Rings


The vinyl oxygen mask muffled Joanne’s words, making them more southern, ghostly: “Nurse made me take my rings off. She put them in my purse so you could take them home with you.” An inward grimace crimped Clarice’s lips. Her mother always called any hospital staff member—aide, x-ray technician or volunteer—”Nurse,” as though she were a child from a stately home in Britain instead of a southern belle surprised by age.
An ambulance had taken Joanne to Mt. Sinai for the seventh or eighth stay—Clarice had lost count. Her mother’s illness, emphysema, was fatal, but apparently not final. She was only sixty when it was finally diagnosed, five years before, even though she had been ill for years. Clarice had lost all patience with it. A lingering death, she would say darkly to her friends. I too will linger, she thought, cause inconvenience and discomfort to my daughter.

She could feel the grim expression spread to the muscles of her face and made an effort to relax. Joanne’s faint, lady-like speech with its inquiring final up-tilt somehow emphasized by illness, made Clarice restless. She knew that very little breath supported her mother’s voice, yet she wanted to say, “Speak up!”

After moving to New York, Clarice had corrected all southern traces from her own speech and found her way into acting in TV soaps. She had married but then raised her daughter Sally alone, for her husband died soon after Sally’s birth in an automobile crash. Parenting had not been easy for her, and she thought of own mother as a negative example. Childhood beatings—Joanne called them spankings—had cost her dearly. Thousands in therapy, Clarice would say dryly. She had never struck her own child, and they enjoyed a firm friendship, even though Sally now lived on the Coast.

As a child Clarice well understood Joanne’s frustrations—a loveless marriage, motherhood at only seventeen. Her parents had fallen into disrespect for one another, then into the swamp of a depression from which they emerged eventually to divorce. Clarice saw her mother’s southern life as insufferably narrow, and she had fled the scenes of childhood, never to return. She knew that Joanne’s punishments sprang from confusion and disappointment. But that knowledge held no cure for the coldness she felt toward her mother. Joanne’s need now of constant care was a dogged reminder that their estrangement had never healed. After she became ill, Clarice brought her to New York perfunctorily—of course, one did not desert one’s mother—and got her into a decent retirement home on York Avenue. She felt a moral imperative toward Joanne, but no affection.

Clarice set the purse, a raveling raffia sack, beside her own leather bag, thinking she would buy her mother something decent. Actually Joanne had no real need of a purse. Clarice once asked her why she wanted to carry around a purse in the retirement home. “When you go to the dining room with all those people, it helps to have something in your hands. Besides, it makes you feel like you’ve gone out for dinner.” Joanne finished lamely, “A lot of ladies carry them.”

Clarice opened the raffia bag, stuffed with crumpled tissues. She found the rings in a zipper compartment, taped together with adhesive. The nurse had wanted to be sure they were safe. One of them, after all, was a diamond.

“It’s a gypsy setting,” Joanne once had told her. “Close as I’ll ever come to gypsy. I wasn’t adventurous like you.” Clarice liked the ring’s simplicity, the way the four prongs hugged the stone into a nest, lower than a Tiffany setting, less showy.
Busy with her work, Clarice didn’t think of the rings again until some days after Joanne left the hospital and returned to the retirement home. She thought, I should take the rings to her. But then she couldn’t find the raffia bag.

She searched everywhere. She believed she had put the bag into a cabinet in her dining room, but she didn’t find it there. She telephoned the hospital, but of course the room had been immediately cleared for its next occupant. Nurses sent anything left in a room to Lost and Found, they told her. Neither bag nor rings was in Lost and Found, where they suggested she try the ambulance. But Clarice had driven her mother back to the nursing home. There, when Joanne was out of her room, she searched for the rings through drawers, and shelves in the closet, where the clothes smelled of old-age and mildew. Joanne’s poor vision made it hard for her to keep order. I must come and sort things out here one day soon, Clarice thought. The search yielded nothing. The supervising nurse said that she would investigate, would ask the individual aides who had access to Joanne’s room.

Clarice asked the nurse not to mention the rings to Joanne. “She hasn’t remembered them yet.” They’d probably turn up before she did remember.

During a phone call to her daughter in California, Clarice confided the loss. She said wryly, “I must be losing my grip, too.”

“Oh Mom, you must feel awful,” Sally said.

