Forever

Elizabeth Farris divides her time between the desert of Arizona and the green bush of New Zealand. She writes short fiction, screenplays, stage plays and essays.

I had never been given a diamond before, that universal symbol of commitment and everlasting love. Diamonds are forever, the advertisement claims. But what it doesn’t mention is that the bits of overpriced carbon, the hardest natural substance on earth, are in fact fragile and can be totally destroyed in a fire.

The other children in my family have had experiences with diamonds. My twice-married sister upgraded husbands and went from a single solitaire to a massive cluster. The other sister lost her engagement ring before the wedding and wore a resentment-filled plain gold band for the length of her brief marriage. My brother enjoys keeping diamond brokers in business. His wife enjoys variety in what she wears on multiple fingers at the same time.

I was shocked when my father pressed a small envelope into my hand. It was sealed, stamped Messenger Mortuary, and Farris was hand lettered on the front. I fingered the circular lump inside it. “You’ve never been given a diamond,” he said, his eyes as swollen and red as mine. I struggled to find appropriate words and he nodded his head. The diamond, we both knew, was immaterial. I slipped the envelope into my purse. It was several days until I was emotionally strong enough to open it up.

Several years before, Mom had held out her left hand to me, palm up. “Look at this.” The gold bands on both her wedding and engagement rings had gotten so thin and worn that they had both broken through and developed a tiny gap. “I’ve never taken them off.” Over the course of forty years, atoms of gold had washed down the kitchen sinks of five houses. Others had fallen to the floor and had been vacuumed up, collected in paper bags along with the dust, and were buried in a landfill somewhere. As she spoke, the last remaining escaped atoms of gold might have been circulating in the living room, cast about by the ceiling fan, inhaled by the family members gathered in the room. But her diamond was another thing altogether. The modest stone given to her in 1946, along with a promise, remained intact.

“I have to take them off or I might lose them,” she said. Her plan was to have a new ring made, one with her mother’s diamond on it, as well as her own.

The new ring was simple, an extra-wide band with three diamonds set in an uninspired straight line. It was not out of place with the multiple polyester skirts she sewed herself from a favorite pattern, her collection of no-frill blouses. And it wasn’t shamed by other jewelry, since she wore nothing else on her hands.

In the last years of her life, she rarely wore the ring. Chemotherapy made her fingers swell, and then her lack of appetite made them shrink. And on the few occasions when she did wear it, it never glimmered in the sun because she was unwilling to be seen outside the house, unable to venture too far from the oxygen tank that kept her alive.

Mom’s ashes were put in a brass box. Delivered to the Memorial Garden beside the church. Buried beneath a brass plaque with her name on it, which is polished monthly by the volunteer caretakers. It shines in the desert sun.

When Dad found her jewelry box at the back of the closet, he placed it on their bed and the five of us gathered around as it was opened. There was the twenty-year service pin in recognition of her volunteer work at the Desert Botanic Gardens. The medal she had earned in high school for excellence in Latin. Her Pi Beta Phi sorority pin. A badge from Squaw Peak Bowling Lanes with a long row of attached accolades. High Game. Outstanding Series. League Champs.

He opened up the bottom drawer and handed me a small suede zippered pouch. “You should have this,” he said. I opened it and found three dull gold rings, each with the backs broken through. One thin plain band was the same size as another that had once grasped a diamond. The third, which had also once held an even smaller diamond, had been made for a thicker finger. My siblings looked on, oblivious to my fascination with the worthless remnants of two marriages.

When I got home, I finally opened the envelope from Messenger Mortuary. I held the rings from the zippered pouch against the last ring my mother wore. Two of the diamonds would have fit inside the prongs, but neither would have been able to hold the third diamond, the largest of them all.

Not long after I had discovered boys, Mom showed me a khaki-colored photograph of a young man in an Army uniform. A man, she said, who she had almost married. His foot was perched on top of a Jeep’s bumper, his head was thrown back in a laugh.

“Why didn’t you marry him?” I asked.

She gave me nothing but silence as she lined up the photo with the piece of cardboard that had come from the back of a picture frame. She slipped both of them into the yellow wrapper and put it back into her desk drawer.

“So that guy might have been my father?”

She looked at me and hesitated. “He’s nobody’s father,” she said. And then she left the room, went into the kitchen, and made dinner.

The three diamonds on my mother’s ring are the only diamonds I own. I still have an engagement ring left over from a relationship that never resulted in marriage. It has no diamond, only birthstone rubies, set in a sequence that gets smaller and smaller as it radiates out from the center.