The room was suddenly crowded. Richard and his two sons were joined by my brother in law Mark and his 8-year-old son Oliver who quickly launched himself into my arms. He is the spitting image of my Dad. Like the rest of us he is uniformed in khakis, white shirt and blazer. Unlike the rest of us, instead of wearing a tie he is sporting a bow tie. I ask him “Are you wearing that because Grandpa did?” He nods. I point to a lapel pin I am wearing and ask “Do you know what this is? He looks at the small burgundy and gold shield on my left lapel with the motto “Haec Manus Ob Patrium”, these hands for your country.”
“That is a pin from Grandpa’s Army Uniform. It is for his unit. The 913th Field Artillery. We are both honoring Poppa today. Perhaps it is because we both look like him.”
He gives me one of his patented gigantic hugs that one day will crush me but today only delights and runs off to join his father who is deep in conversation with Rich. I look out the window. On the deck, which my parents built to overlook the backyard of stately oaks, flower beds and lawn and was one of Pops favorite places to contemplate the world, guests are gathering. Some communities you move into. Others you adopt, like those collections of people a spouse or friend have gathered around them. This was my community. A group of friends whom I had embraced in the first half century of my life. All of them knew parts of my journey. All had tales to tell of my life separately but today they would be joined in a single tale in this place of countless memories. I turned my face to the window so that this group of men gathered in the room with me would not see the tears running down my cheeks.
It was a cold, grey morning in November as I fought a north wind that was funneling down 6th Avenue. The decision to be on this journey might have been pre-ordained. At the very least, I had known that I would take this particular trip for several months although I had not known exactly when and where it would take me. That it would take me here, to the diamond district was highly likely although my particular destination was somewhat improbable.
When Dad had died in July Elaine had not been physically with me, but she had been there in spirit. It was a difficult time for me. Not only had I lost a father, hero and friend but I had lost a part of my life that provided meaning for me. Taking care of my dad was more than just his physical care but giving back to him who had given me all in life. It provided value and a sense of purpose. With his passing that sense of purpose had evaporated leaving me feeling hollow and alone.
There was also another feeling at play. Anger. Long ago I had read Dr. Kubler-Ross’s on Death and Dying and knew intellectually that it was one of the phases of grief. The difference between reading a book and going through something is that what you feel seems perfectly rational and reasonable. With my Dad’s death I had a tremendous amount of anger with my brother who had participated rarely and lightly to my Dads care, had not visited him on his death bed and with Pop’s passing thought he should be the leader of the family. To be fair to me, some of these feelings of resentment and rage were perfectly reasonable for me to feel. But the depth of emotion I felt, the chest thumping, object throwing, color my world red fury I felt was not justified by David’s narcissism and selfish behavior.
Elaine was my balm, my comfort and solace. We talked by Skype or phone multiple times a day. We summarized our days in long, thoughtful and often introspective emails. She managed the difficult if not impossible. While always having my back and supporting me, she held a mirror up to my emotions and behavior. If I had been unreasonable, unjust or rude she would let me know but gently and in such a way where, instead of resisting her suggestions I embraced them. Her sage words, kindness and sagacity provided safe passage and snug harbor during the most difficult time of my life. I had been in love with Elaine since our third date on the Costa Pacifica. Now I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
I had every reason to believe that Elaine felt the same way. While we had never directly discussed the subject of getting married, we had danced around it a number of times. Elaine had suggested, but had not outright said, that should I ask her to marry me she would say yes. We had even discussed, theoretically, if I were to ask the question what type of ring she would like. She was extremely specific with her response. So I was reasonably confident that the mission that I was on this morning was not a fool’s errand.
The building I was looking for turned out to be the same one that housed the set and offices of the Today Show. As a consequence, I was all but x-rayed and asked to give a blood sample before being allowed into the building. When I proved not to be a threat to Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira or Al Roker I was allowed in the building and proceeded to the office of Jay Laird, Jewelers. The reception area for this private jeweler was not large. Just a few chairs along the periphery, with pictures of gems on the wall and a plexiglass window at one end where a receptionist served as a gate keeper to the inner sanctum. I let her know that I was here to see Mr. Laird and she asked me to have a seat.
