It’s just another island holiday… Monday it was the King’s Birthday, yesterday (Thursday), the Queen’s Birthday, and today is Labor Day. This series of holidays seems to always fall at the end of the island’s Carnival celebration. Sint Maarten–the Dutch half of the island of St. Martin–is pretty much the last Carnival during “High Season,” the months that are cold up north, and Americans, Canadians, and Europeans flock to the island for warmth. Labor Day made the work week two days long this year–well, every year actually–and the one thing that is irritating to this expat American is that no newspapers are printed on the Dutch side during holidays. On the other hand, it gives the non-working population of the island an extra day of leisure.
Most island residents spend Labor Day at the beach. It is almost impossible to navigate any Dutch-side road near a beach until closer to nightfall, because islanders think nothing of parking the way I’ve seen Native Americans on the Navajo Reservation park: it there’s room to open the doors, it’s a parking space. It’s even better when you can just leave your car wherever it happened to stop, but sometimes you have to part between cars, and if the road is almost blocked when you stop, that’s not a problem. If I were a tourist, I’d be annoyed I that I couldn’t get closer to the beach, or that I will undoubtedly put a long scrape into my rental car as I try to maneuver my way cautiously down the road. But I’m not a tourist, and have come to think more like an islander, and just stay put or drive to the French side, whose holidays tend to fall on different dates that celebrate their own special occassions.
Island life has nothing to do with today’s post–the final assignment for Writing 101, the last day when I am forced to take my thoughts along a different path assigned by the class moderator, the last day–until the next writing class–that I have a prompt and “twist” to words I type to the computer’s screen. And today I will be writing about something I treasure. And that is a “diamond ring.”
Just over two years ago, as I unpacked the boxes containing those pieces of our lives that didn’t get sold or sent to Good Will or tossed or given to neighbors and friends, I came across a tiny suede pouch on a plastic string. The pouch was something my son picked up at a fair or something when he was very young. Inside the pouch was a ring he purchased for me during his school’s Christmas Bazaar when he was in second grade. It is an adjustable “gold” ring of cheap metal, and set in the center of this ring is a “diamond,” a roughly cut piece of some sort of glassy material. I had given him the 50 cents he needed to make his secret purchase–he was short of cash because he had bought some holiday cookies–and he had done an extra chore around the house to repay me afterwards.
For three weeks he kept it hidden, wrapped in a scrap of school drawing paper, a corner piece probably ripped from one of the art projects he was doing in class. On Christmas Eve, with our tradition of opening one gift each before going to bed, Josh could no longer contain his excitement about his little purchase, and handed me a tiny packet of crayon-covered paper, neatly folded into an oblong, with the ends tucked under and roughly cut so the ends overlapped each other the length of the “main” section. the little bundle was wrapped in so many layers of cellophane tape running east-west and north-south that it took quite a bit of time to break open the gaily colored wrapper. He watched me intently as I tried to open the packet without harming the wrapper on which he had painstakingly drawn a candy cane and some holly, as well as an attempt at Santa Claus–all on a scrap that turned out to be no more than three inches square. Inside, I found the ring. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Is this why you needed extra money at the bazaar?”
He nodded solemnly, eyes blazing with pride at having selected such a beautiful piece of jewelry, and a blush spreading across his creamy skin. I watched him speechless as a hint of doubt suddenly dampened the light in his eyes, and a small frown appeared where the expectant smile had just been. I hugged him fiercely, and told him again how beautiful it was, and thanked him for his thoughtful little gift. “I heard you tell Aunt Berni,” he said, “that the next time you get married you’d make sure you at least got a diamond ring first. I keep thinking you and Dad will get married again, and I thought if you had the diamond ring you’d be happier and you’d marry each other again.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. “Sweetheart,”I said as a drop of salty water fell along my nose and on to the scrap of drawing, “I’ve tried to explain to you that Dad has Dale now and they are getting married soon. Dad can’t have two wives, and we don’t love each other that way any more. I’m so sorry. But the ring is beautiful, and I will wear it every day, just because it is a gift from you.”
