The attendant in the small local bank brought me a long metal box and withdrew discreetly. I turned the key in the lock, lifted the lid, and beheld the family bling.
I went into shock, recoiling.
I’m not into diamonds, or any faceted jewels. They trumpet their presence, they glare, they garish (garish really should be a verb). Usually anyone who can afford to wear jewels is too old to be calling attention to their decrepit selves. For example, the diamond collar I unwrapped first must have held up somebody’s wattles in the previous century. I pawed through more gaudy stuff, pendants, brooches, thinking it all very ugly and unseemly. I deplore the conspicuous display of wealth. It’s an attitude I got straight from my parents, so it’s worth the digression here to explain.
My Dad was deeply embarrassed by his parents’ affluence. He remembered riding with them to his first day of boarding school in a chauffeured towncar, at the height of the Depression, even though he’d begged them to take the train. His parents didn’t seem to realize that wealth made other people feel bad: resentful, envious, diminished, denied. They were, after all, Republicans.
Almost as bad as their being wealthy, they were indolent. His father didn’t even bother with a college degree, or read anything beyond lurid murder mysteries; he didn’t even compose music much after the war. Instead he played the market a little, ran a vanity music-publishing company, but mostly frequented half a dozen private clubs in New York and three more if you count Tuxedo Park and Martha’s Vineyard.
In reaction to his parents’ lifestyle, Dad made it his mission to pursue the opposite route. He refused any money from them, and threw himself into his studies, earning first a Harvard BA and then a law degree from Columbia. A beloved professor, he taught tirelessly at Columbia Law for the next five decades.
Mom and Dad were both compulsively thrifty. World War II rationing shaped their sense of economy forever. We bought cheap, or we did without. Eventually my father’s teaching career seemed assured. By now they had four children; it was time to buy a house. They bought a piece of land in the ‘burbs and started building a modest house befitting Dad’s income. And then Grandpa died.
Dad, being the only child of an only child, inherited the fraction that remained after his father’s lifetime of hobknobbing. He sold two of the houses but kept the Martha’s Vineyard cottage for rentals. The money he stuck in a bank and then tried to ignore it. We still lived within his income. We kids had no idea we were anything but middle-class. We did get a slightly bigger house out of Grandpa’s bequeathal (a good thing because a fifth child was in the future); and one time we got to go to Europe.
So for me, staring into this safe deposit box was like looking into a bygone, very unreal world that I didn’t feel remotely related to. Mom and Dad weren’t party people. On the rare occasions they did dress up, other than her engagement ring I never saw my mother wear anything but costume jewelry. Not only that, they were Democrats. Socialism good! Excess bad! No wonder my parents hid this shit away and never talked about it. The contents of this box were…Republican. I couldn’t help a shiver of revulsion.
To be fair, Grandpa and Grandma weren’t so into the bling either. Most of the pieces in the safe deposit box came from the generation before: the Belle Epoque. You never see Dad’s parents wearing jewelry in the photos that survive. However, Grandpa clearly liked small, understated pinkie rings. There were five or six of them, and fairly alike, so maybe he bought Grandma a few that matched his. At any rate, I was looking for a ring, and these didn’t call to me.
But the last one did. The center stone was a cat’s eye, a stone I’d never seen before: pale green, cloudy like a moonstone, with a vertical vein like a cat’s iris that shifted as you moved the ring, similar to a portrait whose eyes follow you.
Too large for my pinkie, it fit nicely on my middle finger. It was totally cool, and very inconspicuous – except for two tiny diamonds that flanked the cat’s eye. As I’ve said, I don’t like diamonds. But they could be removed.
Or so I thought.
(To be continued.)
- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My new novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011.