Twenty five years ago, I chaperoned an American woman around an international trade show. American Woman worked for one of our biggest New York-based clients; my role was to show her what a fantastic job we had done licensing Snoopy bubble bath in the shape of a beagle.
Bored of pressing the flesh of manufacturers, American Woman asked to visit one of the jewellery halls. Our business involved fake fur and plastic rather than diamonds, but who was I to argue with a client?
As I trailed after her, American Woman drooled over the brightly lit displays of sparkling engagement rings, pointing out what sort of finger-bauble she was going to choose when she got engaged. I can’t remember her precise requirements, but it was a bit like being in a restaurant when someone orders Off Menu. You know the sort of thing: I’ll have the bacon and blue cheese burger with fries, but with Monterey Jack cheese instead of blue cheese, and no fries, just salad, but if the bun has sesame seeds on it, I won’t have the bun, but then I will have the fries as long as they’re cooked in vegetable oil. Oh, and no bacon. I’m Jewish.
That happened to me once in a restaurant in Frankfurt with (again) an American client. I thought that the stern German waiter was going to boot us out. I expect that the chef gobbed on our food as revenge.
But I digress.
At some point in this “I want an emerald-cut one-carat diamond with yellow baguette diamond shoulders in a platinum rub over setting yadda yadda yadda,” I asked American Woman what her boyfriend did for a living.
She confessed she didn’t yet have a boyfriend.
She knew what engagement ring she wanted, even what style of dress would suit her (and probably whether to have chicken or fish at the reception). The only uncertainty in all these plans was who was going to be her husband. Eventually she walked up the aisle in her dream dress wearing her dream ring. Unfortunately it wasn’t with her dream guy. A few years later they divorced.
This bride-in-waiting attitude was totally alien to me. I was never going to get married or wear a wedding ring. To me, a wedding and engagement ring was a sign of being owned, an old-fashioned symbol of an outdated institution tantamount to having TAKEN tattooed across my forehead.
Back in the days when I had a waist and no wrinkles, I was young, foolish and stroppy, but when I changed my mind about marriage and found myself outside a jewellers with JS, I knew exactly what sort of ring what I wanted: a modern design which looked nothing like a traditional engagement ring.
I’ve never pretended that my mind works in a rational way.
So there I was, married with rings. I know women who say that their ring has never been off their finger since their wedding day, but because of bouts of contact dermatitis, my nuptial bling has been on and off like a new bride’s nightie. At the first itch I’d remove my all my rings (I wear two on my right hand as well) and holding them with the bacon tongs, JS would clean them by blasting them under the steam nozzle of the Cappuccino machine and scrub them with an old toothbrush. I’d leave my hands naked for a week or so until everything calmed down, and when it did, I’d pop them back on.
Sometimes I enjoyed the feeling of a naked ring finger. Sometimes I would look at my hand and waggle my fingers and feel a heady sense of freedom. However much I loved JS, that old fear of entrapment was never far away. I kept my maiden name, we didn’t have a joint bank account, and even at the funeral some mourners didn’t realise JS and I were married until I was referred to as his wife. With one dead wife and one divorced wife, I used to joke that becoming Mrs S was unlucky.
Now there is a widowed wife.
When JS died, my relaxed attitude to my wedding rings was turned on its head, and I began to exhibit some bizarre ring-related behaviour.
At some point in the first few months on Planet Grief, standing at a bus stop or in a shop queue, I became obsessed with looking at the wedding ring fingers of other women. If the woman was pretty and not wearing a wedding ring, I’d wonder what was wrong with her to still be single. If she was overweight and unkempt and ring-less I’d think, No wonder she isn’t married! If she was overweight and unkempt and had a wedding ring, I’d feel annoyed that she hadn’t kept herself nice for her husband. If she was gorgeous and had a ring I’d think, Lucky cow.
Like I say, I have never pretended that my mind works in a rational way at the best of times, but in grief, I was completely bonkers.
In one trauma counselling session I rounded angrily on Doktor R when she pointed out that I was no longer married. I would always be married to JS whatever the legalities of the situation were. I would wear my rings and even if hell froze over and I met someone else, I would NEVER EVER take my rings off.
Doktor R suggested that some widows hold onto the idea of being married to their late husbands (even though the stark fact is that they aren’t married any longer) because it gives them status in society, their rings a symbol that they had been desired enough to be someone’s wife and a safety net against being single in a challenging couple-dominated world. I was incensed. Marriage to me meant more than a ring on my finger or the prefix Mrs. It wasn’t just about romantic love. It meant looking out for each other, looking after each other, supporting each other. Teamwork.
I sacked her.
And yet now, ten months after that session, I wonder if Doktor R had a point about safety and status.
A little while ago I was in a hairdressers in north London. I’d nipped in to buy some shampoo. I’d been walking The Hound and was out sans slap, hair piled up and in my old Puffa coat; in other words, I looked a middle-aged minger. I found myself waiting at the till behind a couple of over-groomed snotty Yummy Mummies with big rocks. There was an argument between the sales assistant and the women, and everyone became restless. I sighed “Oh come on!” under my breath. The Gruesome Twosome glared at me.
And then I found myself doing the once unthinkable.
Because of the Death Diet, my rings are looser than they were, so my solitaire often faces my palm. Dear Reader, I swivelled my diamond to the front and put my hand so they could see I was wearing a wedding and engagement ring. Never in a million years would I have done that before. Why was it so important to me that those stuck-up women thought I was married, that I was one of them, that I had a husband at home rather than just some saddo singleton off the street with a dog and nothing better to do than wait to buy a bottle of colour-protecting shampoo before going home to a glass of sherry and a chilled meal for one? You’d have to ask my subconscious mind, because my conscious mind was freaked (and intrigued) by my behaviour.
