On dairy cream nowadays, they write “Best if used before . . .” Well, honey, my last safe-fresh year was, oh, around nineteen and fifty-one. But here I am—still propped up in bed, still cross and talking. Oh, I know how brown time has turned me. Old filbert face. Nurses here hate it when I run myself down. They scold me like they’re sticking up for a child what can’t protect itself. I just laugh. Back of these cataracts, I’ve got some good stuff saved. I’m only vain about my memory. But concerning that, I’m Mrs. Got-Rocks Stuck-Up. Fronts of my eyes might’ve whited over like a Frigidaire’s double doors—but what’s locked behind stays crisp and cool. Lately, my blue-plate-leftover-special is the perfect troubled summer of nineteen and ten.
My children would gobble any bright thing. Whatever shined, our babies ate it. They took light to be a type of snack. I warned them, “All that glitters is not food.” But gulp, then here they’d come running to me, crying. One June day in nineteen-aught-ten here’s Lou, my plump oldest girl, holding the hand of our next-to-youngest child. “Tell her,” Louisa orders the baby sister. “Tell Momma what you ate now, Pig Breath.”
I bow from the waist, I quiz Baby: has she swallowed something? (A nod.) Please describe the missing item. “It . . . siney,” Baby explains. “Siney” was her favorite word that summer. Lou, bored, age nine, bossy by nature, rolls her eyes, “We think it means ’shiny’.” I give Louisa the glare. “Listen, you, we’re lucky our Baby here can talk. Just pipe down. Miss Mouth.”
“Darling,” now I’m on my knees before Baby. “Look at me. Look at Momma. Lead Momma to where Baby found whatever Baby put down Baby’s throat.”“Darling,” now I’m on my knees before Baby. “Look at me. Look at Momma. Lead Momma to where Baby found whatever Baby put down Baby’s throat.”
Then it happens: my child, my five year old, our prettiest, points to my third finger, to a callus, the brown married-life groove that shows what’s missing. I glance at the drainboard where I left it.
“You ate Momma’s diamond ring”
Baby nods a whole lot, ninety fat curls jostle. She gets real big-eyed, she gulps as a test then points to one side of a neck banded with chubby folds. Next the fingertip slides lower, lower, clear down to her breastbone’s top. “It . . . tickle . . . Baby.” Hoarse, she keeps us posted.
“Does it hurt you, Pumpkin?” I shake her by the shoulders.
“Tell Momma how it feels, tell me.”
Baby smacks her lips, tasting. Baby looks off to one side,
concentrating. Finally Baby reports, “It feel . . . siney.”
Seems like Baby swallowed my finger and the finger is crooking itself inside her, signaling, hoping to be noticed and called back. Finally, Baby sobs. I’d been expecting that. Her yellow curls, her jumper with its animal-cracker smocking, her pearly nose, the pinkness otherwise—poor beautiful Baby. She’s not my youngest no more —but she’ll never stop being called Baby—by us, the neighbors, and all Falls, N.C.
“Are you still married?” Louisa is tugging at my apron. Lou can drive you absolutely crazy. Now she bolts off, a hefty interested child, to tell brothers and sisters: Baby has swallowed their parents’ being married. I half-believe her. I’m that tired. I feel illegal and alone. My husband travels with his business. Like lots of young mothers left at home with kids—I speak to my children like they’re the grownups, I talk to adults like they’re my kids.—Too, I’m swallowing mouthfuls of iron pills for anemia. Seven children, no outside help.
Luckily, my particular seven interest me. Few dull moments hereabouts. I now promise my weepy one that everything’Il be fine. She’ll see. “Whatever goes in has got to come out. Understand, Baby?” The poor child pries open her mouth, stuffs many dimpled fingers down her throat. Quick, I stop her. “No, the other end, darling. We’ll wait. It takes a while. Let’s play like Baby is a River and, say, we dropped something into one part, then we could fish it out when it floated upstream (or is it downstream?)—anyhow, you see?—not to worry. We’ll check on everything you .. . on all your little . . . you can use a whole separate potty and you’ll bring it to Momma every time, okay?—Now, ain’t this going to be fun? The pot will be your own special one, and nobody else can have the use of it. You catching the drift here, Peachness?”
“Yeth,” says Baby in baby talk. “I a river.”
“Correct.” Still on my knees, I waddle toward the cabinets underneath our kitchen sink. My burnt and bent pans always end up here last thing before they hit the garbage. Here’s an old white enamel saucepan, red-rimmed, chipped with deep black flecks like worrisome moles. It was amongst my wedding gifts, some centuries before. Used to be my favorite all-time pan. I know I’m sacrificing it forever.
