Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Wedding Ring

It wasn't that she didn't know about the affairs. She knew. She had known for years. But when she lifted the pile of clean shirts and found his wedding ring nestled in a stiff white collar, the stab of pain took her by surprise. She took a step back and sat down on the corner of their bed. She pressed the hand holding the ring to her chest and was still for a while, feeling her breaths, allowing her heartbeat to slow. At last she lowered her hand and looked at the ring, turning it between her fingers. He doesn't know, she thought. All these years, and he doesn't know that I rotate his shirts. It was worse, somehow, than the infidelity; that sudden, clear knowledge that the things she did for him, the small kindnesses, held no space in his consciousness. But he loved her, she was sure. He never crossed the threshold of their house without some small gift. A fresh apple. A wildflower from the side of the road. In many ways he was still so like the young boy she had fallen in love with all those years before. Yet in her hands she held evidence of his casual betrayal. His promise to remain true to her for the rest of their lives burned cold against her skin. He had taken it off, and he had hidden it away. He was out there, in the world, without it.

Her fingers tightened around the dull gold band and her eyes cleared. She stood, turned, dropped the ring into the pocket of her apron and swept her hands over the coverlet in a sharp, practiced movement. The creases disappeared. She returned to the wardrobe and finished rotating his clean shirts. The ring bounced gently against her thigh for the rest of the day. She felt it as she fed the hens, and as she buffed the silver frames in the living room with a soft, butter-coloured cloth. She felt it, and she thought about it, and she decided what to do.

The next day she dropped two gold rings into the hands of a jeweller. Not the local jeweller, where he bought gifts for her, and for their daughters and granddaughters. Another jeweller, far away, who did not know her face or her family. Who could not see the pride, fierce, in her eyes. What God has united, she said to herself, no man shall separate. And no woman, either.

A few days later she collected her new ring. Forged from the gold of his wedding band, and hers, it was decorated with a repeating pattern on the outside, like a sheaf of wheat curling around her finger. Inside, his initials, A.A.G. and a date. She put it on, and it felt smooth and safe against her skin. The power of his mistress, of his mistresses, sank deep inside her like a stone, diving to the bottom of a river. It was heavy there, it would never truly go away, but the weight and rush of her love for him was stronger, faster, unstoppable.

Shortly after my great grandmother Josefina died, my mother, broken hearted, went to grieve with her grandfather. Before she had even removed her jacket he was pressing something firmly into her hand. She wanted you to have this, he said, his eyes damp and bright with tears. She was very insistent. She said it was for you. I don’t even know where it came from.

My great grandfather never knew what happened to his wedding ring. I wish I could ask him now, what went through his mind when he returned to the pile of clean shirts and found no trace of what he had hidden there. I imagine him lifting one and then another, trying not to rumple them too much, but increasingly desperate. Eventually, perhaps he emptied the whole shelf, shirt by shirt. How easily did he give up his wedding ring as lost? Did he think about replacing it? Did he know it well enough to buy an exact replica? And what would my great grandmother have said, had she ever spotted an imposter on his finger? I imagine she might have pressed her lips together, and turned her ring in a small circle, screwing it tighter into place. He did not buy a replacement. He did not ask his wife if she knew where his ring was. He never again wore a wedding ring, and they never spoke of it. I would like to say that he was ashamed, but I do not know if that is true. I know that he did not stop having affairs. But every day, as he crossed the threshold of their home, he bought his wife a small gift, as a token of his love for her. A fresh apple. Or a wildflower from the side of the road.

My mother wears the ring, and she told me the story when I was very young. She adored her grandmother Josefina, for whom I am named, and whose name I carry with pride. Maybe you think it's nothing to be proud of, this endurance of her husband's persistent, sustained infidelity. But I think it took enormous courage to take that ring away, to melt it down, to hold true to her absolute faith in the vows she swore in her church, before her family, and her god. For better or for worse. Wouldn't it have been easier to put the ring back, to do nothing, to ache in silence and bitterness? What she did, she did with love, and with extraordinary dignity. I admire that.

Just let some bugger try the same with me, though...

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