Monday, July 30, 2018

The Rings

It wasn't until I was 12 years old before I met my Grandfather for the first time. I heard stories about the man ever since I can remember, but they were only stories. He was everything I had imagined him to be: tall and thin, refined, kind, gentle, and humble. Even though he was aging quickly, he stood straight and tall. He was the owner of a jewelry store in a small town, and everyone knew and loved him. As my parents and I walked toward the store I could see him standing outside watching down the street for us. His eyes glistened and a smile grew across his aging face when he recognized us. His hair was white. His arms instinctively began to raise as he reached out towards us, and I ran to one of the best hugs I had ever been given. This was my Grandfather.
Although looking fragile and elderly, he managed to lift me off the sidewalk with that first hug, and from that moment on we became best friends. He loved to hear me talk, and I loved to listen to him talk, especially about the history that he lived. On that first visit, Grandfather proudly showed me around his store. He showed me the shiny cases that held brilliant pieces of all types of jewelry. The store wasn't large, but he did have a second floor where he lived. Suddenly his smile began to withdraw as he looked at me with his fading, yet still sparkling blue eyes and asked, "Would you like to see my back room?" Seeing the quickly changing smile, I felt a bit uneasy but fully confident in my Grandfather's leading. 
"What's in the back room?" I asked hesitantly.
"My most cherished possessions. The ones I do not put out for sale. I have invited very few to enter my back room." His smile quickly returned, and he reached for my hand and led me to the back room. It was small, but beautiful. There was a small desk where Grandfather obviously worked on his accounting and business for his store, with a rather large comfortably looking chair. I noticed a filing cabinet, safe, and then, in the back of the room, an exquisite display case.  Grandfather walked over and put his hand on top of it. It was long, but only as high as my chest and Grandfather's waist. It stood on four legs of hand carved wood, with glass sides and a glass top so that you could see the precious, sparkling specimens it held from any angle. I glanced back to my beaming parents who were standing in the doorway watching my reaction to the first time I saw the dazzling spectacle. My eyes grew wide as I looked closer. There were no less than a hundred rings of all sizes, shapes, and color, neatly and delicately laid out on a black velvet material. Each one had been placed there with care and all were lovely to behold! They had been polished and obviously placed with a gloved hand, as none had any marks other than that of purposeful splendor. After a few moments of my gawking, Grandfather quietly said, "Choose one to take home with you." Were my ears deceiving me? I couldn't possibly take one of these home!
"Oh, no, Grandfather, I couldn't possibly..."
"I insist. I want you to take one for your own."  
It only took me a few seconds to choose the ring I would call my own. It was gold with what looked like leaves  engraved on the side and had beautiful dark blue gems outlining a cross. It was perfect. Grandfather carefully took it from the display case and handed it to me. It happened that it fit my middle finger perfectly, and I wore it with such pride for the rest of the time we were visiting my grandfather. But once it was time to leave, I gingerly slid it off my finger and placed it in my deep pocket. I kept my hand in my pocket for most of the 27 hour bus ride home, constantly rubbing the outline of the cross and feeling the bumps of the leaves on my new prized possession.
Despite the many miles between us, Grandfather and I continued to be close in spirit and in each other's hearts. We wrote letters every day. We called monthly and talked for as long as my parents would allow. The distance truly made us grow fonder of each other.
When it was time for my parents' annual trip to visit Grandfather, I insisted that I join them without much, if any, resistance. I was considerably taller now, and Grandfather had a bit more difficulty getting me off the sidewalk with his initial hug when he saw me, but he succeeded. After the usual greetings, we walked into the store, and Grandfather again led me to the back room where he kept his cherished rings.
"I added a few since you have been here. Please choose another to take home with you."
"Oh, no, Grandfather, I still have the beautiful one you gave me last year, and I couldn't possibly..."
"I insist."
