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Family Quartet I: The Ring

For my father’s family

“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility.” —Mark Twain

It was a gently chiseled curve of white gold, a barely measurable arc at its slightest, circling to the other side where the simple floral setting embraced the expertly angled diamond and its tiny attendants. The diamonds flashed like moonlight on a snowdrift at twenty below, blinding white sifting through ice glints of blue and green and purple, with the rarer flashes of sunset orange. If the wearer slowly rotated her hand in the sun or another powerful light, its inner points would project, dimensions changing places and and revolving like small universes, onto a window or curved wall or the plane’s seat backs and plastic ceilings where where she sat musing on the clouds blossoming in the sunlight, and on what was behind and what ahead. It was time to pass the ring along,  forward, to strip her hand bare of its galaxies, to let it mark another.

In the parlance of the day, the ring, by itself, was a show of independence, of aesthetic self-confidence  and economic self-sufficiency. But she was not convinced of the desirability of these sentiments or their displays, less so knowing the secret inside the ring: the barely visible etching, HF to LT. 

Hinkle’s father had come to the small town in western Tennessee ten years before the century turned and barely twenty-five after the War Between the States. Hink was a babe in arms at the time, trundled by his mother as a toddler sister and a fiercely quiet six year old brother clung to her skirts, riding in the back of a newly purchased carriage. On the seat beside him where he drove, his father had a small wooden trunk in which were carefully laid a black leather satchel with a distinctive curved top, a bone handle, and a brass clasp; his initials were embossed on the side in gold lettering, and inside were a stethoscope, a small hammer with a triangular red rubber head, an otoscope, and snowy cotton swabs and bandages. Also in the trunk were the loan from his uncle, presented with respectful show on the day of his graduation from the University of Nashville, now rolled into the wallet his grandmother had sewn him the year he first left home, and the small leather-bound ledger, its fresh green sheets with crisp columns and blocks waiting to be filled.

So small, young Hinkle Herschel had no true memory of what he knew through the stories his mother and older brother told him of those first months in that tiny town. Each day his father dutifully entered the wing of the house that was the surgery, dressed in trimly pressed suit jacket and pants with his long white coat over them. For a long time his mornings were quiet, punctuated by the brief scurry of excitement that expanded to fill the day when a mother would bring her child, who’d fallen while at play or some labor, for a stitch or consolation, or when the hypochondriac spinster two streets over conjured another ailment. The doctor and his wife would discuss these visits quietly over the noontime dinner, a meat and a starch and another vegetable and fresh hot yeast rolls and a small dish of pickles and good hot coffee.

Bur after a few weeks, anxious that the loan be repaid, his father had a different routine: Just before noon several times a week, the doctor would saddle their horse, mount it with the black bag lashed to the horn, and ride out of town with the speed of urgency towards the little farms that inhabited the road to Nashville. About five miles from town there was a clearing rimmed by pecan and oak trees, near a small cooling stream and out of sight of any farmhouse. There he would stop and water the horse and sit in the shade to eat his lunch, usually a sandwich of sliced pork and cheese wrapped by his wife that morning, and sometimes supplemented by a small sweet bun or cookie she’d tucked in her husband’s bag to surprise him. The ride back into town was at a more leisurely pace. 

Soon the town’s inhabitants began to notice the young, serious doctor whose services for urgent care were so much in demand. The waiting room frequently filled, and the rides out of town were less regular. As the years passed, and the older doctor one town over retired, Dr. Franks slid into his place among the town fathers. His ledgers filled and the loan long repaid to the proud uncle, the good doctor was also entrusted with the books of the Presbyterian church, for which he recorded each week’s offerings and the yearly tithes, the gifts to the India Society, the fines for dancing or swearing, and all payments to itinerant preachers.

He watched his own children from afar, though watch them he did, as his wife reared them and made their home and made her own place in the town among her women friends. After the first three, seven more children were born, but then the first little girl and two other babes newborn were carried away, and so they had seven. The second boy was a puzzle, full of brooding, slow of speech, and prone to catastrophe. But he somehow prevailed over each of his unfortunate blunders. The TB that killed his sister racked his body and scarred his lungs for life, so that eighty years later, at intake for the nursing home where he would last reside, there would be a question of whether he was infectious. The fall through the ice nearly killed him, and in warming him his father and mother scarred his legs, too, but they brought him back. And the father noticed he was quick to help his mother unasked, to find work with pay for long hours, and to sweat and strain with the strongest but also to put his mind to a problem to make the work go more quickly for all. So when the young man entered his father’s office with a bow and explained his request for a small loan, to buy an engagement ring for the milliner’s daughter, the doctor listened agreeably.

