Rings and Witches
On a sweltering evening the July before my mother died, a fire destroyed our family home in Pineville, Kentucky. Suddenly gone was the antique mirror, my senior prom dress, the cedar chest, the snack bar, old photographs—everything. At least the rings weren’t lost in the fire. Those rings were everything to my mother.To spend the weekend with her sister, Mom had crammed two outfits in a grocery sack and dropped a tube of red lipstick and the rings in her purse.
In August and September, Mom experienced a recurring stomach virus causing her to lose weight. She was pale.
In November, they removed her gall bladder to remedy the continuing stomach symptoms. She was weak.
The morning of her two-week post-op check-up, she spewed vomit in the waiting room floor of the gastroenterologist’s office. She was frail.
In January, Mom was diagnosed with stage-four islet cell pancreatic cancer. That rabbit’s foot she carried did her no good. She was one of the 300 Americans in the year 2000 to receive the rare diagnosis. Treatment options were limited. She was shattered.
My husband and I moved my mother from Southeastern Kentucky into a small apartment about a mile from our home. Fiercely independent, she agreed to relocate for treatment in Louisville, on the condition she could live alone.
She became fixated with her three diamond rings, the only meaningful possessions she had left. Over and over, she obsessively reminded me where the rings should go upon her death.
“My wedding ring, the one your dad bought me is yours; the 3/4 carat belongs to Bill, Jr.; the square one is Clinton’s. Don’t you forget.”
She hadn’t worn the rings in years, having been a widow since I was a child. Arthritis had left her fingers gnarly and her joints swollen. Occasionally she would twist and turn her wedding ring until it scooted over the arthritic joint, resulting in a half-hour soaping to remove it. Watching her force the thin silver band onto her ring finger was hard for me; it was a stark contrast from my teenage years when the only thing I noticed about my mother’s slender hands was the cross of five diamonds on the four-pronged round setting. Now her bulging joint was the focal point. It drove her mad—the way her hands had changed, leaving her unable to wear her cherished rings.
May 14th, 2001; Mother’s Day: Ada Lee Bowling, my mother, was dead.
Only minutes after her memorial service, her sister, Pauline, came to me and asked: “Do you have her rings?”
“No, I don’t. I haven’t seen the rings since Mom moved to Louisville.”
“They must be here! Ada Lee wanted me to make sure you got the right ring, and the boys got theirs.”
“Tomorrow we are going to the apartment, and everyone will have their ring.”
A few hours later, Aunt Linda approached me; “Do you have her rings? You know she wants each of the boys to get theirs too.”
I inhaled deeply, paused, and exhaled louder than I should have. “Oh, yes, I do know.” I nodded my head in the affirmative. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and the constant question annoyed me. It wasn’t the only request my mother had made. She had demanded several things be done immediately after her death. The orders were etched in my consciousness.
“Get to the safety deposit box before you report me dead. I want you and your brothers to have what little bit of money I have left.”
“If you bury me in the ground, I swear I’ll haunt you forever.”
“I don’t want no damn funeral either. I don’t want people I haven’t seen in a month of Sundays talking about me like I’d seen them yesterday—like we were good friends. If people want to see me, they’d better see me now.”
“Don’t you make a saint out of me once I’m gone. Don’t try to pretend I was somebody I’m not.”
“And don’t you let anybody else do it either.”
Mom had a way of making me believe she had magical powers from the time I was a little girl, like eyes in the back of her head. If I betrayed her or disobeyed, she would say the next bad thing that happened to me was because of my sin against her. She wielded that power over me even when I became an adult. Her magic was in her eyes, in her stare, the smoke that ringed from her cigarette. Her eyes cast a spell that kept me in check.
Mom, Pauline, and Linda were connected in an almost supernatural way. Because of this chording, the Saylor sisters joked and said they were witches. If one were having a bad day, the other two would call her and ask: “What’s going on? You’ve been on my mind lately.”
My brothers and I went to the apartment the day after the memorial to divide the meager remains of our mother’s belongings. I remembered the turmoil from my grandmother’s death, and the emotional toll it left on the children. There were seven handmade quilts and seven silver dollars, one set for each child. There was only one of some other things, and that’s when things got prickly. Where guns and bibles divide. Where worthless possessions hold power and wreak havoc.
I was determined to preserve my relationship with my brothers. I suggested we divide things according to the rules of our favorite childhood game: “Pick.”
But first I looked for the rings. I wanted them off my mind and in the hands of their rightful owners. I couldn’t find them. It was unsettling.
As children, we couldn’t wait for the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog to arrive in the mail. We’d circle round that heavy catalog, sit cross-legged in the middle of the shag-carpeted living room floor, and fantasize for hours. Turning page after page we would “pick” what we wanted for Christmas. Taking turns, one at a time, we decided what we most desired. There was only one of each item in our rules. The suspense was incredible, and the disappointment was real when somebody “picked” what I wanted before my turn.
So in her apartment we played “Pick” for Mom’s possessions, flipping a quarter to decide whose turn it was. Except for the rings. We all knew whose was whose.
We continued with our game, shared a few laughs among the melancholy moments, and everything was divided fairly and amicably. “I promise I’ll find the rings when I box everything up. I’ll have them when you return with the truck,” I told my brothers as they prepared to leave town.
The following day I called Pauline to tell her I couldn’t find the rings. Her response surprised me. She reminded me Mom was anything but predictable. Pauline rattled off a few secret stashing spots they shared, places I would have never looked: an ice cream carton in the freezer, a shoebox, an old purse, a Tylenol bottle, a coffee tin, with the garden seeds, or wrapped in pillowcases.
