· Family fashions that bear memories ·
A few years ago, I was visiting my Great Grandma Delores. It was the January after the second summer I’d lived with my grandparents, seeing her almost every day. I was a junior at Boston University and was visiting the three of them before heading back to Boston for spring semester.
When we arrived at her apartment that day, I took my usual spot in my great grandpa’s chair. He’d been gone just shy of two years and his death in March of my freshman year is partly what inspired me to live in Florida. I wanted to see more of Great Grandma and my grandparents. In those two summers, Great Grandma and I grew very close. She loved her family and we had a connection. Maybe it’s because I love history and would listen to her stories over and over again, soaking up my own family history. Maybe it was our mutual love of shoes.
Whatever it was, we were close, and that January day, she asked me if she’d ever told me the story of the ring she was wearing. She showed me it on her ring finger on her left hand. I hadn’t ever seen it, so I hadn’t heard the story either. Her wedding band snuggled up next to it, she showed me a simple white gold ring with a small diamond raised on a tall box setting. The geometric detail confirmed its status as an Art Deco ring; the style was still popular in the early 1930s and I’ve since found many rings on the internet with similar characteristics from the period.
For her eighteenth birthday, she told me, her parents gave her a hope chest and this ring. Her dad was so excited to give it to her that he told her beforehand and made her promise not to tell her mother. I could tell from the way she told the story that her father must have been a thoughtful, caring man who had a sweet spot for his only daughter. She got the ring on her birthday and her mother never knew that he’d told her about it.
After telling me this story, my 99-year-old great grandmother began to take off the ring. As she labored over her swollen knuckle, determined to get it off, it dawned on me what was happening. She finally managed to pull the ring off and handed it to me. She told me to try it on, then told me she wanted me to have it. Naturally, I was overcome. To have such a meaningful gift given to me by my treasured great grandmother was more than I could handle. To hear the story first hand, how excited her father had been and that she’d kept the secret from her mother, meant even more.
The story of her birthday inspired her to tell more stories from her childhood and I listened in rapture with my new ring on my finger. I left a few days later, saying goodbye and thanking her again for the ring. My first memory of Great Grandma is from when I was eight and every time I saw her after, with every goodbye there was a wonder if it would be the last time I saw her. But she continued to stay strong and sassy, and I was lucky to have many more memories with her; she lived more than four years after she gave me the ring.
I don’t wear the ring every day. I typically go through phases, wearing it consistently for a few months and then not wearing it at all for a few months. I always wear it for special occasions, though, and especially interviews. I think of it as good luck, but, more so, I use it as a reminder of the people who love me, especially Great Grandma, and to show the interviewer the person they know. It’s often mistaken for an engagement ring, but I wear it on my right hand and am happy to have an excuse to talk about Great Grandma. She was my favorite person.
The eighteenth birthday gift always made me think about her family and circumstances. My grandma (Great Grandma’s daughter-in-law) told me that Great Grandma always talked about how poor her family was, especially during the Great Depression. However, these gifts made me think twice. Great Grandma was born in 1913, so she turned 18 in October 1931 at the height of the Depression. That means that she was given a beautiful hope chest with her name engraved on a metal plate on the inside and a 14K white gold and diamond ring in the midst of the Great Depression. To me, that indicates that maybe they weren’t as poor as she remembers but also how much her parents loved her. The ring speaks as loudly as her own stories.
It’s funny how fashion can make us feel so close to our loved ones. Peter Stallybrass wrote in The Yale Review about how his deceased friend came to him when he was wearing his old jacket. He talks about the “magic of cloth” as it receives our imprint. He distinguishes this from jewelry but these items – items of fashion worn so close and intimately to our bodies – come to forge a connection over the years. They are the bearers of memories and become a symbol of family history. Stallybrass writes of Anne Clifford’s seventeenth century will in which she details the clothing and jewelry she’s leaving to her grandchildren. “Here, the transmission of goods is a transmission of wealth, of genealogy, of royal connections,” he writes. “But also of memory and of the love of mother for daughter.”
For me, this ring kept me close to my great grandma even when we were far apart. She passed away this February, so now it keeps her close to me even though she’s gone. I feel honored as the only great granddaughter to have received such a meaningful gift from Great Grandma herself and when the ring is eventually passed on from me, it will bear not only my great grandma’s memories but mine, as well. Until then, you can find it safely on my finger.
As my family’s resident fashion lover, I’ve been passed down many items of clothing, jewelry, and accessories over the years. In Family Fashions, I’ll share the stories of these items and how they’ve made me think about my family members and how clothing holds a powerful place in our memories.