I took my time and searched through all the beautiful rings in the display case. This time I chose a thicker wooden ring that had sparkling red gems placed around an engraving of a mountain around the edge. This one slid easily on my ring finger, and again, I wore it proudly the entire visit with Grandfather. As soon as we boarded the bus, however, I quickly slid it off and into my pocket to keep it safe during the long bus ride. I was anxious to get home and see both of my rings side by side on my fingers or safely in my drawer. Now I had two prized possessions!
The next year I chose another ring. This one was gold with a pink gem. It had beautiful flowers engraved all along the outside and adorned my pinky finger majestically. It was more delicate than the other rings I had chosen, but it's delicacy drew a surprising comfort and splendor. This ring felt magical! My prized possessions were now three awesome rings with each having their own unique features, that I kept polished safely in my drawer.  
When I was 15 I chose my fourth ring from Grandfather; it was silver with yellow gems. This one was more simple than the others, yet had its own distinctive charm. If I looked closely and squinted my eyes, I could almost see the shape of a butterfly in the yellow gems. I couldn't have been more happy with my four rings, especially knowing they were also cherished by my Grandfather. We now shared our passion and enjoyment of the rings and continued to grow closer and closer.
Once I turned 16, my parents gave me permission to take the journey by myself, so I made plans to visit Grandfather before our annual scheduled trip. I traveled alone and was anxious for the long ride to be over and to be reunited again with my very best friend. With this reunion, Grandfather never quite got me off of the sidewalk with his bear hug. I stood on my tiptoes to let him feel like he was lifting me, when in reality I was close to his height now and had put on some more pounds to make it nearly impossible for him to lift me anymore. He still stood tall and distinguished and still gave great hugs, but he was getting older and not quite as strong as when I had first met him four years earlier. We walked to the back room and headed straight for the display case. Grandfather smiled as I closely examined the rings. He even pointed out some of his favorites, and eventually I chose one he had told me came from a faraway country. It was an ivory ring with purple gems forming the fire that was coming from a golden dragon. I held it carefully and turned it over and over to see the purple "fire" glitter in the light. Again Grandfather told me what a rare and beautiful ring I held and approved of my choice. We had a great visit, but not nearly as long as we desired.
My new ring fit nicely on my thumb, but before I got on the bus, I slipped it off and put it in my pocket, as I had done with all of my rings before. I was hungry and gulped down the sandwich Grandfather had packed for me, and then wiped my hands and face with a napkin.  There were no trash cans on the bus, so I put my napkin and empty sandwich bag in my pocket. I instinctively felt for my newest prized possession and felt a wave of panic when I couldn't find it! I knew I had put it in my pocket, where did it go? I took the crinkled napkin and bag out of my pocket and examined them carefully. Nothing. I looked on the floor by my feet and scanned around the area for the precious white ring. I looked beside me on the seat and noticed my shaky hands. I felt in both of my pockets again for the ring, but there was nothing there. Where could it have gone? I thought back to when I first got on the bus and tried to remember everything I did. I know I put it in my pocket! Where is it and how did it get out of my pocket? My heart began to beat faster and faster until I decided to stand up and search my pockets again, knowing for a certainty I had put the ring in my right pocket. I reached in my pockets to turn them inside out, and as my fingers went to grab the seam at the bottom of my pocket, I sighed out loud when I felt the cold piece of ivory! I stood for a moment on the bumpy bus, relieved and thankful for the touch of that ring. I took in several big breaths of air before I sat back down in my seat. The mere thought of losing that precious ring made my stomach hurt. I held it carefully in my hands and couldn't keep my eyes off of it. I carefully and slowly turned it over again and again. I watched the purple gems sparkle and made up stories in my mind about the dragon. I couldn't bring myself to put it back in my pocket, so I kept holding it. I was determined to stay awake to avoid the risk of possibly dropping it if I slept; I stared at that ring the entire 27 hour ride home! My eyes were heavy and I felt weak when I finally got home, but it was worth it to be able to hold onto that ring and now place it with the others where it could not get lost. It was only then when I was able to fall asleep; the ring was safely home.