Their were Townsends throughout the county, most of them highly respected though a few not. The girl was a quiet one, not widely known or often found in company, but she and Hink had met at church, taken some long walks home from there, and despite his equally quiet ways, she’d noticed in Hink the same characteristics that his father had. This attentiveness in itself would have recommended her to his father, but he also knew her as a capable nurse, efficient and without sentiment when circumstances demanded but with a merry, vigorous kindness toward her patients. The doctor had several times recommended her to patients recuperating at home. She was dependable, and she loved his son, and why not, to ease the question with her moneyed family, have him offer something pretty?

Hink had found the ring at a pawn shop in Nashville, where he’d gone to deliver a load of lumber. He’d wandered in listlessly, killing time before he met his partner to start home, and found for one dollar a small cut-glass decanter he knew his mother would love to put on the shelves atop the buffet. Most of the proceeds were promised to his savings and to the bolt of wool with which his sister would sew him a new pair of winter trousers, but his mother seldom came to the city, still tending to his school-aged siblings, and he was sure she should have this. He thought of her smile when she unwrapped it, of how it would catch the light amid her other small treasures, and of how she’d take pleasure in offering her friends from church a small cordial to assist their various frequent pains, as prescribed by her husband, all that was permitted in their unreformed sect. He awkwardly counted out the coins.

As the proprietor wrapped his purchase, Hink’s eye fell on an item in the front case. It was a lady’s ring, and as soon as Hink saw it, he found himself clenching and unclenching his hands and shifting back and forth from foot to foot. It was a beautiful silver ring with diamonds he was sure must be real. It was waiting to be slipped on the ring of someone beautiful enough to deserve it. The question that had lain unarticulated in the back of his mind now came to the forefront, simple but fully formed: would she marry him?

For now he stammered out the question about the ring and was dismayed when the answer came, “Two hundred dollars.” He was sure he could talk the man down, but even so, he would never have enough, not and keep his savings too, and it seemed a consultation with his father was in order, not only about the money but about the whole matter at hand. For now he thanked the proprietor and turned to go, head amuddle, but the man called out to him as he reached the door, “Went to Kansas. I think the mother’d died, he had two little ones and wanted to start over. He’s not coming back for it; it’s looking for a new home. It’s real, all right; some special lady, a mother or a sweetheart, ought to wear that one.” Hink waved and nodded and headed for home, in a deep brood again.

So when he explained his case to his father the next day, he was relieved that his father approved. They drew up the terms of the loan and the repayment schedule in one of his father’s ledgers, shook hands, and Hink collected the cash before his next trip to the city, nearly a month after. The shop owner was amused and pleased to see him and let him talk him down to one-eighty, then recommended a place where he could have the simple engraving performed, marking the ring’s transfer from sorrowful past to hopeful future. It was ten days after that before he found the right time and place to ask, and through those agonizing days he blushed deeply whenever he saw her at church or on the street. Several times she was at his father’s surgery, consulting on a shared patient, and Hink was relieved by the formal mien his father maintained through their interactions, although there was a light in his father’s eyes he thought she must have noticed too. His mother smiled quietly and peered up at him from her chores, waiting too, so he knew his father had told her and that she was happy. And finally, on that Sunday evening when they’d walked the furthest ever, far enough so that he’d almost forgotten his preeminent purpose and turned with her to true talks ranging from beauty in nature to commerce in the town to the Lord, they came to a meadow with blossoming clover and thistle and Queen Ann’s lace, beyond it a field where the corn had just begun to tassel. He pulled the ring from his pocket, wrapped in a white handkerchief his mother had pressed and scented with lilac water, and offered it, asking.

She relaxed into a smile beyond all awkward rules of courtship, glad to have it settled and that she’d found the one to honor her and be her friend. Hink’s hands shook as he slipped the ring, which fit her perfectly, onto her finger, and once it was on he felt a lightness he was unaccustomed to. Bold, he leaned nearer and kissed her cheek, and when she turned their lips fell together in something that had not been there before, something like the feeling he’d had those nights alone in his small bed, looking into the dark for something he could not name. They both found themselves laughing, at what they couldn’t say, but it was a new habit they both took to and maintained throughout their lives, despite their usual penchant for soberness. 

