Note: This post has nothing to do with my life in Italy, but everything to do with my life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and please share if you do.
My mother died in June of this year. And several years before her death, I told her a big lie. My dad knew I lied; in fact, he was in on it. My sister and brother knew, too. Now that she’s gone, I can finally talk about the lie, and why it was the best lie I ever told her.
|At their wedding in 1949|
When they became engaged in 1948, my father gave my mother a diamond ring. At just under a third of a carat, it was modest, and in proportion to his salary. It was a simple solitaire, and certainly not big enough to be showy or garish. She wore it, along with her wedding band, every day of her life. If she had to take her rings off—for a hospital stay or some injury to her hand or ring finger, she wouldn’t put them back on herself. She’d give them to my father, who would slip them back on her finger, just like he did for the first time when they married in 1949.
In the late 70s we lived in Florida, and my mother was a teacher’s aide at the elementary school I attended. One day at school, she realized her diamond had fallen out of the setting. She was beside herself with grief over losing it. She posted signs at the school and offered a reward. That same evening a janitor, while vacuuming, saw a tiny glint on the carpet in some classroom—my mom’s diamond. He returned it, and my parents gave him $100, though they didn’t have it to spare. I remember how kind the janitor was and how genuinely happy he seemed that he had found the stone; I imagine he would have returned it even with no promise of reward.
Sometime in the 1990s—I don’t remember when—she lost the diamond for good and took off the ring. Years passed, and I always yearned to replace the diamond for her, maybe because it was a symbol of all the things she and my dad had sacrificed and missed out on through the years. My dad, too, longed to get her another diamond, but we just couldn’t afford it. My mom said it didn’t matter, that it wouldn’t be her diamond anyway.
In what has always been a minor footnote for our family, my father was married once before. He and his first wife, Anne, were childhood neighbors and teenaged sweethearts. They married a month before he was drafted to go to war, and they filed for divorce shortly after he came home, three years later. They didn’t have any children. He met my mom a few years later, and they were engaged after a shockingly brief courtship.
My dad had bought a diamond ring for Anne, too. When they divorced, she gave him back the ring. He gave it to my grandmother, who had the stone reset into a cocktail-style ring, which I inherited when she died. I never wore the ring. It was old-fashioned and not really my style, so it sat untouched in my jewelry box.
|Waiting for the subway, Paris, 2002|
During one of the periods when my dad and I were trying to replace the diamond, I suggested to my mom that we take the stone from my grandmother’s ring—Anne’s diamond—and have it set in my mom’s ring. Oh no, my mom said. She didn’t want anything to do with Anne’s diamond. She didn’t say so out of spite or jealousy—my mother was virtually incapable of either—but just because she had no sentimental attachment to another woman’s diamond. And maybe knowing the details surrounding my dad’s divorce made her even less enthusiastic about the swap. So we once again tabled the idea of replacing the diamond.
In 2007, when my parents lived with me, I started to notice my mom’s memory slipping. She was always a bit forgetful, but now she was making gross errors, like overdrawing their checking account by hundreds of dollars because she’d forgotten about purchases and payments she’d made, or leaving something cook on the stove and walking away, until it started smoking and set off the fire alarm.
In summer of that year, she was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s. The news was neither a surprise nor a shock, but still very hard for us all to accept given how these stories seem to end. My mom didn’t completely absorb the significance of her diagnosis, but I repeatedly assured her that it was in the early stages, and that she’d never get as bad as her sister or mother, both of whom had developed severe Alzheimer’s.
It was at this time that my dad got back on the idea of replacing her diamond. Maybe he was afraid of losing her to the disease, and before the woman he knew escaped from him completely, he wanted to reaffirm their love and vows with a new diamond. So my dad and I took her old, diamondless setting to a local jewelry and inquired about getting the stone replaced. The jeweler was sympathetic, but really didn’t have anything close to our modest price range.
|On their last trip to Italy, for my daughter's baptism, 2012. |
The rings are on her necklace.
And that’s when I decided to try the lie.
One evening when my parents were in their bedroom, watching TV in their matching recliners, I walked in with my grandmother’s ring. “What if we took the diamond from Grandma’s ring and put it in yours?” I proposed.
“But that’s your ring,” my mom said. “That’s the diamond from Grandma Heath’s engagement ring.”
My dad and I exchanged a secret nod.
“But I don’t really like the style of the ring,” I told my mom. “And besides, when you don’t need it anymore, you can leave it to me.”
The jeweler was more than happy to help us with this solution. Setting the new old stone meant rebuilding the setting a bit—Anne had apparently gotten a slightly larger diamond than my mom did—but the final cost was a fraction of what we would have spent for a new stone.
When the ring was ready, I drove my parents to the jewelry store to pick it up. My mom took the ring, handed it to my dad, and had him slip it on her finger. They kissed as the ring slid into place, over her gnarled knuckle and up her arthritis-bent finger.
In the weeks afterwards, I’d catch her holding out her hand, admiring her diamond ring. She gushed like a schoolgirl about it when a neighbor came to visit, and told my siblings how nice it was to have her engagement ring back on, even if it was Grandma’s diamond. When her knuckles finally became too swollen to wear the rings safely, she wore them on a chain around her neck and when my dad died, she wore his wedding band there, too. Three months later, she no longer needed the rings. She died in the US and I am in Italy but when we go back to visit next year, her diamond ring will be waiting for me.
Alzheimer’s allowed my mom to rewrite a tiny little bit of our family history. Maybe if prodded enough, she would have remembered that the diamond was originally intended for the woman my father loved before he loved her. But neither my dad nor I, nor either of my siblings was about to remind her of that. She had her diamond. And I was more than happy to let her live with that lie.