“I do. I always imagined you might use the rings one day.” Sally was getting serious about a computer game designer, who apparently spent his time creating new modes of cyberspace combat, which Clarice tried not to react against. His career was appallingly lucrative.

Sally said, “Poor old grandma.”

The disappearance of the rings was a thorn in Clarice’s mind. She wondered if she could have been burglarized without knowing it. She searched her car. She quizzed Jake, the loyal garage attendant, until he became hurt and defensive. “Look, I check every vehicle to make sure they’re locked. I wouldn’t take anything out of a car.” She felt contrite: “Jake, I’m sorry. I’m upset over being so stupid. My mother . . . .” Her voice broke and she turned away.

Clarice was having an affair with a man named Paris, an aging poet, who enjoyed reading his work aloud. A tour on the poetry circuit exhilarated him, fed an emotive streak in him that annoyed Clarice. He saw the trait as tragic sensibility, she as sentimentality. Paris often reminded her of actors who were always on. For some reason he needed to give their relationship more meaning than it warranted. When he wrote a poem about her name, she laughed and said, “When I was born, my mother was reading a romance novel with a heroine named Clarice.” Paris would press her for declarations of love. She saw his fantasy of a grand passion with her as silly, fake even. She often told friends that she had only one requirement in a man, that he make her laugh. Paris made her laugh, but at times a bit scornfully.

She went with him to the Frick Museum, to a show of early American folk art. One display case held some mourning paraphernalia, all black—a silk bonnet, a lace handkerchief, a taffeta dress with a hoop skirt embroidered with tiny jet beads. There were several pins and rings made of ebony. The legend said that widows in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wore these talismans as a fashion as well as a consolation. Another display case contained a quilt a woman had made showing gravestones of her lost children, the markers outlined with embroidered black tears.

Paris took out a notebook and wrote some lines for a future poem. Then he took Clarice’s left hand. “Perhaps you should wear an ebony ring,” he said. Her wedding ring was a band of 24 karat gold. Her husband had ordered two identical rings for their wedding, and his had gone with him to his grave. Over the years hers had become misshapen because it was such soft metal. They had wanted 24 karat gold for a symbolic reason she would never have admitted to Paris because his own lyricism annoyed her. Pure gold had meant perfection in love to them. Clarice shook her head, annoyed by his whimsical suggestion.

“Memory can be awesome competition,” he said.

She said, “I wear this ring to discourage undesirable men.”

“Including your lover.” Paris assumed a playful, hangdog look she had laughed at before. This time she looked at his reflection in the display case and thought his eyes, naturally heavy-lidded, drooped like a basset hound’s. She had begun to notice a kind of hound-like smell on his breath. He didn’t smoke, yet when he drew close, a stale fume blew across her cheek. “You protect yourself well enough without that ring,” he added.

Gazing at the relics of women with such circumscribed lives, she remembered a piece of jewelry, a pin her mother had inherited, from a Civil War grandmother. As they were leaving the museum, she said to Paris, “I just realized that my mother had a mourning pin.”

In the street outside, Clarice remembered her mother’s old bedroom with its mahogany furniture, a four poster bed, and a dressing table with hurricane lamps and an oval mirror. This was where she last had seen her mother’s pin. “The crystals hanging from her hurricane lamps earned me a burn on the hand as a child.”

“Really?” Paris looked down at Clarice in concern.

“I liked to run my fingers along them to hear their chime, but I didn’t dare do that when she was in the house.” Through the traffic of Fifth Avenue, where they stood talking, Clarice could hear the sound in memory, each crystal slightly different from the next, as if they had been purposely cut to create a tune. Her mother’s jewelry box, filled with intriguing treasures, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, was also musical, and played a waltz at the turn of its key. Sometimes in a good mood, Joanne would sing along with the tune: It was fas-cin-a-tion, I know …dade dade dum dum de dum deedee. But Joanne seldom opened the box for Clarice. Inside the drawer of the dressing table lay lipsticks and rouges. Once when her mother left the house Clarice eased the drawer open, yearning to dip her fingers into the creamy stuff, smooth it onto her face, pat the rouge into her round little cheeks. Yet she was afraid to touch; her mother knew the exact place of everything. She opened the perfume bottles on top of the dresser to sniff, Chanel # 5 and Prince Matchiabelli (a name she always loved), but dared not sample them, for fear of detection by her mother’s sharp nose. Once she opened the music box—she remembered the glow of the pin inside, jet swirls set in gold filigree—but she did not wind the key to hear the tune.