Now that I had five rings, I decided to make a display case of my own. I made sure every visitor to our home saw my rings. I told them about each one, and of course, told them where they came from and all about Grandfather.
It wasn't long before I was once again in Grandfather's arms and looking at his awesome ring collection to choose one to take home. This sixth ring I chose more carefully, not knowing how many more visits I would get with my grandfather. With each visit he was getting more frail. His smile and eyes were still big and bright, but physically he was getting slower and generally looked tired. Grandfather's favorite color was green, and mine was orange, so when I saw a ring that had both of these colors, I instantly knew that would be my next ring. I was so excited to put it on my finger and show Grandfather my choice. He was watching me from his chair by the desk and smiled as tears began to roll down his worn and tired face.
"That is a very good choice, dear one. I am pleased."
I wondered if this would be my last ring from Grandfather, and as I was getting in line to get on the bus I slipped my special choice off my finger and looked at it one more time before putting it in my pocket. I smiled, and then someone bumped my arm as they were passing. I felt the ring wobble, went to get a tighter grip, accidentally flipped it in the air, and grabbed desperately at it before it hit the ground in front of me. I instinctively bent down to reach for it as I watched it bounce once on the ground, spin, and then roll towards the street. "My ring!" I yelled. People turned to look where I was pointing, but as I was trying frantically to reach it, my eyes watched as it bounced off the curb and rolled between the bars of a grate that was used to drain water from off the street. "No!" I yelled as I fell to my knees in tears. I heard people asking what was wrong and if they could help me, but I couldn't answer anyone. I just wanted to cry and be alone. But that wasn't really possible on a sidewalk where a bus was being loaded with an especially large group of people. Most people stepped around me and kept on with their business, but some stopped to ask if I was ok.
I was being so careful. I was putting the ring away so I wouldn't lose it on the bus. How could this have happened? That ride home was the worst ride I had ever taken. I kept thinking how I chose that one with Grandfather watching. I thought how happy he was with my choice. I thought about the colors...his favorite color green and my favorite color orange. I thought how perfect it was. Then I thought how I would be coming home from Grandfather's for the first time without a ring. It felt strange. I didn't like it. I put my hand in my pocket and felt around, hoping what just had happened was only something I imagined. But my pocket was empty; the ring was gone. With the reality of my losing that ring, I wept. I wept all the way home. I didn't think I could cry any more tears, but they kept coming. I felt so empty inside. I almost didn't want to go home to my other rings, but surprisingly the sight of them made me feel better. They were safe. They were there, but there was one missing. I tried hard to picture the ring I had lost sitting with the others in my display case, but I couldn't. I could barely remember what the ring looked like. It never made it home.
All I could think about was seeing Grandfather and getting another ring. Only a month passed since losing the ring, and I was fortunate to make the trip to visit Grandfather again. When I saw him standing outside his store and our eyes met, we both began to cry. He held me for a long time. He was as disappointed as I was about losing that ring. He understood. It was a difficult visit, but again he led me to the back room. We both stood at the door and looked at his display. Do I dare? Before I could ask, Grandfather put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Go ahead. Choose another one."
We walked over to the case, and immediately my eyes spotted a small gold ring with the most beautiful light blue gems. They surrounded an engraved bird, which had a tiny black jeweled eye. That was it. I chose that one. I held it close and wouldn't put it down my entire visit. Sometimes I wore it on my finger, and other times I would hold it in my hand.  And when it came time for the bus ride, I didn't take it off my finger, not even to put it in my pocket. I covered it with my left hand and kept my right hand clenched, securing the ring so it couldn't slide off my finger. I was not going to lose this one!  Once it was safely home, I finally released it to the display case with the other five rings. There they were: a gold ring with dark blue gems surrounding a cross, a wooden ring with a red gem and carved mountain, a beautiful golden ring with a pink gem and engraved flowers, a silver ring with yellow gems, an ivory ring with an engraved dragon and purple gems, and a smaller gold ring with light blue gems and an engraved bird. They were all marvelous and spectacular! I tried to envision the ring I lost sitting with the other six, but it was never focused enough in my mind to come through as a clear vision. As I looked at each one and noted the differences, I again thought of the similarities and how they all made a connection to Grandfather, the man I had come to love with all my heart. I treasured my rings and couldn't wait for my next visit to Grandfather's! But work was demanding and my next visit was delayed for another very long 18 months. I was so excited to finally be on that bus again and heading to my Grandfather's. Even though we frequently kept in touch, this was the longest time I spent away from my grandfather in years. I was so anxious to see him again, to feel his hug again, and to hear his voice again!