Shortly after this Look At My Ring! I’m Wearing One So I Must Be Married! peacock strut, I had a problem with a creepy tree surgeon doing work at my house. He must have noticed that I was wearing a wedding ring because he asked what my husband did and whether he was around. At that point, I was glad that he thought I was married, though it didn’t stop him being difficult over something else, an argument which ended up with me phoning Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower and pretending to the tree guy that I was on the phone to my husband who was working away. (He was a lawyer in New York, in case you’re wondering what other tale I spun.)
Showing those women in the shop I was married; giving tree surgeons, men in bars and mini cab drivers the impression there is a husband on the scene; pretending I still have a husband: perhaps Doktor R was right about status and safety. A woman I know still wears her rings many years after a very bitter divorce because she says it makes her feel safer. Pre JS’s death I couldn’t understand her stance, now I do, although my experience of meeting men in my married days is that if they are going to hit on you, they’ll hit on you, even if you’re displaying a symbol of betrothal.
So, I’m still wearing my rings, and yet as I approach the first anniversary of JS’s death, I no longer feel married, or at least as married as I felt this time last year or even just before Christmas. Christmas without JS was a turning point for me. Before Christmas I went on a date and ended up bursting into tears and sobbing “I still feel married!” in front of the poor man. I still spontaneously burst into tears, but with every hurdle I either jump or crash through, I can feel the bonds of my marriage vows loosening.
To confuse matters, I don’t feel unmarried, single in the way I did before I met JS, and I still feel very cherished and loved by my late husband and vice versa. But married in the true sense and present tense?
JS and I were a team both at home and at work, with each other 24/7/365 for more than two decades, and now there is just me. You can’t be a team of one. For me (and I know of several of you will disagree vehemently with me), to be married, truly married, means you need a spouse who is still alive.
In some ways this feeling is a relief as I know it is a marker of moving forward, and yet in others, a great sadness as it means acknowledging that a phase of my life is over. Now, when I look at my rings they still remind me of being loved, but they also remind me of loss, of a marriage that ended in tragedy. JS put them on my finger in Barbados overlooking the same stretch of sea that destroyed his life and our marriage. That circle of fate still takes my breath away.
Talking of things circular, since my fortieth birthday when JS gave me diamond earrings, it was a standing joke between us that he’d have to come up with something even more spectacular if I was to get out of bed on my much-dreaded fiftieth. JS promised to buy me a yellow-diamond ring. He’d tell our friends that he had diamond mines all over the world looking for just the right gems, because if they were the wrong ones, his life wouldn’t be worth living. He was teasing of course, but I knew he’d do it. It makes me tearful (as I type) to think of it, not because of the lack of bling, but because JS won’t be here for my half-century to tell me all those things he used to say to me when I moaned about ageing: that he loved me more the older I got; that to him I would always be the girl of twenty-three he saw standing by the photocopier in a grey jersey BHS dress (my only dress), sent from the temp agency in place of the fifty-year old experienced secretary they were promised.
Two lots of digression in one post. You can tell the state of my brain.
In the privacy of my own home I’ve moved my rings and other dress rings about, but nothing feels right, particularly a naked finger, although oddly, taking all my rings off, left and right hand, feels fine. Once, I moved them prior to a lunch date with friends and family, only to sit in the car at traffic lights and frantically move them back. That time it wasn’t because it didn’t feel right, but because I worried what the others would think if they noticed. I still worry what others might think.
One night I Googled grief boards to see what other women had done. Some widows had diamonds made from their husband’s ashes and incorporated into a new ring to wear on their left hand, but that’s not for me. I don’t want to wear my rings around my neck which was another popular option. Some widows had bought a Widow’s Ring, a dark-stoned ring for their left hand and moved their wedding rings to their right hand, but I’m not a fan of black stones, nor do I want to be reminded that I am a widow. Others had opted to have their gems re-set into a different ring incorporating the gold from their husband’s ring. JS hated jewellery and didn’t wear a ring, so although this would be my favoured choice, it’s not an option, but I did start looking at designs these widows had posted. I found myself becoming that American woman I knew twenty-five years ago, looking at rings and thinking, “I could do that, but without this, and maybe in platinum instead of gold…” and then I thought, “WTF am I doing slobbering over ring designs as if I’m newly engaged?”
A week or so ago I made a decision that on the 27th February I was going to remove my wedding rings. I was firm in my intentions.
A few days later I went to a party. I had a fantastic time, but I found myself checking out which women were wearing wedding rings and I felt thankful to be wearing mine.
Perhaps I will take my wedding rings off soon. Maybe I’ll move them to my right hand and the rings on my right hand to my left one. Perhaps I’ll get the diamonds reset.
Perhaps I’ll put them away and buy myself something new and fabulous, or new and fake. Maybe I’ll stop wearing any rings on any finger. Maybe I’ll sign up for a jewellery and gem course and make my own ring. Perhaps I’ll have my naval pierced and put the diamond in there. Perhaps I’ll follow Madonna’s lead and wear fingerless gloves and hide my fingers.
Actually, when I started this piece I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but now, at the end of it, I do. In case I change my mind (yet again), I’ll take my time before I do it.
I may no longer feel married, but the madness of grief isn’t over yet, far from it. I’m still living in some sort of limbo land.
For now, the rings are staying put.