Paris brushed his hand through his thinning hair, silvery in the sunlight. “She didn’t like you to meddle,” he said.

“Didn’t like me, period. I always wanted to wear that pin in a play, it was so beautifully crafted, as fine as anything we just saw in the museum. She wouldn’t let me touch it, same with the hurricane lamps. I can’t forget the first time I touched the crystals.”

She had realized that Joanne sat behind her, inhaling deeply from a cigarette. She blew a smoke ring that rose above her dark hair, and, holding her head to one side, she gazed at herself in the mirror with a dissatisfied expression. When Clarice’s hand reached to the crystals, she moved quickly. “She held onto my wrist and let her cigarette tip rest there for a moment. Long enough for it to leave a ring.” Her mother’s chilling words came back. “Why can’t you learn not to meddle?” Then she brushed the ash away carelessly as if it were an accident. Clarice could still feel the sickening singe as the cigarette burned her wrist and the humiliation of being so imperfect, of being to blame for her mother’s discontent.

“Poor child.” Paris lifted her wrist to his lips. “One day, at least, the lamps and the pin will be yours.”

Clarice pulled away, annoyed. His fumy breath blew across her face again. Maybe he had begun to smoke a pipe without mentioning it. Or cigars. Clarice said, “No, she doesn’t have them anymore.”

When Clarice went south to help Joanne move to New York, she had already sold the dressing table with the hurricane lamps. Joanne knew there would be little room in the nursing home. She still had the jewelry box, secured with a ribbon to keep it shut. As she tucked it into a packing box, Clarice asked to see the mourning pin.

Joanne hesitated, then said, “Oh, Jody has it.” She glanced away from Clarice. “I didn’t use it, and Jody just haunted me out of it. You know she’s a big collector. I didn’t think you’d want it.” Clarice had met this news with stunned silence, burning with bitterness. Her pretty younger cousin Jody had married well, had no need to plunder Joanne’s modest possessions, yet she could imagine her there at the dressing table, lifting up the pin with an impish expression, manipulating Joanne until she surrendered that family treasure. They never spoke of the pin again.

“And now,” Clarice told Paris grimly, “She doesn’t have her wedding rings either.”

Paris said, “I’ll try to find something you could substitute.”

She felt touched by this. “How sweet! I’ll make a sketch of the setting. Of course, as soon as you find something, the original will turn up.”

“Perhaps then you’ll agree we could use another ring.”

“Oh Paris,” she said dismissively. She looked up the street anxiously as a green
wheezing bus swept past.

He said, “The rings might not matter so much if you could make peace with her.”

“Must you put it that way?” She heard her own defensive tone.

He said, “I know she hurt you as a child, Clarice dear, but I wonder if it wouldn’t help if you could put your arm around her sometimes.”

“I can’t even stand to touch her.”

“If you could help her along the street when she’s stumbling with her cane—just hold her arm to guide her. Touching her might lighten the burden of her care. Pain from the past can ruin everything, you know, if you let it.” She hated his pious tone more than the truth of his words.

She reached out to hail a taxi, and telling him she had to rush to rehearsal, she left him standing on the sidewalk.
The next time Joanne telephoned, she said, “When you think of it, will you bring my rings?”

“Yes,” Clarice said. But suddenly she knew where they were. She had bought her mother a little leather purse when she got out of the hospital and had thrown out the old raffia bag, forgetting that the rings were inside it. Without even opening it, she remembered now, she had thrust the bag into her garbage sack, and thrown it down the chute in the hall. She sat down, sickened by this realization.

She talked to the super. No help. He never looked at what people put in the trash, he said. She even telephoned the scavenger company. The woman who answered said, “No, lady. How could you imagine we’d find such a thing?” Clarice said lamely, “I’ve seen garbage men set aside useful items.” The woman sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Her tone implied Clarice was deranged.