As we got closer to Grandfather's little town, I began to feel apprehensive for no reason other than the fact that I knew my grandfather was getting older. I wondered if this was going to be one of my last visits with him. Then as we entered the town, I could hear sirens and noticed a lot of commotion in the streets. The bus slowed to nearly a stop as police officers were barricading Main Street, where my grandfather's jewelry store and home was.
It was then that I saw the thick black smoke in the distance. A fire truck roared past us, screaming the alarm to make way and another one followed. An ambulance wasn't far behind. I jumped out of my seat and rushed to the front of the bus.
"Can you let me out here?"  No. I knew the driver never stopped unless it was a designated bus stop along the prescribed route. We still had another two blocks until the official stop. "Please?" I begged, telling him my grandfather lives on Main Street. Definitely no. There were no deviations. I stayed standing near the door next to the bus driver, practically jumping up and down waiting for the bus to stop so that I could get off. I kept glancing at the smoke and trying to figure out how far down the street it was coming from. That can't be Grandfather's house. It just can't be. Main Street was lined with stores and row homes, and the odds were in favor that it was someplace other than Grandfather's shop and home.
Once the bus finally came to a stop, I sprinted towards Main Street and to my grandfather. He would be outside, walking down the street away from the smoke and hopefully in my direction. I searched for him in the crowd of people who were gathered on the sidewalk and in the street. Police were trying to keep everyone back. The crowd, heading in the opposite direction as I was, and the smoke were getting thicker with each step closer to my grandfather's shop and home. I kept looking at the many faces for the familiar one that I knew so well. As I got closer, I counted four fire trucks and two ambulances, and then I saw it. The smoke was covering the entire block where my grandfather's shop was located. It was difficult to see what side the fire was burning on, so I kept trying to push my way through the crowd to get closer. There was a clear line where no one was crossing at the beginning of the block. There were only rescue workers there, and the police were urging folks to move back as fear, screaming, and eventual pandemonium broke out. The smoke was choking us now. People were in a panic.
"My mother was shopping down there!" someone yelled.
"Has anyone seen my son?"
The noise became deafening. Soon I couldn't make out any words, just noise. My legs felt like I had just run a marathon and they were quickly giving out. There was no place to go. No place to move. No place to sit and rest.
After two more fire trucks and several more ambulances reached the scene, the police were somehow able to move people back another block away from the fire. I watched as if I was looking from above and not part of the crowd. Somehow I was detached in my mind but physically present. As the smoke began to clear, I felt a weight pressing on my chest when I saw clearly that the fire was on my grandfather's side of the street. I found the strength to reach a police officer. "You have to let me pass; that's where my grandfather lives!" I yelled in despair. The police asked his name and then said, "The owner of the jewelry shop?" I wasn't prepared to hear what he told me next. "The fire started next door to the shop, and I'm sorry, but three shops and homes are totally destroyed, including the jewelry shop." The sidewalk I was standing on began spinning out of control as I tried to get my bearings.
"What about the owner? Is my grandfather ok?" I blurted out simultaneously with tears, as my stomach started doing weird things and the weight on my chest got heavier. The police officer was out of focus and seemed to be swaying.
"He was taken to the hospital in pretty bad shape. I'm sorry."