I hope to get Baby excited about this, like a project, see? When she acts calmer, studying her own personal pot, wearing it as a hat, trying to squint into its hollow handle, I question her. In my lightest not-to-worry voice, “Tell Momma why you swallowed Momma’s engagement ring. Honey Dimple. What . . .?” (I almost say “attracted you to it,” but that sounds pretty dumb—so I wait.) “Just . . . why?” I grin. She must not feel judged. Baby acts like some famous opera singer answering reporters on the deck of an ocean-liner.
“’Cause .. . it .. . siney.”
“Siney, yes,” I say. ” ’Shiny.’”
Outside, my older children sing how Baby’s done gulped down the bride and groom, how this couple’s kids will all stay orphans till the bridal team squirms free again. Then certain brats chant:
“We know where they’ll come out.
We know where they’ll come out.”
I yowl for kids to shush this very instant. Cherishing her new toy, holding it by the red handle before her face like a personal hand mirror. Baby hears their teasing. She dreads the neighbors’ knowing. Baby stands here dripping tears. Her face, heart shaped, curdles.
“Say ’shiny,’” I coo to get her mind off what lays ahead. “Say it.”
“Shiny,” she tries. “That mean ’siney.’ ”
“Yeah,” I smile at her. “Go sit on the pot.”
She did. The poor thing couldn’t budge from it, for guilt feelings. I asked a favor of an older neighbor girl: please run to Kress’s. I wanted to ease Baby’s mind. I ordered myself a ten-cent ring with a clear glass rock about as big as an acorn. Rhinestones are tacky, yeah — but the sunshine they trap inside theirselves ain’t no different than a diamond’s daylight.
For baby, I modeled the flashy thing. Poor child already wore a pressed-looking face, like she was straining while just walking around. “See?” I acted Lady Bright. “No hurry. Momma has got lots of rings. Tulip. You only ate one. Things take care of theirselves. Just be natural and live like usual. It’ll happen.”
This Kress’s ring was way too small. It cut right bad. I wore it full-time anyhow. Maybe it’d help my Baby to relax. I showed it off, smiling.
“That’s not your real ring.” Louisa, our eldest girl, can be right whiney when she puts her mind to it. “You’re nobody’s wife now,” Lou points at me, using her left braid’s tip. “Or maybe you’re just the wife of Baby’s Stomach. I bet it’s fake. Yeah, that’s probably just a one-cent toy ring.”
“Will. . . You . . . Shut. . . Up?” I mouth across the kitchen but our darling, hurt, dashes screeching down the hall. Then— timid —Baby scuffs back, grabs up Pottie. (She’s made a pet of it. In her loneliness, she’s named it “Mr. Pottie.”) Baby pouts off, shy and wronged. She turns back and, full of self-pity, even for her—the child puffs, hugging the saucepan even nearer,“Baby’s onwy fwend.”
It about breaks my heart. It does.
She swallowed my ring at a bad time —but then it’s always a bad time, you know? Still, I was bushed just then. My husband stayed gone weeks at a sweep, selling livestock. Kept gallivanting off, jawing with other Civil War vets about the happy bloody olden times. He left me high and dry in the gory present. A family doctor had explained: My body lacked so much iron, I could eat our entire eight-burner Wedgewood cookstove and still not break even.
Was one of them moments: I’d finally get the children all pyjamaed, watered, tucked in and storied out. Coming down the stairs at last, I’d settle on our landing’s window seat just for a second so’s I could rub my lower back, just so I could look out on a sidewalk clogged with family trikes, bikes, scooters.
In them years, at such a time of night, you never heard one sound you couldn’t name. The Maxwells’ collie and their chowchow stirred each other up, barking over nothing. The Orange Blossom Special, two minutes fast, outraced its whistle. (That’s how long ago this happened: some trains ran early!) Doc Collier’s buggy creaked on home, he’d delivered twins to a tenant farmer’s wife weeks overdue. Wind in the trees—you knew whose elms and which direction the breeze came from and what it meant for tomorrow’s weather. A nod later, still slumped in the window seat, I reopen eyeballs: on morning and, already, my children near about late for school. What kind of mother is that? Eight hours’ sleep was just a blink in the bucket of my swarming backlog. So—this here ring thing seemed the straw that broke the spine, meaning my own.
But—as will happen—Lord Be Praised — disasters can often interest you the most. They make you feel like a Sherlock, hired to solve your own sad case. They perk a person up and prove to you that World Drama is basically a homebody.
Tell me: How do you usually get your valuable rings out of your Baby’s sweet gullet?