She would become his wife, and did, and stood by him through other illnesses and upsets, the moves to Nashville and Oklahoma City and finally to Texas, where five years after they’d wed their only child was born, a son. The boy was sickly at first but then robust, and as Hink doted on Lena, she doted on Guion, soon seeing he had a clever mind and talent and love for books, mathematics, and music. As he grew, he and his father would often fall into disputes about matters of business or society, his father’s chief complaints being the son’s unwillingness to follow him into the business of building Ft. Worth and his association with a group of friends who drank beer and played pool on their Saturdays and always seemed to be laughing far too loudly, even on Sundays. Lena’s loyalties were firmly placed with them both, and without apparent consternation she would confirm that no, Guy’s swing band could not practice in the living room on Sunday and no, Guy could not borrow money for a trip to Florida to play with them and no, Guy would not be obliged to work for Hink’s firm. 

Still, even Lena was flummoxed when a young friend spilled the beans that Guy and Evaline, both barely eighteen, had eloped and were secretly married, though they’d continued to live apart in their parents’ homes. Of course, Evaline was the merriest one of the lot, with the loudest laugh and the quickest wit, and she drank and smoked with the boys and a few of the girls and had even offered Lena a cigarette; her father, an upholsterer, was known to curse, though in pleasure rather than anger, and her grandfather was a gambler who had been to Brazil and Argentina and outlived three wives. Hink was furious, and he brooded for days before the conference between the two families, Lena watchful but reserving her thoughts. It was decided that the new husband and wife must live with each other at Hink and Lena’s for now. It was only after that Lena found her voice and declared that yes, Guy and Evaline would need to begin saving right away for their own home and yes, Evaline would be welcomed as their daughter. Now it was Hink’s turn to be watchful and reserved. 

Hink and Evaline eyed each other warily; there was nothing Lena or Guy could do about that. One day Hink exploded when he found that Evaline had taken two bottles of wine, kept in the basement for special occasions like Christmas Eve, and shared them with three of her friends while the other adults were at work for the day. He shouted that they would be replaced, and that she would do it before another week was out, and that he couldn’t imagine how a grown woman found all that time for drinking and squawking with her silly friends. Lena privately wondered, too, but then the next day, home early from assisting a surgery patient, she found Evaline on her hands and knees and crying steadily as she polished the dining room floor.

“I was going to buy some and put it back before he noticed, ” she sniffled loudly. “My God, you’d think it was the nectar of the gods! You’d think we were some kind of loose women! Mary was telling us she’s expecting, and we decided to toast her, and things just got out of hand. She’s only been married two months!” Here Evaline burst into fresh tears. ” We’ve been married almost a year, so why aren’t we? It’s not like we haven’t been trying, every night practically! Is something wrong with me?”

Lena put aside this unsought revelation about her son and became the nurse. “There can be many reasons,” she assure her daughter-in-law calmly. ” Sometimes it just takes longer.” She put an arm around Evaline’s shoulder as her crying quieted, and later she showed her how to make Old Rags, one of the boys’ favorites, a long, slow simmering of flank steak, onions, and tomatoes that infused the small house with its savor by the time Hink and Guy arrived home. 

And so the two women were friends, helped each other as they could, and merrily reunited when the younger couple returned for holidays from Houston and then Alabama after the moves. Thirty years later, the first of three beloved grandsons came to her with his young, shy wife to tell her their baby, her first great-grandchild, would be born the following summer, after his own graduation from medical school in Nashville. She didn’t tell them then she would not live to see the child, but with this news she was more at ease. And when, among so many other things, she told Hink, his head bowed in his hands and his eyes streaming, that she wanted her ring to go to Evaline, he agreed, and she knew the ring would find its way forward. This put her at ease, too. Evaline respected and loved Lena enough to understand the treasure of the ring went far past the worth of its diamonds, and she respected Lena’s love for Hink enough not to flash it in front of the old man, lest it pain him, in the twenty lonely years he lived after his wife.

