The Things We Carry
For generations, people traveling to distant lands have carried mementos that remind them of home. Refugees, immigrants, and travelers all know the feeling. It's the comfort you get from knowing your grandmother's recipe, carrying a piece of jewelry or a token that seems completely worthless to others.
During WWII, Japanese-Americans could be sent to concentration camps if they had Japanese cultural objects at home. Jews carried diamonds every time they were expelled from their homes. I am certain that Syrian refugees are taking a little bit of home as they seek asylum in Europe.
As I write this, a rose gold amber ring is on the table next to me. When I wear it, it turns my finger green. The stone is a rich honey color with small flecks of gold that look like confetti. It's Baltic Amber, said to the best most beautiful in the world.
During communism, my grandmother bought it as a graduation present for my mom. She got a huge pension payment from the government and bought two rings for each of her daughters. The amber ring for my mother and another ring for my aunt.
When I was a little girl, I would play dress-up with the ring. I loved how smooth the stone felt against my skin, the way its imperfections sparked in the light. So, when my mother presented me with it on my 18th birthday, I was thrilled. She offered to out it in her jewelry box for safe keeping, but I turned her down. I promised that I would take good care of it.
About a year later, I moved out of my parent's house. I packed my bags and took everything I needed for my new life – clothes, shoes, social security card, diary, and the ring. My mother begged me to leave it, "You're going to lose it," said.
I ignored her and took the ring. It was a symbol for my adulthood, and I wasn't going to become an adult without it.
Over the years, I moved apartments. I lost a job and got another. I made friends with a girl who worked at a restaurant with me, and we moved in together. Our house became the place where people stopped by unannounced. Sometimes to drink a beer and watch TV, sometimes to hang out.
An introvert my nature, I got over my social anxiety and made friends. I got a fake ID, drank Coronas, and learned how to take a tequila shot and not let the fumes make me sick. I spent hours talking to the sommelier at my job, who was a former hippie who developed a taste for wine.
He taught me the difference between a Rhone and Bourdeaux blend. The meaning of malolactic fermentation and why the Santa Lucia Highlands produced some of the best Rhone Blends outside of France. We talked about the Judgement of Paris when the best of California wine beat out the best French wine in a blind tasting. When I won one of the most expensive bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape in a contest, I realized that I was a California wine girl.
One evening, a famous winemaker stopped by for dinner and gave us some of his weed. I was the only person who didn't smoke it. Alcohol and the occasional drunk cigarette were now firmly established as my poisons.
When I wasn't working, I nursed hangovers with Gatorade and McDonalds. I went back to college much to my father's delight and took my mother on lunch dates, but aside from that, I didn't see my parents much.
When getting ready for another party, I would open my jewelry box and catch a glimpse of the ring. I never worried that anyone would take it or any of the diamonds that were a present from an old ex-boyfriend.
Everyone from the restaurant came to our parties. The sous chef Jimmy, the line cooks, the hostesses, and all the waiters. The cooks usually brought Corona and tequilas, greeting me with, "Hola, Alejandrita" as they came in.
They usually played cards around the kitchen table, watching us take jello shots or dance in the living room. I usually passed out early, walking into my room I would take off my clothes and curl up under the covers. Someone usually came in at night, put a bucket next to the bed and a glass of water on my nightstand.
In the morning, we always woke up to a relatively clean house, all things considered. The beer bottles put away in big trash bags, the bigger bottles of alcohol stacked neatly by the garbage can. The house still smelled like stale beer, but it was clean.
After I had started college, I decided that I wanted to move back to my parent's house. I packed up everything again, and while going through my things I opened the jewelry box. The ring wasn't there. I turned my room inside out. I searched my car and nothing.
I thought back to how hard my grandmother worked to get this ring. Payment for a lifetime of work. She was a doctor, and my grandfather was the head of the chemistry department. They were not poor, not any poorer than other families during that time, but they still stood in long lines to get bread. She still couldn't have the basics that I take for granted. Stackings, food whenever you wanted it, functional plumbing, police that don't ask for bribes.
I imagined how she must have felt when she bought it. Something beautiful and luxurious she could finally give her daughters. Did she walk by the jewelry store and admire the ring through the glass window? Did she walk into the store and ask to try it on? Admiring its deep honey color, I wondered if she was excited to see my mother's face when she gave it to her. I wondered if she bought the ring thinking that her daughter would give it to her daughter who would then give it to her children.
My throat formed a lump thinking of the look on my mother's face when I would tell her that I lost it. She didn't yell or curse me when I told her. "It's just a shame because we can't replace it. It was a gift from your grandmother. "
A few weeks later my mother demanded that I clean out my car. As I emptied out the glove box, a little shimmer caught my eye.
There it was, in the spot where I had looked a thousand times before. I still remember the sinking feeling of emptying that very glove compartment and not finding it there just a year ago. It was dusty with old breadcrumbs littering the corners of its rose gold setting.
I ran up the stairs, breathless to my parent's room.
"Mom! Mom! Look, it's the ring! I found it! I swear I checked the car a thousand. It wasn't there; it wasn't there."
A handed the ring to my mother, "You should keep it, mama. I don't want to lose it again."
She looked down at the ring and then put it in my palm.
"You lost it, but it has come back to you on its own. It's yours forever now."
Words and Pictures: Aleksandra Bulatskaya