My daughter Amy, older than Josh by two and a half years, stormed from the living room with its brightly decorated tree, covered with hand-sewn ornaments I had made every year of the thirteen that I had been married to their father. A few more had been added since we separated, as I was determined to keep up the tradition for as long as I could. It gave me a sense of continuity to have those ornaments on the tree–the only meaningful items I had rescued from the house my son grew up in until he was almost four. Each year, the ornaments the kids made at school were added to the tree as well, and each year since the divorce we would decide which of their and “my” hand-made ornaments would be put on the front of the tree, and which would be relegated to the back of the tree. Every once in a while, one of the kids would decide that an ornament he or she had made needed to be thrown out. I, of course, could never throw out something they had made with their own little hands as the years went by. So even if an ornament didn’t even make it to the back of the tree, it simply remained in the ornament box, waiting for the other ones to join them until the following year.
But just right then, neither of us was thinking about ornaments. Josh and I sat on the sofa with our arms wrapped around each other in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts as tears washed down our faces. Terra, our young dog, climbed up on our laps to give us some comfort, while Tiger the cat slept quietly under the tree branches on the handmade tree skirt. Tiger had pushed away gift boxes to make himself a nest, and my eyes fell on him as I held Josh and absently scratched Terra behind the ears. Funny thing about Tiger, I thought. He doesn’t seem to mind that the tree is artificial. He’s sleeping under it the way he sleeps under the branches of the fir at the side of our garage.
Suddenly, my daughter re-entered the room and threw something at me. To be honest, I don’t remember what her gift to me had been. Anger flashed through her eyes like a burning branch, so different from the light in Josh’s eyes when he gave me his gift. Her cheeks were flushed not with his bashfulness, but with rage. Frankly, it hurt when her gift hit my chest. “You might as well open this.” Her words were like a slap in the face. I tried to get her to sit down with us, as Terra approached her to calm her with her presence. But Amy turned on her heel and raced up the steps to her attic room, just opposite Josh’s. Her bed was almost above the sofa, and I heard the impact of her body hitting the mattress and straining the wheeled bed frame. Josh and I exchanged a look, and he nodded, indicating I should go check on his sister.
Stifled sobs came from Amy’s room as I approached her door at the top of the stairs. I knocked, as I always do–it’s just a little courtesy I tried to instill in the kids and followed myself. “Go away!” she screamed through her sobs.
“Can’t do that,” I said. “You’re my daughter and I want to make sure you’re OK.”
“Just leave me alone!” she shouted.
“When you’re ready to talk about what’s bothering you,” I replied through the firmly shut door, “I’ll be downstairs waiting for you.”
“Yeah? You’ll be waiting all night, then.”
“Then I’ll wait all night,” I responded, and descended a bit more shakily than I ascended.”
Back in the living room, I asked Josh if he would like to watch one of the Christmas movies we had on VCR. “Pick one out and put it in while I make us some hot chocolate,” I told him.
“With a candy cane to stir it with?”
“Of course!” I replied. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a candy cane to stir the cocoa!” We exchanged a smile, and I walked into the kitchen, with was on the other side of the staircase. As the milk was heating under a very low flame, I climbed the steps to Amy’s door again, and invited her down for cocoa. She didn’t reply, and I returned to my task, raising the flame under the pot of milk, making certain that there was enough milk in the pot for all three of us, even if Amy ignored the lure.
Cocoa powder and sugar melted and stirred thoroughly back into the milk, I poured out two mugs, tore the cellophane from two blue-striped candy canes (both kids’ favorites), and carried the cups into the living room, setting them on the glass-topped coffee table in front of the sofa. Terra sniffed at the steam still drifting from the mugs, and decided she wasn’t interested in the contents. She wouldn’t have gotten any regardless, as I had no idea how much or how little chocolate would sicken a dog. Tiger was still curled up among the rest of the gifts under the tree–the ones marked “from Mom” or from friends who always remembered the kids at Christmas (my son was eight and was just beginning to wonder if Santa was real, and I wasn’t willing to break the enchantment just yet). Josh pushed the start button on the VCR player, and snuggled up to me on the sofa, letting his cocoa cool a bit. “Is she OK?” he asked.
I sighed. “I hope so. We’ll find out later, I suppose.”
“She misses having Christmas with Dad,” he stated.
