Ahead of the Proposal, Romancing the Stone

Posted May 5, 2018 1:15 a.m. EDT

Jesse wants to meet me for coffee, and I bet I know why. What I don’t know is why I’m not prepared.

Of course he intends to propose to my daughter, Sarah; the news is merely that it’s imminent. Of course she’ll say yes. Even I, with my perfervid imagination, cannot concoct a scenario in which she turns him down. I’ve had plenty of time to think of the right thing to say, and yet all I can manage is a hug and a “mazel tov,” since Yiddish seems to be the default language for monumental good news when I’m otherwise speechless.

This is the inaugural moment of my tenure as the mother of the bride, and I’ve blown it. A hug and congratulations is not the memorable response that Jesse will recall and recount for decades. You’d think a writer could muster something more. I better start working on my toast.

Wait. My pinball brain lights up with a bigger idea: I offer Jesse a diamond for the engagement ring, and we make a date for him to come by and look at the jewels.

There aren’t many to speak of. I lead an unadorned life, probably in reaction to my mother’s defining proposition, which boiled down to “I wear jewelry, therefore, I am.” I have never bought myself anything more than the occasional cheap earrings, because given the choice between a serious pair and a plane ticket, I always took the trip. I rely on hand-me-downs: Little diamond studs that belonged to my mother, minus the weird gold teardrops that are supposed to hang from them; my father’s old watch, which works every now and then; his favorite ring; a locket my mother got when she was born that’s prettier than the one I got when I was.

The only likely candidate for the ring is a stone from my grandmother’s wedding ring. My mother gave it to me about 10 years ago — or rather, gave me the stones reset in a new ring made for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary — because she thought I was too old not to have a diamond more substantial than the earrings she’d already given me.

“It’s the ugliest ring I’ve ever seen,” she said, “but you might be able to do something with the stones.” She wasn’t exaggerating. The 1921 original might have been nice. The 1971 redo looked like a freeway on-ramp, with very small diamonds circling up to the bigger stone, the etched-gold setting a fair approximation of worn concrete.

Sarah was taking a jewelry-making class in high school at the time, so she designed a thin white-gold chain with the small diamonds set into it and the bigger stone at the center. A jeweler turned the drawing into a necklace I’ve worn ever since, the stone nestled just below my collarbone.

When I got home from coffee with Jesse, I took off the necklace and held the chain tight around my ring finger, to see what the diamond might look like on Sarah’s hand. It was pretty perfect.

3 Generations of DNA

As it turns out, Sarah has had the same idea, which she mentions barely a week later, when Jesse is out of town. She wonders, on a purely theoretical and hypothetical basis, you understand, if I might consider letting her have the diamond for an engagement ring. Tiny Sarah and ancient Ethel met twice and shared a rapturous interest in the little singing birds in a big cage at the nursing home where Ethel lived as she headed for 102. Sarah grew up light on relatives. She liked having a great-grandmother, and Ethel liked being one, having started to wonder, aloud, why God kept her hanging around. When I told her I was pregnant, she wrote back to say how pleased she was to have an answer to that question.

I feint. I’m happy that Sarah wants the stone she’s going to get, but I can’t tell her that.

“Well,” I say. “Let me make sure first that it isn’t a rhinestone or something,” which gets a chuckle and buys me some time.

Here’s a dilemma: Whom should I betray? I can ruin Jesse’s plan and tell Sarah that the diamond’s on its way — or I can keep a secret from my flesh and blood, which feels like lying, and hope that she’ll forgive me.

The rhinestone joke buys me time — and having considered the possibility that the stone’s a fake, I figure I ought to consult an expert. I find a jeweler whose testimonials outstrip the competition and show him what I hope is a very old diamond.

He smiles. “It’s a 97-year-old stone.”

“How can you tell?”

“It’s imperfect,” he says. “It was cut by a person. Not a laser.”

There’s a small note of apology in his voice, and yet I’m suddenly lighthearted. Cut by a person and, so, imperfect. This seems just right for the dice-roll of happily ever after. At the moment I reside in the gap between divorce and dating, where I ponder whether to clamber up the opposite slope or just plant tomatoes and settle in right here, watching whatever romance Turner Classic Movies sends my way. I am a wiser realist and a die-hard romantic, so imperfection appeals to me. I just hope Jesse won’t be disappointed.

He isn’t. He drops by very soon after to claim the necklace on his way to the jeweler.

I wanted to wear it right up to the last minute, so I undo the clasp, drop the necklace into a little fabric pouch, and give it to him.

“I’m handing it off with three generations of DNA on it,” I say, and then we stand there. He wants to dash off and yet he doesn’t, I want him to sail away and yet I don’t — so I put on my coat and walk the block to the subway with him, to drag this out. We linger for a moment before he says thank you, turns and hurries down the stairs. I cannot say for sure that his feet touch the ground.

The Illusion and the Magic

Sarah knows that I do not procrastinate, so I have to say something to her about the diamond. For days I hide behind texts about how insanely busy I am, but we have a date to listen to an old friend who’s singing at a Times Square club, and I can’t pull off phony excuses in person. I decide to tell her that she can have the diamond — but not that Jesse already has it — when we go out to eat after the show. By the time she figures out how to tell him, the ring will be ready.

The show runs late — no time for supper on a work night — but I have made up my mind. As we head for the subway, I scan the neighborhood for a proper setting. Sixth Avenue and 50th Street is a midnight construction zone, but there is a little stand of trees at 49th Street, still wearing their tiny ivory holiday lights. I march her over, put my hands on her shoulders, and tell her she can have the diamond, which conveniently eclipses the question of why I’m not wearing it.

I can summon up the sense memory of a handful of fierce, lingering hugs over time, having to do with various animals who became part of our family, or wildly decorated birthday cakes, or first jobs or books published or whatever we agree matters. The northwest corner of 49th and Sixth becomes part of that family library, the moment when a ghost great-grandmother, a frail grandmother, and Sarah and I share a single embrace. All that history. All that flawed and well-intentioned love.

And that’s where this part of the story ends — not with the proposal, not with the wedding plans, the dress, the food, the invitations, none of it.

This ends, even as it begins, with a man dashing down the subway stairs, a diamond necklace in his jacket pocket. A woman anticipating a ring that holds then and now together. And a pending mother of the bride who knows flat out what an illusion romance can be — and yet indulges, despite everything, in a glorious dose of why not.