At an event I attended recently a stranger standing beside me noticed the gold ring on my pinkie finger and commented that it must be very special. A light went on inside when he made the observation, and I couldn’t believe anyone, much less someone I’ve never met before, would ask a pointed question about something I thought must look unremarkable to the casual observer. It has no diamonds or other stones, nothing sparkly to catch attention. I said it was special, and that it was old, maybe almost 100 years. Thinking about it later, I realized it is 95 years old.
The ring was given to my grandmother when she was 10 years old, though at that time, in 1920, it was a birthstone. My mother said eventually the stone was lost, and when my mom was older, Grandma had the space filled with gold and made into an initial ring with the letter “C” for my mother — Carmel. From well before I was born, Mom wore that ring on her right hand. She gave it to me when I was in my teens and I wore it with the inscribed C for quite some time before she suggested it be changed to an M.
I’d taken the ring’s presence on my finger for granted in a way I never do with my wedding ring, but this small circle of gold represents several generations of women who loved me into being, going back to my great grandmother whom I met but do not remember.
I remember only the visit to her home when I was four years old. The memories are black and white and flicker, like an old silent film. Looking down from an upstairs window, a kettle in the kitchen and someone sitting there (soft cotton dress — could it be Great Grandma Burke?), hosts for the mass that Father Kelly said in the living room, and shortbread. My four-year-old mind sees the hosts on a plate — or is it the small disks of creamy shortbread that I see? I may have been too young to receive communion in my great grandmother’s living room, but I was not too young for eucharistic shortbread — the food of maternal love.
I wish I’d been old enough to know Mary Frances Kelly Burke, my great grandmother. She lives in my black and white flickers, one four-generation colour photograph, and the words of my grandmother, her sisters, and my mother, as soft-spoken tenderness and unconditional love.
The memories I have of my grandmother do not flicker. They are colour spools of film that play in my mind like they are living now. Grandma is buttered yellow popcorn sleepovers. She is cinnamon bun brown swirl and milky Red Rose tea with too much sugar. Grandma is white fragrant bun dough. White whipped cream and apples, a bit of red apple peel, red as the pot of rouge she sometimes applied to her velvety cheeks on Sundays. Mary Winnifred Burke Weninger — my grandmother — was the salt and yeast of my young world — I don’t know if I would have risen out of childhood without her.
She wore rings on her knobby fingers and, once upon a time, the ring I wear now.
My mother too loved rings, but her fingers were not gnarled and bumpy — at least she did not live long enough for them to become so. Carmel she was named, and caramel she seemed — soothing, like the buttery sweetness her name conjured to me. Mom was mint green and pink candy striped like the dress she wore when I was little (maybe she wore it the summer we visited Grandma Burke). But mostly my mother was light poppyseed chiffon cake — crumbly and soft on the inside and glossy seafoam beige frosting over top. It was her specialty. A splendid chiffon cake sitting on the cupboard was my mother’s gift to those she loved, and to those who needed to know that someone cared. Cake that fed the soul.
My plain little ring with the letter M so faded into the soft gold it is barely discernible still makes me feel lit from within — a reminder of the love I have been nourished with from generations of women. It’s a legacy worth more than gold.