“But he’s picking you up tomorrow to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa K.” I replied. “I think something else is bothering her. She’ll talk when she’s ready.” Terra nudged between us just as Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer began to play. “You love this tape, don’t you?” He nodded, put his head on my shoulder, crowding out the dog, and watched the TV. Half-way through the show, Amy came down the steps as though nothing had happened. Her eyes were still red, but she passed by the living room to the tiny bathroom we all shared. A few minutes later, she came out with her face a bit damp from the water she had splashed on it, and walked into the kitchen.
“Is this for me?” she asked, apparently spotting the cocoa still in the pot.
“Yep. Pour some for yourself and unwrap a candy cane,” I called out. “Just stir it up a bit before you pour or all the chocolate will stay in the pot.”
Soon she settled onto the sofa next to me, but leaving several inches of space between us. “This again, Josh? Don’t you get tired of that stupid reindeer?” Josh ignored the remark and reached for his cocoa, which had cooled enough that it wouldn’t burn his tongue. “You didn’t open my present yet.” She spoke at me almost accusingly.
“Wouldn’t dream of opening your gift without you here,” I replied. “Mind if I wait until Rudolf is over?”
“Sorry I threw it at you. Did it hurt?”
“Barely noticed,” I replied, although I knew there would be a mark on my chest when I changed into my nightgown.
“You’re wearing Josh’s ring,” she noticed. I nodded, but said nothing. “You mad at me?” I shook my head, no. She closed the bit of space between us, holding her mug as if to warm her hands. I set my mug down on the table and wrapped my empty arm around her waist. We all sat like that until the end of the tape. As Josh got up to rewind it, he asked his sister if there was something she wanted to watch. This was an unusual request from my son, and Amy stared at him in surprise for a brief moment before shaking her head. “No. Whatever you pick is fine with me.” Another surprise for me. “Will you open my present now, while Josh is changing the tape?”
I picked the thin box off the table and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was a plastic-encased bookmark with a cord tassel. It featured a rainbow and a Care Bear. “I love it,” I said. “I needed a new bookmark.” She smiled. I had been complaining a few months back that it would be nice to have something other than torn newspaper to hold my place when I closed a book. She remembered. “Before you start the next movie, Josh, I think each of you should choose a present and open it. You both wanted me to open a gift first, so now it’s your turn.”
Each grabbed a box so readily that I knew they had chosen their Christmas Eve present earlier. Amy opened a book from her friend Sara; Josh opened a box of Matchbox cars from my friend Terry. As they sat on the floor in front of the tree examining their gifts, I turned on the VCR which played Miracle on 34th Street (the original, for those who know it’s been remade with fresh actors). They each grabbed a toss pillow from the sofa and made themselves comfortable on the rug. After a few minutes, I stopped the tape and suggested they get their sleeping bags so they’d be more comfortable. They raced each other up the stairs and dragged down unrolled sleeping bags. Neither bothered to open them, and there was a bit of a tussle as each tried to get more comfortable. I helped them out by pushing the coffee table out of the way to give them more room. As they lay near my feet with their heads almost touching, I remembered that they would be leaving early the next day to spend a few days with their father, Dale, and their paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But they would get up as soon as the sun was up, racing downstairs to get me up so that the rest of the gifts–including those that Santa would leave later that night–and then they would be gone for several days.
Next year they would spend Christmas with me, but this year it was their Dad’s turn. I would miss them, even though I would be driving up to spend the day with my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and their two young children. I put on the ring Josh had given me, and wore it the whole day, even though the kids weren’t there.
Treasure Past and Treasure Future…
As I moved from one state to the next–after marrying Joe–I was always surprised when I unpacked and found that little “diamond” ring among my belongings. It has been replaced by a real diamond ring, since Josh made sure Joe knew that it was part of the marriage contract. But I still have that first one–the adjustable one whose band has become green with age, and the sparkle has dulled with years. It was only a few weeks ago when I had the energy to sort out some of my belongings that I last saw it and placed it on my finger. It still has the power to bring on the memories of the day I received it from a little boy with sparkly eyes. I still have the Care Bear and rainbow bookmark, packed together with other bookmarks I’ve collected over the years–from bookstores that are now closed because of computerized mail-order and electronic volumes read on my various devices. The Care Bear bookmark was the one that started the collection, although I rarely look at it now that I read e-books almost exclusively and rarely need something to mark a page.