While waiting, I amused myself with the irony of the situation. There are a host of tropes, jokes, and apocryphal stories about Jewish men in search of jewelry at a reasonable price being told by their friends that they have an uncle, a cousin, a friend of a friend who is in the business and can help them find a well-priced piece. When I had asked my Jewish friends, none had any relatives in the business or even knew any jewelers or for that matter knew of someone who knew someone in the business. I completely struck out until I had asked my friend Francis Xavier Farrell whether he knew of anyone who could help me find the perfect engagement ring for Elaine. He recommended Jay Laird. He told me he was a mensch. Which made me laugh in the same way as I laugh when Elaine curses in English. The juxtaposition of 6’4’’ inch man of Irish descent from Pittsford, MA using Yiddish to describe a non-Jewish person…comedy gold.
It turned out that Fran was right. Jay Laird was a mensch. He treated me as if I were a member of his family. After asking what I was looking for ( a diamond and sapphire ring…not to big because as Elaine had told me, she had small fingers and a big ring would not fit well on her hand) and my budget (like I would tell you) he brought me a selection of absolutely gorgeous rings. And I didn’t love any of them. Some were too much diamond and not enough sapphire. Others had enough sapphire, but the diamonds could have been used as a stylus on a turntable. Still others looked too clunky. And there were a couple that would have cost more than a new SUV. Jay listened to my thoughts and asked me to give him a second so he could fetch from his safe a ring that he thought would be ideal for me. When he returned, he placed on a slate colored velvet pillow a platinum ring with a nicely sized oval sapphire at its center with two hexagonal diamonds on either side. It was exactly what I was looking for and when I asked Jay the price, he told me that he would give me a “mishpokah” discount. I laughed at this very waspy man using Yiddish but suddenly stopped laughing when I realized the discount, he was giving me. I really was a member of the family.
Over the course of the last several months I had spent a lot of time with my mother. She had, as she put it, gone from her father’s house to my father’s house and was not used to being alone. To help her through this transition my sister and I had spent whatever spare time we could with her not only socializing but helping her wade through Dad’s belongings. Finding items that were memories to her and news to Marissa and I had drawn us closer than we had ever been. Then came Super Storm Sandy. Marissa and I had been adamant about evacuating her from her house in Summit. While she had a generator and would be fine from an electricity point of view there was no telling what the wind, falling tree limbs and flying objects would do. She, being stubborn, refused to leave until I showed up hours before the storm and told her to get into the car she was coming with me. We spent the next three days in my 650 sq ft apartment on the UWS watching the metropolitan area be devastated by the storm while our lights did not even blink once.
During that time together we had talked a lot. She told me how different I seemed since I met Elaine. Happier. Lighter. I shared with her that Elaine made me feel complete. That the love I had for her was entirely different than any other love I had felt before. I told her that my intention was to ask her to marry me and she had heartily endorsed that idea. Naturally, after I had purchased the ring I wanted to show off my purchase and gain reassurance that I had, in fact, purchased a ring worthy of Elaine’s finger. When I visited her that weekend, I brought Jay Laird’s masterpiece and showed it to her asking “What do you think.”
Her response was instantaneous “I love it. It is simply perfect.” And then followed up with when are you going to give it to her. I explained that the plan was on the day after Christmas I would fly to Rio so that Elaine and I could have our own Christmas together and celebrate the New Year on the beach in Rio.
Despite our Jewish faith, Christmas had always been an important holiday for our family. Mom, who grew up in the most reform of Reform Judaism had always celebrated the holiday as a universal time of good will towards man. In fact, her parents Christmas open house party had been an Upper East Side Tradition for years. My father whose relationship with Judaism was complicated always bah humbugged the holiday while secretly enjoying the pleasure of giving and receiving gifts. Every year on Christmas eve we would gather in the living room and in front of an open hearth open up our gifts. On Christmas morning, over Stollen and coffee (cocoa when we were younger) we would open up enormous woolen stockings stuffed with all the useful items that would populate your desk drawers for years to come along with other bits that Mom thought fit your personality and the occasional special gift hidden added for special delight. All gifts were wrapped in tissue paper which no doubt took my mother days if not weeks.
