Losing an Heirloom as a Family Tradition

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I don’t mean to brag, but every movie theater usher in Kansas City once knew me by name. On humid summer days, my father would pull me from camp at lunch to catch an action flick and cool down in the best air-conditioning Missouri had to offer. I cherished these retreats, which included Reese’s Pieces, Cherry Coke and zero pressure to talk.

But every 10th matinee or so, my father would launch into a predictable routine. In the second half of the movie, just when the Russians, space aliens or cyborgs were really getting the upper hand, Dad would tense up, lean over his extra-extra-large soda and inform me that, sorry, we’d need to search the aisles for his class ring after the credits rolled.

The jewelry was gold and gaudy, showcasing a faux-ruby gemstone the size of a pinkie nail and the words “Rhode Island School of Design,” where my grandfather studied machine design many decades ago.

My father drew comfort not from booze or sports, but from twisting this splendid band, left and right and left. Then further left and right again. It was a 24-karat fidget spinner. When Dad added industrial grade butter-flavored popcorn sauce to all that heat and pressure, his second-longest digit became a tiny, lubricated missile launcher, firing the band into the air and down the aisle, flickering in the light of Jean-Claude Van Damme jump-kicking a Soviet right in the trachea.

Class rings, more than any other ring, are skilled at disappearing, which may explain why you rarely see one on an adult. My father’s ring hid in difficult to reach places where only my 11-year-old hands could fit. Most theatergoers, who shuffle in and out in the familiar twilight, never see the powerful cinema floodlights that lit up my searches. They are the second brightest source of illumination in our solar system, custom-designed to reveal the grimy residue produced when a couple hundred people laugh, cry, grope and snack in the dark for two hours.

Under the gaze of the extremely cool teenagers who worked at the theater, I crawled on my hands and knees to find the lost ring. I was easily embarrassed as a child, but I endured because I coveted the ring — you build a special relationship with the object of your torment — which had been passed down from my grandfather to my father.

I never met my grandfather, who died when my father was in seminary preparing to be a priest. Dad left school, returned home, married my mother, became a fireman. In my baby photos, Dad cradles me in his arms, his hands protecting my face. The ring pinches his finger into a pair of sausage links, and what would have looked tacky on lesser hands made my father into The Godfather. (His olive complexion and Eddie Munster hairline certainly didn’t hurt.) I always hoped my fingers would swell into thick, meaty digits just like his, at which point I’d claim my golden birthright, and rule as the king of a three-bedroom split-ranch, just like my old man.

At 15, I took a job at the movie theater, but instead of a ring, I got a second-degree burn from the heater that keeps nacho cheese just beneath a boil. I earned enough money to order a loop of my own, but I didn’t want a class ring; I wanted the class ring. I demonstrated responsibility and maturity — mowing the lawn, growing an unconnected patchwork of facial hair — and on my 17th birthday, Dad gave me his father’s ring. That same week, I lost it.

My hands were small and thin, requiring me to make a constant knuckle to keep the jewelry from sneaking away. When I went for a run around the neighborhood three days after my birthday, I decided not to risk losing the ring mid jog, and instead left the band in what my 17-year-old brain determined was the safest spot within five feet: on the trunk of my family’s 1995 white Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera parked in the driveway. I don’t know when the ring vanished. Maybe someone stole it. But if I’m honest, I suspect it disappeared when, returning from the run dehydrated, forgetting to reclothe my naked finger, I drove to 7-11 for a Slurpee.

The ring was never seen again.

My dad forgave me, but he’s never stopped looking for the ring. Now I know my dad held onto the ring not as a stress reliever, but as the last piece of his own father, and I despise my 17-year-old-self, a covetous, irresponsible and unaware kid.

My father and my grandfather grew up in an age of scarcity. Today, it’s generally assumed that everything can be purchased online with enough searching and willingness to go into debt.

I’ve tried to find another “RISD Class of 1960” band — eBay, Craigslist, cold-calling the apathetic grandchildren of alumni — but, no luck. I figured I’d commission a replica, but the school’s historians couldn’t find a single photo of my grandfather or his ring or any class ring from that year. And although my dad wore it for decades, we have no photographs that show it clearly enough to serve as a model.

We don’t talk about the loss, but I think it still bothers my father even after 15 years. The closest we came to acknowledging the ring’s absence was a year ago, when Dad bought a gimmel ring as an overdue stand-in. A gimmel ring is a funny choice for a fidgeter. When twisted or squeezed, it collapses into three separate loops.

After some gentle prodding, he demonstrated the trick. With a twist, one band became three, and his finger transformed, right there, into the trunk of our family tree. Grandfather. Father. Son. We spent the next hour trying to get the gimmel back together.

In the summertime, when I step from heat into air-conditioning, I still picture the movie theater. It’s dark and cold. My dad leans over, and I know what he’ll say. The ring is lost, and we need to stay and find it together. I crawl around the sticky floor, I check all the familiar places. The ushers, my dad and I search and search as the bright lights flip on and the heat rushes in.