I stumbled backwards and valiantly pushed my way back through the crowd, asking people where the hospital was. Since it was a small town, everyone seemed to know everyone and they all knew my grandfather. They also knew why I was asking where the hospital was, and surprisingly one of them offered to take me there.
The ER was very busy and the waiting area was standing room only. I made my way to the desk and asked about my grandfather. The nurse started going through a pile of papers, and then suddenly stopped.  She was staring at one of the papers and wasn't saying anything. She slowly raised her eyes and said, "I'm sorry. Can you follow me?" The floor I was walking on felt spongy and everything was getting blurry. Is this really happening? What is going on? Where is Grandfather?
The nurse took me into a small room and started talking about my grandfather. She began explaining the paramedics said firemen had pulled him from the smoked-filled second floor and he was not breathing. "They did CPR and got a pulse in the ambulance. He was brought here in really bad shape and they did everything they could to save him, but due to his age and the amount of smoke inhalation, they just couldn't..."
I buried my head in my hands and tried not to listen to the rest of what she told me. This couldn't be. Something wasn't right. As she continued to talk in a hushed tone, I lifted my head from my hands and blurted out "How do you know it was Grandfather? There are so many people here and it would be easy to get things mixed up. You were shuffling a lot of papers do you know it was him?"
She kept saying she was sorry and then asked if I wanted to see him. She said it may help if I saw him and got some closure. At first I couldn't imagine seeing Grandfather dead, so I shook my head no. But as the nurse was about to leave, I shouted, "Yes! I do want to see. I'm sure this is a mistake and Grandfather is still alive someplace."
Her eyes looked sad and she led me down the hall and into a room where there was a gurney with a lifeless body under a sheet. There were a lot of machines and wires in the room, but they had all been turned off and the room was very quiet. There was trash from syringes and other medical supplies scattered on the floor. The nurse quietly went to the head of the gurney and slowly pulled down the sheet. As soon as I saw the white hair I closed my eyes and turned away. It was Grandfather.
I suddenly felt like someone was kicking me repeatedly in my stomach. My head hurt. The weight on my chest was so heavy that I found it hard to breathe. I felt suddenly alone, like there was no one in that entire hospital but me. Then I heard the words, "Take as long as you need."
I have no recollection of how long it was before I was able to leave that room and call home to tell my parents. They found plane tickets and were there in less than four hours. Even their presence and hugs didn't take away the loneliness I felt. We stayed overnight and once we received permission to go to the scene of the fire, we went to see what we could salvage from Grandfather's shop and home. The police officer was right: it was totally destroyed.  I wondered if we were on the right street, because nothing looked the same. My parents were kicking around at charred piles of debris when suddenly it hit me. The rings! My eyes went to where the back room used to be and I gingerly walked through what was left of Grandfather's shop. Nothing was recognizable; everything was blackened and destroyed. The rings were all gone. I thought of the rings I had at home and realized how much more precious they had instantaneously become. They were now my only link to Grandfather. I thought of the one I had lost; the one that was green and orange. I wish I had that one at home as well, but I was so thankful for the six that remained.
As the years passed, those rings became even more precious. Sometimes when a memory of my grandfather would fade, I would look and hold my rings, and that memory would somehow grow stronger again. There were many times, however, when I would be looking at one of my rings, and a memory of my grandfather would feel so real that it hurt when I realized it was only a memory. I would never see my grandfather again. Often tears would come flooding down my cheeks when that realization would sink into my heart and mind.
Word began to spread of my unique collection, and more and more people began to show an interest in my rings. One day I received a letter from a man in a far away land requesting a loan to his museum for one of my rings. He was especially interested in the simple silver ring with the yellow gems, and asked to place this treasure on display for four years in his museum. Four years in a museum was a long time, but I thought it might be a good way to share my love of the rings to others. And after all, it would be returned in four years. I agreed and tried to visit as much as my job would allow. I would often hear stories from strangers who saw my ring at the museum and marveled at its brilliance and rarity. At first I felt jealous and would want to bring the ring back home again. But as the years flew by, I became proud when hearing the stories from strangers, knowing that was my ring and it would be back home in my possession in just one more year.