Stockings were and still are my favorite part of the Christmas gift giving ritual. Which was one of the reasons I was so surprised when Elaine told me that “stockings” had never been a part of the Brazilian Christmas experience even though they had copied so many other northern hemisphere holiday icon’s like Christmas trees and a Papa Noel that wore fur. But it made sense in a Brazilian sort of way. Why have stockings when everyone wears Havianna’s ?
Which is why when Mom asked when me how I planned on proposing to Elaine there was no hesitation. I planned on giving her, her first Christmas stocking. I would seek out and buy all of the silly, impractical, vaguely amusing and marginally useful items that I could find and then after wrapping them I would place them with care within a custom made exceptionally large stocking. The ring, in a box and wrapped, would be placed in the toe as I wanted it to be the last gift opened. This was only marginally to torment her. She knew I was going to propose. She just did not know when. Mostly, it was about making sure that the last gift given was the best gift of the day which I had high hopes the ring would be.
In the weeks that followed, I shopped every paper store, curiosity shop and obscure listing on Amazon finding fun items in which to stuff the stockings. I took this very seriously. I wanted Elaine to have the full stocking experience before getting to the ring. Then I carefully wrapped each one of these tiny presents which considering my fingers resemble Vienna sausages was no easy task. Finally, I stuffed the stocking carefully making sure that there was a proper “build” to the ring in the toe.
On the evening of December 26th I flew to Rio with a very well prepared stocking carefully packaged within my rollaboard. It was a nerve-wracking flight. Not because I was worried about the outcome of the proposal, I was pretty sure that was a layup. My nerves were frayed because it suddenly occurred to me that if the customs officers asked to inspect my bag, not only would they ask me to unwrap each of the two dozen or so presents crammed within the stocking but it would be likely that I would have to pay duty on Elaine’s soon to be engagement ring. Fortunately for me the guardians of Brazils borders were far more interested in the Brazilians returning from the United States with suitcases larger than my first apartment in NYC.
It was full on summer in Rio with humidity that bordered on liquid and temperatures in the high 90’s. Not at all Christmasy for a gringo. But it was because of the heat and the fact that Elaine’s home, like most Brazilian domiciles, had no central air conditioning we retired to the bedroom to exchanged gifts. I am embarrassed to say that I have no clue what presents Elaine gave me that year. I was far to focused on giving her her first stocking.
Finally, the time had come, and I pulled this one-meter long stocking from my suitcase and placed it on the bed in front of Elaine like a burnt offering in front of a goddess. Which is when the axiom “Man plans, and god laughs” came into play. I was so excited that I was giving Elaine her first stocking, that incidentally contained a marriage proposal at the end, that I completely forgot that Elaine had never opened a stocking before. She did not realize that protocol was to take each individual gift out of the stocking, open it, and then move on to the next. Instead, she relied on common sense. Turning the stocking upside down, she dumped its contents on the bed. This meant that the present I wanted her to open up last was now on top of the pile of gifts laying before her.
Before Elaine could reach for the small, well wrapped gift that now crowned a pile of gifts laying before her I snatched it away saying “No. No. We are going to save that for last.”
Have I mentioned that no one enjoys gifts quite as much as Elaine. She unwraps each gift as if tearing a piece of paper or not removing each piece of scotch tape carefully is a mortal sin. Then each gift needs to be admired, examined from every angle and cooed about until no adjectives were left in describing what the gift meant to her. On most days this is endearing. It is rewarding to know how appreciated your gifts are but, on this day,, it was maddening and there was no way in which to speed her along without ruining the surprise.
At long last she reached the bottom of the pile. I handed her the last gift and watched as she gently removed the ribbon. I gazed at her as she removed the four pieces of tape that held the wrapping paper in place. I looked on as she removed the cardboard sleeve that protected the velveteen box. Finally, she flipped open the hinged box to reveal the beautiful ring I had purchased in the hopes that it would overwhelm her in joy and accept my heartfelt desire to marry her.
Her reaction was not what I expected. Instead of tears of joy and screams of happiness she said “Oh my darling, it is beautiful.”
Incredulous, stunned and gob smacked it took me a moment or two before I could utter “Do you know what that is.”
She looked at me as if I had lost my mind “Of course I do. It is an engagement ring.”
“Well of course my love. I will marry you.”
There was a knock at the door. My sister popped her head into the room and said “Its time.”