When Evaline died, the ring went to that first grandson’s first daughter, her middle name Evaline too. She rarely wore jewelry, but the ring took her with its beauty and its proof of years and people she’d known and known of. Her mother, the doctor’s wife, remembering  the kindly grandmother who’d welcomed the news of the younger Evaline, advised her, “It’s very valuable, but it’s not the sort of thing you keep in a lock box or a safe, for special occasions. It’s something you wear all the time, like a wedding ring. Even in the shower; even in bed.” Then her youngest uncle gave her a photo  he’d found in Evaline and Guy’s things of Lena, L.T., at ten or twelve, and she saw in it so clearly her own face and expression, and when she slipped on the ring she found it fit perfectly. So she followed her mother’s advice, feeling the ring stood for a story of which she was now a part.

She wore the ring until the day the doctor said, we’d better go ahead and get that baby out now, today. She shoved the panic away and went off for the few hours she needed to make the calls, pack the suitcases, and fill the Easter basket for the little boy who would now have to be sent to his aunt and uncle’s for a few days. Within hours all was ready. She changed to a hospital gown, tucked her hair into a cap, and took off the gold band with three engraved waves she’d thought of as a symbol for the three of them and the white band with the diamonds she’d thought of as her life before. Now everything would change again.

The young boy clenched and unclenched his small fists in a gesture that would, from then on, be his signal of inward agony or uncertainty, studying the waves of bliss and and anguish that crossed his parents’ faces moment to moment, as he wondered, will what happened last time happen again? But this baby girl had a color more like the real babies he’d seen, and tiny as she was, she wriggled in determined protest at the light and from the first moments studied the faces around her as though in careful assessment.

For her first month the tiny girl had to live in the the NICU, but she was doted on by every nurse, and many nights her father, a resident on thirty-six hour call, would slip away to her and hold her in his arms in the rocking chair the nurses set beside her incubator, and they would both sleep while the nurses looked on, protective of them both. Her mother, recovering and tending to her big brother except for visiting hours, was relieved and waiting for her girl to come home. But alongside the joy and relief and the turning back to routine chores was a private agony: she could not find the ring. After the birth she’d soon found her wedding ring and put it back on, but when she searched the hospital room, her things there, every drawer and shelf and pocket, and again back at home, she’d come up empty. She’d put in a desperate call to the nurses’ station, and the charge nurse there had called the hospital laundry. No ring. She dreaded telling her father, Hink and Lena’s oldest grandson, who’d grown up with their firm and steady lives and words to counter and complement his parents’ more expansive ones. Even more she dreaded telling her mother, who had admonished her so clearly that the ring was to be guarded, to ornament her not with its aesthetic luxury but with the mark of lives hat had gone before, so validating her own one life as the first child of her generation in the lineage. These would be awful conversations.

But here was their child. She thought of the baby they’d lost and what they would have given to keep her alive, and now, if this is what they had lost, and what gained, well oh, well. And she thought of the ring and all that had happened to it, behind and ahead, and how many of these things were bound to happen some day, and some not, despite anyone’s safekeeping.

The early family who’d pawned it for a new start might have found fortune or famine in Kansas, the father remarried or taken ill, the oldest child remembering the mother lost and resenting her Papa for so quickly selling her mother’s things. Lena could have said said no, from some family disapproval or for the lack, that day they walked, of the feeling that here was one who could know her in all she was, and a disappointed but practical Hink would have returned the ring, the pawnbroker filing off the initials inside for a new sale, this time for more profit if the new buyer did not impress him with the same earnest hopefulness.

The ring might have been sold when the depression hit, for food or medicine for young Guy. It might have passed, through some newfound eccentricity arisen in Hink after Lena’s death, to the fiancée of a friend’s young son, one who reminded him of Lena at nineteen, far quieter than Evaline, and so initiated a family rift that would take two generations to heal. Or Evaline might have given the ring as a wedding gift to the second granddaughter at her first marriage, where her older sister, Maid-of-Honor, was taken aback at the many ritual exchanges so alien to the intimate interactions she sought for herself, and so quite content to see the ring go. 

That sister, traveling to Sao Paulo with that husband, might have had the ring–along with her ring finger–taken by some desperate, impatient thief who made his terrible clip and ran, to separate the spoils and sell them for some drug his body screamed for, or for medicine for his own children. The sister then, after the howls of pain and grief, would be the Aunt with the missing finger who told the stories, through the years, of that trip and others she was then obliged to undertake around the world, now alone, to find, what is this world? And what, the people in it?

