Losing and finding a family heirloom

Sometimes a ring is more than just a piece of jewelry
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 11/02/2018 at 11:39 AM EDT
The writer as a baby with her mom, and now, wearing the ring next to her niece, who is named for her mother.

I had just gotten into the shared Lyft at LAX and closed the door; as the gray Prius pulled away from the curb, I looked down at my hand and saw a gaping hole in the middle of my ring. Missing was the stone that had been set in this ring long ago, before I owned it, before my mother owned it, before her mother owned it. Smoky topaz, some friends who are more jewel-savvy than I had pronounced. This family heirloom, now vanished.

How long had it been gone before I noticed it? It was already loose in Jerusalem, when my nephew pointed it out; I promised to have it fixed when I returned home, but now I’d never have the chance. Did I lose it in a ladies’ room at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv? During my San Francisco layover? Or had it been jostled free from its setting as I hoisted bags off the baggage carousel at my final destination? Was the stone being kicked about by travelers’ feet or pulverized by Uber tires in the street outside LAX? I looked around on the floor of the passenger’s side of the car, but there was nothing there except the floor mat. It was gone.

Members of my Israeli family told me my grandmother had obtained this ring in Jerusalem in the 1940s; I only remembered it on my mother’s hand as she had stroked mine when I was younger. After she died, I took possession of it, and brought it with me to family events and on trips to Israel, so I could feel like a piece of her was with me. It felt a little like the inverse of the Jewish custom of putting rocks on a grave to show you’d been there; this rock, I was taking with me, to show her where I’d been.

Over the seven years since she died, people have commented about the ring. I’ve been terrified of losing the ring or having it stolen, so when I travel, I mostly keep it with me. I am nervous on planes, so I wear it when I fly; it’s an emotional anchor for me as the airplane pierces clouds and air and rides out turbulence.

In the 40 minutes it took to drive from the airport to my home, I had cried continuous tears from my spot in the front seat, updating my Facebook status with a mournful, silent, typed cry as the backseat passengers discussed their plans for their L.A. visit. Did I recommend any particular types of food or restaurants? Were we getting close to their destination? How far away did I live from where they were being dropped off? I answered as breezily as I could, given the fact that my heart had been punctured by this loss. They left the car and I told the driver that when we arrived at my destination, I needed to look around the car — in the front and back seats and in the trunk where I’d stowed my bags. We arrived, and I looked in the back and in the front where I was sitting. Just the mat. No ring.

Then. A voice or inclination within rose up. “Check under the mat.” Ridiculous. Why would I check under the mat that was there before I had clambered aboard this Prius of grief and loss? That’s not how physics works. (It’s not, right? I flunked physics. But I was still pretty sure.) Still, how could I not check? I lifted the mat. And there it was. The small brown stone, looking even smaller freed from its gold setting. The tears reasserted themselves, tears of joy now, to have found what I’d assumed to be lost to me forever.

When I entered my apartment, I dropped my bags and went on Facebook Live to share the story. No makeup, no wardrobe prep, crooked glasses, red, teary eyes. And my friends responded. “Your mom was playing hide-‘n-seek with you, but realized that was not going well. She whispered into your ear to look under the floor mat,” said one well-wisher. Another noted that “I didn’t cry at all during This Is Us tonight, but now I am bawling!” Another felt this was a case of being lucky and that I should “go buy a lottery ticket.”

Some people really related, sharing their own stories of losing things that weren’t just things to them—a mother’s opal pendant, a diamond gifted by a father—and the lessons such losses had taught them. “Those sentimental pieces are like little chunks of neshama (soul),” wrote one person. “I feel like your mom is right here with you in this moment. You were separated and now in this thing you are back together,” another asserted.

People were also practical, sending names of jewelers that could reset the stone. My sister-in-law’s father even offered to pay for the fix. “Get that thing welded in,” one person said, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough. “And embedded in my body,” I added.

Someone recently pointed out (nerd alert: Marvel reference coming up) that it looks like one of Thanos’ infinity stones. And in some ways it really is: Telling the story of the ring gave me control over time and space, connecting hundreds of people to this story and its emotions. (Except without the disastrous outcome of that last Avengers movie. That’s not a spoiler. It’s been out for months, people.)

I was lucky. What was lost, was found again. Not everyone is lucky enough to have lost items returned to them. But I also found connection in a moment when I felt most alone.

It was a reminder that although Facebook sometimes feels like a political news engine or an echo chamber, there is an actual community of people all over the world with whom I share my life’s space, albeit virtually. And the responses, while certainly aiming to comfort and advise me through this incident, also spoke volumes about us all as humans and our ability to assign meaning and emotional attachment to objects that were neutral…until they entered our lives and absorbed some of the energy from a loved person or unique experience. Democrat or Republicans, old or young, scientist or yogi, sentimentalist or pragmatist, they were all in this moment with me. Nearly everyone had experienced something similar, and they were sending love and good energy my way, thanking me for being vulnerable and sharing this story from its initial trauma to its unexpected resolution. I’ve never felt more connected to my community or to the thread of humanity that runs through us all.

So many of us are walking wounded, moving through life wearing the memories of people who can no longer walk at our sides or voice their presence in our lives. And a single artifact from the lives of the lost can take on a value and importance so great that the loss of it opens the wound afresh. I emerge from this experience knowing that I am not alone in such longitudinal grief: others also have experienced these smaller losses that awaken the beast of grief within. May it bring them—and all of you—comfort that, in these smaller moments when they mourn in a measure that may not seem to make logical sense, they are seen, understood and embraced. And may the embrace of current community—in-person and virtual—protect our hearts as we remember those we’ve lost.

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