Laughing, I said: “Y’all are crazy. I’ll go back tomorrow and find the damn rings.”
For a solid week, I searched. I could not sleep, obsessed with finding those rings.
I was hounded by a childhood memory of Mom sitting at the kitchen snack bar, her coal-black hair draped over her high cheekbones as she carefully filled a cereal bowl with vinegar. She slid the rings over her thin fingers, past the cherry-red fingernails, and submerged her rings in the vinegar, leaving them to soak while she puffed life into a menthol Kool. I envied her long slim fingers and fingernails. My fingers were fat and stubby, my nails chewed to the quick.
After the cigarette was blotted out, she brushed each of the diamonds with a frayed toothbrush holding the rings up one by one, into the sunlight to exam them carefully, repeatedly, until the gems sparkled. As a young girl, I couldn’t understand her love for those rings and was jealous of the attention they earned. Since her death, the rings had become an extension of my mother. A part of me would never rest until I reclaimed that part of her. I was distraught.
One afternoon, out of nowhere, I had the urge to go to Mom’s apartment. I could hear the hum of the refrigerator as I quietly shut the door behind me. The closed mini-blinds left the apartment unusually dim for mid-afternoon. A deep blue shadow hung over the living room furniture. Tiny horizontal rays of light were spraying through the blinds. The smell of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air. Without switching on the lights, I stepped through the shadow to sit on her couch. I found myself having a conversation with Mom as if she were sitting in her favorite chair, smoking that cigarette across from me.
With a quivering voice, I confessed:
“Mom, they’re gone. I cannot find those damn rings anywhere. I have been over and over this apartment, every inch of it. I have been through every drawer three times. I’ve looked in all your hiding places. Is it possible you accidentally threw them away, or a neighbor came over and just picked them up? Mom, the rings are gone, I swear they’re gone, and I’m so, so sorry.” As the tears trickled down my face, I did one quick solemn walkthrough of the apartment and left. I was defeated.
My mother’s right-hand hovers above her silver-rimmed Haviland china teacup. I see the vining blue flowers from the teacup’s side. Her deformed thumb, thin bony pointer finger and her swollen middle finger drop her rings one by one, in slow motion, into the cup. I hear the rings clink, and the tinkle echoes as they bounce into the bottom of the cup.
This vision replays until I startle awake at 5:30 in the morning, sit straight up in bed drenched with sweat. Are the rings in a teacup? Didn’t the china burn in the house fire?
I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and drove like a lunatic to the apartment. Walking into the kitchen, I flung open each cabinet door. No china. I paused, analyzed all the opened cabinets. Nothing was visible on the top shelves above the refrigerator or the counter. I couldn’t even reach those shelves; nor could Mom, I thought. I swiftly hoisted myself up on the kitchen counter and steadied myself on my knees and reached my hands into the cabinet. It seemed empty. I stretched again until I could feel the wall of the enclosed space. I ran my hand along the back of the cabinet, and I touched something that felt fragile, like china. I swirled it around carefully until I could safely grasp the dainty cup handle, then slowly brought the delicate single blue floral cup down to the counter.
Feeling my chest contracting, I took a deep breath of relief. There they were. The three diamond rings in the bottom of the cup precisely as in my dream. I lifted them up one by one, replaying my mother’s urgent plea in my head. Mom’s wedding ring, the one my dad bought her, was mine. The 3/4 carat belonged to Bill, Jr., and the square one was Clinton’s. I had found them at last. I held the sacred rings in my cupped hands. I felt their weight and energy as I rolled them over and over in my palms. As I stared at the rings, I took another deep breath as tears welled in my eyes that I refused to let loose.
I was redeemed.
It was then I realized Mom had sent me the vision. At last, I understood my real inheritance. I was a Saylor witch, too! I had been bequeathed the energetic connection to my mother—we had just never had to communicate this way before.
“How the hell did she do that?” Aunt Pauline cackled upon hearing where I had found the rings. There was no good answer. My mother was tiny, five-foot-five-inches, with a thin layer of skin clinging to her bones from the chemotherapy treatments. She had an artificial leg and was so weak she had to be helped in and out of the bathtub. She would have had to drag a dining room chair into the kitchen and climb up to the cabinet. It made us both a bit angry that she would take that chance; it also made us laugh with admiration at her determination to preserve those rings. All she had left in this world were those rings, and she wasn’t about to part with them or put them in harm’s way, as long as she lived.
“Well, I’m glad that’s over, I can rest now. She wouldn’t let me rest until you found those damn rings. I’ll tell Linda. I guess you’re a witch, too.” She cackled her familiar giggle—the one that starts at high C and does the complete range of soprano keys then falls back down to high C—then she clicked me off.
Years later, I still feel the energetic connection to my mother each time I wear the ring. I wear it to family events where her presence is missed or in a situation where her strength is needed: births, birthdays, graduations, weddings, reunions, funerals. It’s as if she’s there.
Over the years, arthritis has started creeping into my joints, and occasionally, my fingers will swell. If there is a family gathering, I will force one particular ring on.
You know, the one my dad bought her. Now it’s mine.
Charlotte Roth took a memoir workshop for posterity five years ago and fell in love with the craft. Her essay, “Can You Go Home Again?” was published this summer in the new anthology The Boom Project. Charlotte’s inspiration comes from life growing up in southeastern Kentucky, her strong-willed mother, African violets, and an old ash tree. She currently resides with her husband, Todd, and two spoiled Havanese in Louisville, Kentucky, but loves to get back to the mountains when she can.