What We Cling To
The power of what we hold close
My family is going to try—and try is the key word here—to put a bit of a lid on the gift giving this holiday season. In years past, it’s been rather extravagant. Some might call it over-the-top. The intensity of giving had become an entrenched tradition, albeit one that, at times, surged to excessive heights.
How many of those gifts from the past do we cling to today? How many of those presents are now cherished possessions we could not live without? Maybe a handful, at the very best. Maybe none at all. What turns a gift, a certain thing, into a prized possession, a holy and intimate belonging?
I recently read an article about an author who attended an auction of the remaining possessions of the late writer Joan Didion. The author wrote about what it would mean to have one of the many seashells Didion collected over the years, or one of the dozen or so pairs of eyeglasses she once wore. Would this author see the world as Didion did? The teenage love letters from a young Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) to his high school sweetheart are being auctioned off. Someone will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. Maybe the auction winner will gift them to someone.
There is power in things. But that power emanates not from the thing itself, but from our personal, intimate connection to it, how we view the other who possessed it before the giving took place. This is true even if what we have come now to possess is not what we would ever gift to ourselves.
I wear my father’s ring. Gold with a black onyx inlay and a small diamond in the middle. It’s a showy ring, the jewelry of someone who hopes to be seen. I’ve been asked if its the ring of the Masons. I’m asked if it’s real. I’m asked if it symbolizes something Medieval. It is none of these. My father was far from showy, but yet wore the ring with enthusiasm. It was a wedding gift from my mother and I will forever see on the third finger of his meaty, workman’s hand. He never took it off. Not when he was hammering nails, not when he was sawing wood, not when he was mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, painting the house. Never. It was as much a part of him as his sturdy forearms, his Irish smile, his baritone voice used with precision to tell the long, complicated joke.
Long before my father became ill, I joked that his ring would someday be mine. He smiled and said, “Not quite yet.” The time eventually did come. The ring was tugged from his finger and placed on mine, this gaudy, showy band. I have never taken it off. Not when hammering nails, not when scrubbing dinner pots, not when digging holes for the garden. Never.
A gift from my father? Not directly. He never handed it to me with ceremony or with the heaviness of legacy. Instead, it was “passed on,” as my mother once said, “to the son who would hold it dear.” The design is not one I would be drawn to. If it were not my father’s, I, too, would dismiss it, as some have, as ostentatious. Still, it is more than a shiny decoration. The ring is my father. It was his center, his being, his anchor, his constant. Always there, a bright reminder of love, commitment, joy. This “gift” to me was not formally given or wrapped up in holiday tissue, but yet it is just that, a gift beyond others.
There will be some presents this holiday season, and loved ones will smile and be thankful. And I will do the same. But a day later, after all the boxes have been opened, what will remain? Will it be something that decades later we will hold against our chests and cherish?
My father’s ring was not a gift in the holiday sense, but it was a gift to me. One that carries far more meaning than anything in an Amazon cart could possibly carry. And when I give a gift this season, whatever it may be and to whomever it may go, I’m certain that it will be accepted with gratitude. But I also know it’s likely to be forgotten, discarded, dismissed, or allowed to decay in the weeks and years beyond. So few things hold the weight of significance beyond the dazzle of holiday.
Not long ago, I was helping to transport heavy river rocks from a friend’s home to our house to be placed along a parkway drain. While reaching for one rock, my right hand collided with another stone. I gasped. The ring? Despite the impact, my father’s band remained intact, unaltered, unscathed, indestructible, a gem of antiquity, an endurable ancestral gift, a fluid familial connection of the most meaningful kind, beyond and above what any holiday offering could equal.
And on my finger it will stay.