Interestingly, it is not that bookmark that recalls that Christmas–the first Christmas in our very own house–but the little ring. That’s probably because the bookmark is in a clearly marked expanding envelope, while the ring always appears in the strangest places. Both gifts are treasures, even though they are not kept together. Both remind me of my two most precious gifts–Amy and Josh. I may not come across the ring and bookmark all the time, but I think of my children every day. That my daughter and I are currently estranged, and that Josh has very recently stopped calling on Mother’s Day and my birthday (in support of his sister? because his wife and I had a falling out?) do not make me love them any less.
When I came across the little ring last, I placed it back into the little suede bag that also holds a little horseshoe necklace from Josh. Instead of putting the bag into my “I’ll never wear this again” jewelry box, I put it into the box holding my pearls and the garnet necklace from Joe. This way, I’ll come across the little ring more often, and recall that first Christmas in our very own little house on the outskirts of Little Italy in Trenton, New Jersey. My happiest few years were spent in that house, before we were forced to rent it and move back in with my parents, before I married Joe, before my daughter refused to move to California where Joe lived and where Josh and I would move.
Amy was thirteen then, and broke my heart–not for the first time, not for the last. Until recently, when Josh patched up his differences with his second wife and married her for the second time, he never broke my heart–exasperated me during his teens a number of times, but never broke my heart. I know the source of my daughter’s anger, but not the source of his. And that makes it more difficult to cope. He doesn’t return my calls or my texts, and I’m pretty certain it has to do with his wife, although I have some doubts. His wife Raven believes he is like his father, but when early in my first marriage I had problems with my new mother-in-law and asked my husband to “stand with me,” he refused, despite the differences he had with his own mother. He told me that, no matter how she had hurt him, she was still his mother and it was up to me to either patch things up with his mother or not–that I was never again to ask him to step between his mother and himself or to choose me over his mother. It rather hurts that Josh isn’t enough like his father to do the same.
Maybe that’s why I hold on to that little ring–one of the few items that has meaning to me that isn’t sitting in a storage unit in Glendale, California, with the rest of the items that are dear to me. Among them is the ancient book of poems in Belarusian that I can barely read, but that my father gave to me before I moved to California. It was his most treasured possession, by a poet that inspired him as a boy and always gave him hope. That book of poetry that I can’t read without much difficulty and the little ring–the two possessions that are the dearest to me of all my belongings.
I’ll have to make a trip to California soon to open the storage unit which has been unvisited for almost 15 years. I need to empty it of items no longer needed, items no longer wanted, items to be sold or given away. Except for a few science fiction paperbacks and a few comic books still in their plastic wrappers, that belong to my husband, nothing is worth the fee we pay each month for storage. But mostly I need to retrieve the book that belongs with the silly little “diamond ring;” the two items that bring back memories both joyous and painful, but mostly fill me with a sense of love.
I live on an island where love overcomes poverty and government corruption. I embrace the culture of which I can never fully partake, partly because I am not of the island. But the people of the island cherish their families and enjoy complaining about the government they elected. On this island, family differences never overshadow love for family. In many cases, it is the differences that bring individuals back together. They talk things out, not shut out the relatives. Family is family, and that’s that. Shutting out family is worse than committing a crime or a sin that damns one for eternity. Family.
All of these feelings hit me harder here when I come across that little ring. Perhaps that’s why I have given the ring a place of honor. It brings back memories. And this story–all of it is because of a ring given to me by a little boy with love and with hopes that were shattered somewhere along the line, perhaps years ago, perhaps more recently. I can only guess. The ring means something different to me than it can possibly mean to my son, although we talked about my great surprise as I unpacked it when Joe and I moved here.
The island. The ring. The need to retrieve my father’s book. I am aging, and yet I find the need for two items so strongly that I will sacrifice financial burden to retrieve the one not in my possession. These items will have no meaning to anyone else–not to my children, not to my grandchildren. Certainly not to strangers or even friends. My treasures won’t change the future or the past. They won’t save mankind. They won’t even save me.