Then the shopping began. She looked everywhere, in jewelry, antique stores, and flea markets, asking for a ring with the gypsy setting. It was, apparently, a rare thing. She went to pawn shops all over Manhattan, haunted the one in her own neighborhood, hoping the actual rings might show up there. She had always believed the truism that you can find anything you want in New York. She became obsessed with the hunt for another ring. She distributed copies of the sketch she had made for Paris among her friends, begged everyone to be on the lookout for something like it. The search became a kind of mission to her. Was she afraid to admit her negligence? Still afraid of punishment from a helpless old woman? Or was she moved by something simpler, a fear of causing her mother grief? Paris’ suggestion dogged her.

Finally, she had to tell Joanne. The old woman reached for her inhaler and said nothing. “I’m so sorry,” Clarice said. Joanne made a gesture as if flicking a fly away from her face. “It doesn’t matter. Really doesn’t matter now.” She drew on the inhaler with her eyes closed.
In August Paris took Clarice for a weekend at a friend’s summer house in Amagansett. Paris always knew people of wealth and devoted a good deal of time to cultivating patrons. He would not have spoken of their hosts that way, of course. After dinner his friends would ask him to read a few of his poems, and he always obliged, much to Clarice’s discomfort. A preening quality in his delivery embarrassed her. He read—recited, actually—with his head half-turned as if the muse were perched personally on his shoulder, guiding his sonorous voice.

While their hosts were away in the afternoon, the two of them swam in the pool, lounged in deck chairs in a warm ocean. One day Clarice all at once noticed that her wedding ring was missing from her finger. She looked about the deck, under her chair. It must have fallen off in the pool. Paris lay with his face up to the sun, eyes closed. She stood at the pool’s edge, scanning it closely for the glint of gold.

Sunlight cast thousands of glimmers in the pool, fool’s gold, she thought. She’d never see the ring in all that flashing light. Images of her young husband flickered on the water, of Sally as a small child, holding her arms up toward him as she took her first steps. She turned her back on the pool, fighting tears, then they overcame her. She was sobbing when she felt warm hands on her bare shoulders and Paris’ breath at her ear. “What on earth is wrong, love?” She couldn’t detect that disagreeable breath odor, cleared by sea air perhaps.

Paris took charge, dived in to swim under water. Repeatedly he ducked below the surface, scanning the pool. Finally he came up for air, and said he saw something at the deep end, told her to go and look and point out the location. She stood on the ledge where she could cast her shadow across the pool and block the sunlight. She saw a faint glint below the diving board, and pointed there. Paris took a dive.

 

His hands were empty when he surfaced, then she looked at his face. He held the ring      between his teeth. She had to laugh. He swam to the ledge, and she stooped down and took the ring from his mouth. He uttered a little bark. Laughing, she bent over and kissed his lips. “Thank you, dear Paris,” she said, putting the ring on her finger carefully.

She glanced at him, and saw his pained look as theatrical. He was on again, playing a lover-loser. Yet he said something that haunted her: “You are married to your loss.”

Paris left on a reading tour shortly after that. She didn’t know when he would return, and though he wrote to her, she didn’t reply right away and then lost track of his schedule. Several weeks passed before she realized he must be back and hadn’t telephoned.
Joanne lay on a narrow bed in the emergency room. The nursing home had called an ambulance after an aide found her in her nightgown, sprawled in the hallway at about three in the morning. Joanne had left her room, and apparently unable to catch her breath, started running in an effort to reach the nurse’s station at the end of the hall. The aide, a stalwart black woman, also from the south, said she wasn’t breathing when she found her. Later, she told Clarice, “I gave Miss Joanne mouth-to-mouth.” The emergency room charge nurse said they had X-rayed her hip; it was fractured. She also had pneumonia. The doctors didn’t want to try to set the hip because of that. He didn’t think she could survive the anesthesia. This would be a long stay, Clarice thought.

Joanne opened her eyes in the dimly lit room. “That old fool saved my life with her mouth-to-mouth,” she said in a rough, disappointed tone. Then faintly, “Is my hip broken?”

Joanne’s face crumpled when Clarice nodded. “Why were you running?”

“Shortabreath.” The one-word complaint she often used.