Then came the phone call. A man had seen my ring at the museum, and was excitedly telling me how remarkable and beautiful my ring was when I began to sense an urgency in his voice. He went on to tell me about his own ring. He described it as silver with delicate a single yellow gem, and then explained that his ring and the one in the museum were formed by the same jeweler from another land; they were crafted to complement each other. He offered to pay a price, but admitted he did not have nearly enough to pay what the cost would be for such a treasure. As we talked on the phone, I looked over at my remaining five rings. I didn't know what to say at first and there was a long pause. "Where are you from?" I finally asked.
"I am from that land where the jeweler crafted the rings. I am his grandson."
It was then that I realized this man would keep very good care of my ring. He would cherish it as much as I did and as much as Grandfather had. I felt confident that Grandfather would agree with my decision to let this man have the ring and in a way, return it to its origin. We made an agreement that he could purchase the ring after the four years were complete with the museum. I asked if I could see my ring once more and for a picture of the two rings together; he willingly agreed.
That year, knowing my ring would be under the care of a new owner in a faraway place, was very difficult for me. Each time I looked at my other rings, all I kept thinking about was the one that I was giving to that man. It made me miss the ring even more. I was comforted, however, knowing that it would be taken care of correctly, and that it would give another person great joy.
And then, just when the fourth year was nearly gone and I would once again see my ring for a brief time, a friend of mine came to visit me. He had always shared my love for the rings, and he began talking about the wooden ring with the red gems. He asked if he could hold it. I watched as he carefully tried it on his ring finger and smiled at the perfect fit. I had to admit that it looked good on his finger, but there was no way I was letting go of another one of my rings. Allowing my little silver ring to be under another's care was difficult enough; this wooden ring was staying here. My friend seemed to sense my uneasiness, and he gently slid the ring off his finger and handed it back to me. That was a relief, but it didn't last long when he said, "That ring would be perfect for my wedding band." I had almost forgotten that he was getting married in a few months. "May I see it again?" he said reaching out for the ring. I selfishly wanted to deny him the privilege and put it back safely in the case, but for some unknown reason, I handed it back to him. He turned it over on the palm of his hand admiring the detailed work and stunning red gem. "You know my fiancé's favorite color is red?"
No, I didn't know, nor did I care. I was keeping this one. He handed me back my ring, and we began talking about his upcoming wedding. Very cunningly he turned the conversation back to the ring. "It would be perfect, you know. And it's not like it will be far away from you. I see you nearly every day!"
He made some good points; I glanced over at my rings. What would Grandfather think of me giving our cherished possessions away? I remembered how willing Grandfather was to share his rings with me, and how pleased he was to see me enjoy them so much. I thought of the man who would be taking my silver ring away in just a few months and how happy he was to be getting it. I got up and walked to the display case. I looked at them and thought of Grandfather. Then I reached for the wooden ring. I looked at it carefully, and rubbed my finger across the red gem and the bumpy mountain. A tear came from nowhere and landed on the ring. I was surprised to learn the tear came from me. I knew I was giving another one of my rings away.
At first, each time I gave a ring away, I felt like I was losing a part of Grandfather. Just the thought of giving away a ring would invoke those feelings, and here I was about to give away two of my most cherished and prized possessions in the whole world. Could I even live without them?
As I placed the wooden ring into the hand of my friend, a calm came over me. Grandfather would be proud. Our love for these rings was being passed on to others, and that's what I think he wanted most of all. If there comes a day when another ring, or even all of my rings, are given away, I would still have Grandfather's memories and he will still be very dear to me. Letting the rings go, as much as I will miss them and know it will hurt, also brings a sense of peace in knowing others will be enjoying them and cherishing them as much as Grandfather and I have treasured them.  And who knows? Maybe my rings will only be the start to their own collection of rare and beautiful rings!  And hopefully I will be able to share in loving and treasuring those rings as well.

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