A Gift for Generations
I LIKE to imagine my grandmother, age 17 at the turn of the century, standing on a wooden deck of the ocean ship, braving the unknown. She is wearing a dark velvet vest, nipped at her tiny waist, with a long skirt - an outfit she was photographed in shortly after her arrival in New York. Her stylish wide-brimmed hat is held securely by an elastic under her long braid of dark, unruly hair. She is looking in the direction of the new world - another land, another culture, another life.
Her fingers tighten around the needlepoint bag of jewels she holds in her muff. It is late October and cold at sea. She needs the furred muff to keep her hands warm, and also to keep her heritage safe. How many times has she gazed at the pieces of jewelry, not believing they are now hers: the locket engraved with her mother's name and the long gold chain; two matching gold bracelets; the pocket watch, tiny enough to be a woman's; and the sapphire-and-diamond ring that her father gave her mother when they
were married. Her mother wore it for less than a year before dying in childbirth. Anna slips it on her finger; it's the closest she has ever been to her mother.
Anna was to stay at her uncle's boarding house in New York City. Her father had written to him, asking him to look after her and find her a job in bookkeeping, for which she was trained. She did not stay long at her uncle's. Instead, she fell in love and married shortly after her arrival. Anna would never return to Switzerland. She, too, had only one daughter, my mother, and when she became ill - widowed yet still young - she came and lived at our house until her death. I was barely seven when she died. I remember her sadness and also her loveliness, her chiseled face shining like marble.
My mother cherished whatever memories there were: the stories her mother had told her about her childhood in Basel and photographs she found of her mother's Swiss relatives: her grandfather, Jean Weiss, playing the mandolin; her mother, my grandmother, Jenny, who had died so young, with the same lovely sculptured face as her daughter; and Jean Weiss's parents, of Dame Weiss, with tightly braided hair and a high black-lace collar. She made copies of the photos and put them in a small album, with the date s of their lives.
IT was only when I settled in Geneva that my mother came to look for her roots. We went to Basel and hunted through church records, looking for the names of Anna, Jean, and Jenny Weiss. A christening card with my grandmother's name indicated that they were living in Lorrach, on the outskirts of Basel. We walked through the two village cemeteries, under the plane trees, reading the tombstones dating back 100 years, but without finding mention of Jean or Jenny Weiss. We later learned that the tombstones we re overturned every 50 years unless they were paid for anew.
Before going back home, Mother wanted to leave me something as a souvenir of our trip to Lorrach and our search for her roots and mine. She gave me the ring, with the three cut stones, that her mother had carried in the needlepoint bag to America. I treasured it and kept it in my jewelry box, not wearing it often, since it fit only my little finger.
In fact, it stayed in the corner of the black leather box all the years that our six children were growing up, until one by one they started going off on their own.
When our oldest son announced his engagement, I remembered the ring. With three sons, we could give one of the stones to each. Our first son chose a diamond and found a jeweler to set it on a gold band. Something deep within me resonated with happiness - like a bell echoing - that "my grandmother's ring" was now being worn by my first daughter-in-law.
This summer our second son announced his engagement to Lisa, a Swiss girl, one of his first piano students in Zurich. I returned to my jewelry box and brought out the ring - or rather the sapphire and the diamond. He hesitated, picked up the small sapphire and held it in the light. A thousand different blues glistened in his hand. He took it to the jeweler and commissioned a modern setting with the stone a little to the edge of the gold band.
This weekend we celebrated their engagement. My son stood aside as I took Lisa in my arms. Her long brown hair was held back with an elastic. Her face gleamed with happiness. She showed me the ring on her finger. I caught her hand in mine. This time the ring had come home. On the finger of my son's Swiss fiancee was the sapphire my great-grandfather had given my great-grandmother over a century ago.