Were you afraid? Clarice started to ask then stopped herself. Of course Joanne was afraid; death was stealing her breath away. Her mother had waked in the dark, in such terror she couldn’t even find the buzzer to summon help. She gazed on the collapsed flesh of Joanne’s face, its tissue of wrinkles, trying to imagine her struggle as a young woman. She must have wanted a little gaiety in her life, to sing, to go dancing. It was fascination, I know …. Then Joanne’s face in the mahogany oval mirror, bitterly frustrated, her mouth in a mean twist, imposed itself on the old woman lying in bed.
In rehearsal for a new TV series, Clarice couldn’t get to the hospital until late afternoon, but she would bring her script for the next day’s taping and sit until Joanne’s bedtime. “How is Sally?” Joanne murmured. “Does she know I’m back in the hospital?”

Clarice lied. “Yes, she sends her love.” Actually, she had forgotten to telephone her daughter this time.

Later Sally asked, “Why didn’t you let me know, Mom?”

“Oh, the hospital’s her home away from the home, Sally.”

“Mom, I’d better come, don’t you think?”

Sally would have to take time off from her job. Clarice told her not to do that. “Don’t let this upset your life,” she said. Somehow she didn’t see Joanne as part of Sally’s life; Joanne was her own cross, not Sally’s. She could spare her this. When it finally came to an end, she could have Joanne cremated, and Sally wouldn’t have to come at all.
In the hospital Joanne kept removing the vinyl mask that covered her nose. Whenever

Clarice arrived, she had twisted it from her face. Clarice asked the doctor about the mask. Was it really necessary? Joanne seemed to hate it so.

“It’s a non-rebreather mask,” the doctor said. A bland, stooped man, he looked directly at Clarice, making her imagine he saw through her failure of compassion. “I know you have given directions not to have a code on your mother. This is the next step up from a code.”

Non-rebreather. He left the room, before she could ask him—did it mean the mask was breathing for her? An image of her mother’s lungs with their dark X-ray spots, empty, eaten away, shutting off the admission of breath, came to her. She retreated from the lungs, but the rattling bronchials caught her mind and forced it down their contracting spirals. Clarice had to imagine this: never to take a deep breath, to let go. Joanne had pushed the mask off and had fallen into a fitful sleep. Clarice reached across the bed and slipped the mask back onto her mother’s face.

She sat on the bedside chair. Why is it I can feel nothing? she wondered. I can only make the gesture, like a bad actor. She felt ringed in, bonded mercilessly to the woman in the bed. Childhood punishments forged the bond as well as the obstruction to love. Would she circle in the hoop of childhood forever?

A technician wheeled in an instrument with a complex diagnostic board. “I don’t like to wake her up,” he said, “but I’m supposed to do a test.”

At that moment Joanne sat up in bed and spoke distinctly, yet as if in a dream. “Look at your grandmother, why, she’s comin up out of all that dirt.” Then she sank back on her pillow. A harsh, angry tone came into her voice with more energy than Clarice had heard in a long time. “I wish I could get all this over with.”

“Don’t be in a hurry,” Clarice murmured. The technician shot her a curious look.

Joanne closed her eyes and fell silent, the mask scarcely fogging now. And so it ended in a few hours.
Several weeks later Clarice wandered into an antique shop on upper Madison Avenue. She glanced into a glass case and stared for a long time. Several pieces of antique jewelry, a black beaded bag, a black lace handkerchief were there. Perhaps the owner of the shop had also seen the display at the Frick Museum. Clarice noticed a heart-shaped jet pin among the pieces, not nearly as fine as the one Joanne had given away, but clearly a mourning pin. She reached out her hand, placed it on top of the case. She gazed and gazed at the pin. She thought, my heart was so hard it would scratch glass.

Moments crowded Clarice’s mind all at once, of her mother’s kindnesses, long forgotten. They seemed to rise up from the mourning display under the glass. A red wool coat she had wanted as a teenager, folded into a Christmas box. Tickets to the theater in New Orleans, slipped inside a birthday card. Her mother’s face as she held her grandchild, Sally, whom she took care of when Clarice went abroad on tour. Clarice had almost forgotten that. How Joanne adored the baby. How she gave and gave to her.

Then she saw Sally as if through Joanne’s eyes, a beloved child kept away, not allowed to come and grieve at her grandmother’s deathbed. These images surged up in the display case above the jet pin.

And so began her long journey with remorse, the deep shadow of love.

 

Charlotte Painter

has published three novels and several memoirs, the last of which was Conjuring Tibet. She is the author of Gifts of Age and co-editor of Revelations: Diaries of Women. She is a retired professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University.

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