There’s one phone message you never want to hear when you’re checking into a hotel, three thousand miles from home: “Honey, it’s me,” my husband Eric’s voice crackled. “Call me as soon as you can. It’s important.”
It’s important. Those words rang in my head as I hit the redial button. When Eric picked up, I was already panicky with the possibilities. ” Is someone hurt? Are the boys OK? Our parents? Should I come home?”
“We’ve been robbed,” he said. “The place is a mess, but everyone’s fine.”
A wave of relief flooded through me. Thank God. That’s all I could think as Eric listed off the things that were missing. The thief had worked fast, filling a laundry basket with what he could carry: a camera and loose cash from my oldest son’s room; a small TV, a video camera, and an iPod; some old coins and the jewelry box from my dresser. My desktop computer was the one big-ticket item missing, but even that was replaceable. There was some small satisfaction in the fact that most of my sparkly jewelry came from Goodwill and Target.
It wasn’t until I returned home that I remembered one item of value that was stolen: a cocktail ring of my great-grandmother’s, a modest sapphire surrounded by diamond chips, set in delicate silver. I hadn’t taken this heirloom out of its box for years, and I’d never worn it because it was a size too small. I had no idea what it was worth. I called my mom to ask about it.
“That ring belonged to your great grandmother Esther,” Mom explained. “I’m sure that I’ve told you about her before.”
I knew that Mom’s father had died when she was two, and they’d moved to Orlando from New Jersey. Her Grandparents had lost most of their money in the Great Depression and ran a boarding house for a while, where Mom’s family lived until her mother remarried. But I didn’t really know any details about these people who had helped to raise my mother for six years. “What was Esther like,” I asked, suddenly more interested in this woman who had helped to raise my mom than her ring.
“She worked hard during the days,” Mom said, “running the boarding house and then working at the deli they started.”
“The deli with the awesome cheesecake!” I remembered a cheesecake coming in the mail, packed in dry ice, every December when I was a kid, after Sam and Esther were gone and had left the deli to Mom’s Uncle Milt. It didn’t taste all that great, but I used to anticipate eating a slice on Christmas eve. It was a holiday tradition. What a special treat it must be, I thought, travelling to us all of the way from Orlando. How special we must be.
Mom went on to tell me how Esther had been patient and kind. Tired as she was, she had sometimes taken the time to have a tea party with her in the afternoon, or play a game in the evening. “We’d sit around the dining room table and play Monopoly or Michigan Rummy as a family,” she said. “Esther provided the structure for our family, and she was my role model for being a grandmother.”
“She taught you well,” I said. “You’re a wonderful grandmother.”
Mom’s voice practically glowed through the phone line as she thanked me. It struck me that I’d never told her this before. She is a wonderful grandmother, playing games with my sons, never forgetting a birthday or graduation even though she lives across the country.
Months later when the insurance check arrived, I realized that no amount of money could replace the sentiment that those tiny diamond chips held. I’d like to say that, instead of buying a new ring, I spent the money on a trip to visit my parents, tape recorder in hand, to immortalize our family stories. But this didn’t happen until years later, when my two sons became young men, asking where they came from — who they came from. I realized that, in fact, I didn't remember the details my mom had shared about her grandparents any more than I remembered Esther's ring.
In fact, if I’m honest, I recently bought the plane ticket and I still need to purchase that tape recorder for a trip I’ll take in a few months. I want to hear my parents stories, but something about recording and writing them down feels almost too permanent. It feels like as I’m memorializing our family history, the past is sneaking up on us all, enveloping us in the very pages that I’m creating.
Memories. These are the real family jewels that nobody can steal. But time is a thief that sneaks up on us, dulling these precious gems without our even knowing it. And then, the keepers of the stories are gone as are the gifts they might have shared.
Jennifer Haupt has contributed to a wide variety of publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Parents, and Health & Spirituality. She's the co-author of "I'll Stand by You: One Woman's Mission to Heal the Children of the world," the memoir of Elissa Montanti, founder of Global Medical Relief Fund for Children. She's working on a memoir and her debut novel. Read more of Jennifer's work at www.jenniferhaupt.com and check her out on Facebook. Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @Jennifer_Haupt.