I don’t plan to make you ill with the crudest details of my ring-search. Let’s just say: Motherhood! Let’s say I borrowed many old newspapers from the neighbors. These unmarried people hoarded papers for just such family emergencies. But, not having no families, they lent their bounty to us instead. Seemed our house stirred up troubles enough to keep a radio soap show in daily episodes forever. Times, it felt like I had more problems than Dick Tracy. I asked neighbors not to tell the ring news to our well-meaning pharmacist, the human P.A. system. Folks agreed but grilled me.
Why she swallow that?, they had every right to ask and, of course, each did. “Because,” I admitted, “it was siney . . . shiny. That’s all Baby’ll say. I just slipped it off whilst washing dishes. Always do, scared I might otherwise lose it down the drain.”
“It surely seems that’s precisely what’s occurred here,” one old bachelor smiled. (Those non-parents can really Monday morning-quarterback your life for you!)
“Yeah,” I fought sounding surly. “Yeah, sir, it’s a drain, okay.— But the human body is the one drain that gives back. “You wait. Just watch.” Then I remembered to thank him for his extra Herald Travelers.
“See you in the Funny Papers,” he hollered after me. It was something people said then but, that day, I took it personal.
I fed my lover of shininess prunes. Many stewed prunes. I whispered it’d be Baby’s secret food. She asked me to eat some too. “Baby feel so .. . only,” she confessed. (She meant “lonely.”) Baby acted scared these prunes was poison. So I gobbled the same number, matched her prune for prune — and paid for it afterwards. Seemed the least I could do.
I begged our other children not to tease her. And they tried. Kids fought not to giggle but it struck them as funny. Ofttimes, it did me too. But I could not let on. —I worried I’d mess Baby up. I pictured Baby—years later—in the office of some counselor or social worker, certificates paving his walls, and Baby’s mouth near his face, telling him the many mistakes I’d made. I imagined him going, loud, “She did what!”
No, I wanted to behave right. I mostly do. Odd, nobody much speaks of how hard we all try and be clever at not hurting others. That’s so much of every day in the world. And yet, it’s only the wars and muggers that get wrote up. How do you figure it? Stories of real-life kindness stay left out every time. (This one’s bound to be lost. I mean, how minor can you get? One ring, a woman running a side street house in a town whose Main Street won’t within a hundred miles of the beaten track.) Meaning: I thank you for listening so far and hope you’ll stay and see how it all turns out. Soon comes lunch. They’ll be wheeling in the chair that fetches me to Thursday’s Chicken-ala-King, never my favorite.—Meanwhile, Baby dragged to her room, whimpering. I listened from the hall, not wanting to seem pushy. Mostly I felt glad my stone was pear-shaped and not one of them spiky claw-and-ball ones you see. The gem had been my husband’s own rich momma’s. White gold, her initials and some Latin engraved inside of it. I pictured the strict old lady, hearing of her jewel’s damp whereabouts. I saw her spinning—like a woodlathe —in her grave.
What’d helped to smooth my ring? What’d made it a safer passenger through Baby? The wear and tear of years of household days. Why, just my taking it off every night to do our dishes, just my popping it back on, finger soapy afterwards—that’d whittled extra harm and angles off of it, that’d sent it—without a hitch—on its tour of tender vitals. There’s some justice: Effort is streamlining!
Late evenings, with the wee ones finally in bed, my man counties away, me alone downstairs and pretending to read (just to prove I’d had a chance) I sat thinking of my absentee diamond. My thumb and little finger kept reaching for their pet and sidekick. In stores, I’d commenced studying other ladies’ rocks. None came near comparing to the shine of what I’d lost.
My ring—a minus—made me recollect my own small circle of history: Me, a fifteen-year-old kid being offered that fine gem whilst seated in my Momma’s garden one autumn night. The moon was a witness as blue and white as the ring which moonlight lit. My breath came and went with his—one mixed huff and curl—blue-white as a full moon shrunken to one carat’s size. The moon proposed. The face-up diamond blinked, “I do.” Or, how, left alone in my husband’s large house before our first baby (Louisa) dropped into view, I would wander the place, bored silly, a child myself, that ring held up before one open eye. I’d be bumping into walls, seeing corridors and furniture through my good-sized rock—squinting at twelve versions of every andiron and fern. It was like, needing company, I made my husband’s house flash into a dozen nervous copies of itself— my practice family. How, though they shaved me every which away for my seventh child’s birthing, nobody thought to take the ring off me. And during the worst of a bossy doctor’s, “push, push,” my stone someway got turned around and trapped inside my red fist, got mashed so hard into the center of my palm that, afterwards, it looked to be one nail hole bruised there.
I now sat downstairs, alone, a novel open in my lap. (I’d been faking reading this same book for a year and a half.) I sat — my right hand’s thumb and index finger busy being the left one’s departed ring. It got so I missed that diamond, like on the very worst days—you feel you’ve someway missed out on your whole life.