Or someone at the laundry might have happened upon the ring and slipped it in his pocket, pawned it for a happy windfall, just enough for a month or two of rent, until he could find a better job–not realizing he’d been cheated too. Or maybe he would have returned it promptly, seeing the notice and appreciating that the ring was an heirloom, no thought to himself, so that the owner had it presented to her one morning when she arrived to visit the tiny baby and, rejoicing, promised him a reward, but then forgot, in the press of diapers and feedings and her own worries. 

And it could happen, or one day must, that the family’s fortunes fall. One day one of their own, who values the ring but life or comfort more, might sell it, along, perhaps, with an oak dresser topped in pink-streaked Barre marble, a set of silver Chantilly spoons, a shawl embroidered in gold and purple satin peonies, and first-edition books with creased but mellowed uncut leaves, their hand-set type in out-of-fashion fonts, their leather bindings shined and frayed. Or it could be that End Times come before all these separate falls from grace, so the metal and stone of the ring are melted back into the earth and exploded into space again, each iota to seek beyond time toward the end and the beginning.

Or what did happen, which was that three months after her daughter’s birth, before she’d worked up the nerve to tell her parents, she found the ring tucked into a pocket in her wallet where she’d put it for safekeeping moments before being wheeled to have the C-section, although she never recovered any memory whatsoever of having done so. And so she wore the ring again, for years after the gold band with the gentle waves was tucked inside its counterpart to put away, sad treasure, the older ring a comfort now of what she’d always been, marriage or no, until the tiny girl was fourteen and her solemn brother twenty-four, and as their mother aged and had arthritis and swollen fingers, the ring began to pinch. One summer, when she saw it was beginning to leave a painful red groove, and after a distressing attempt to remove it without mutilating the skin on her knuckles, finally necessitating soap, she put it in a blue-glazed dish on her vanity, and after a few days put the dish into a drawer under clothes for safe keeping. She began to think, maybe it’s time to put it in the safe deposit box, after all.

Then she received a letter from her son about this and that, and among various news casually asking about the ring. She wrote him about everything she knew, asked if he remembered its being lost, and said, since she couldn’t wear it now, and since he was the first child of the first child of the first of Hink and Lena’s only son, that perhaps one day he’d want it, for his wife to be or for his daughter, with the understanding that it must always stay in the family. Soon after that he called to say the interest was purposeful and he’d already decided to ask the girl he loved to marry him. 

They’d been together for years, so this was hardly a necessity to sealing the deal, and he assured his mother they’d talked about it, sensibly, promised her no public spectacle on bended knee. He did want sunset, in some pretty place, and he wanted to do it soon. His mother thought of the years in his life he’d brooded with uncertainty and sometimes anger at how to live and what to choose, and of the patient, merry girl who could sew her own clothes, searched the world for bridges and arches to photograph and turn to art, and belched louder than her son to make them laugh, and how she talked to his young sister with the respect due those who, no matter their age, thought for themselves and had little truck with those who couldn’t. Yes, she knew, it’s time now, so she wrapped the ring in one of the old ivory handkerchiefs Evaline had embroidered with small cerulean posies and bought a ticket West.

On the way there, in her window seat, she drew it out and considered it, placed it gently on her pinky so it wouldn’t get stuck, took it off again and turned it in the sun until the sun’s light scattered the ring’s tiny stars, ran her finger over those initials, so small you might not notice them if you did not know to look. She knew her son’s wife could lose the thing at sea or on a city street, be robbed–but no matter for now. The family could not be lost, would find its other signs and marks and stories, no matter how this one ended or continued. One day soon, Hink and Lena’s great-great grandson would slip the ring onto her finger, and a few months after that, atop it, another band, this time one they’d choose together. The day might be late spring,  apples and lilacs and irises blooming, in time for his mother and grandad and all the rest to encircle them and admire the rings on his laughing bride’s hand. Perhaps there too, a step or two away, bemused at her older brother’s hopeful navigations, would be the girl for whom they’d gladly have given any sort of ring, gold, land, millions, treasures beyond account, as they would have, after all, for any one of them. But there she’d be, looking on, loving them all but with her own ideas of what she’d be a part of, maybe swearing on the spot never to wear a ring, nobody’s metaphor, no one’s story line.


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