it?
I look across the room to my sister, who cinches up another garbage bag and leaves the room to throw it out. I open my hand to consider the ring one more time, I run a finger along the golden circle, place it between with little cushions in the jewelry box, and let the lid tip closed without another sound.
After all, it’s my sister’s, not mine.