The Ring and How We Lost It

Posted: May 21, 2013 in Life, Mom
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

It was one of those months – which was basically every month, at least to me – we were either short on cash or Mom was worried we would be. We would have a roof over our heads – Grandma made sure of that. She paid the electric, water, cable, and mortgage herself. Mom paid a pittance in “rent” – due whenever, and usually in the amount of whatever she could afford. As a kid, I just knew I had to work harder – book more things, bigger things – because, as Mom would lecture me repeatedly, “Everything is so expensive”. There were years I made $100,000 (and this was in 90’s money, which went quite a bit further). There were years I made more. And still, we scraped the bottom of the barrel by the time the end of the month came. As a kid, I did not question this – it was a fact of life. Money was finite and fleeting. As an adult, I understand that mistakes were made. The money wasn’t handled improperly; it wasn’t handled at all. Hundred dollar bills slipped through my Mother’s open fist like sand in the hand of a small child. I don’t blame her for this – I blame her mental illness. I have learned that shopping sprees (of which hers were frequent) and the inability to handle and understand money can be indicators that something is seriously wrong. I didn’t know that then, and didn’t much care. I was doing what I wanted to do – acting, music, etc. I understood (vaguely) that money made all this possible. I didn’t much care where it went beyond that it afforded me the opportunities I sought.

Mom would often spend hundreds at the grocery store, and she’d be in there for hours (or what felt to my brother and I like hours). We would wander off to amuse ourselves while she agonized over which brand of peanut butter to buy. We’d wander back some time later, only to find her staring into space – either still agonizing or zoning out completely, we couldn’t tell. Grocery lists were not an option. She could not explain to us exactly what it was she needed most of the time – we offered, in hopes that it would make the grueling trip go faster.

Mom: I don’t know. I need stuff.

Me: But what? Like, eggs? Milk? I can run and get it.

Mom: Just stuff, Danny. Let me think.

And she would wander the grocery store hunched over the cart and think. We’d pass through the same aisles several times before she’d decide she needed something there or abandon the aisle completely. She’d buy whatever was on sale – and way too much of it. By the end of the week, it either went bad or had to be frozen, and she’d have spent several hundred dollars. She would make a return trip the following week, regardless.

When she wasn’t horribly depressed – sleeping or writing letters to the various Russes – she would be extremely energetic and insist on taking us clothes shopping. She’d run out to the store and buy herself (and us) lots of clothes. It didn’t matter what the style was, or if it looked good, or even if it fit properly – if it was on sale, she bought it. I remember her holding up a sweater for me to try on. It was beige, relatively shapeless and had multicolor squiggles and triangles on it. It sort of looked like a Cosby sweater. She decided that it was “only $5” and thus I should get it. I didn’t question her, though I despised the sweater. When she asked me to wear it, I’d tell her I couldn’t find it, even though I knew right where it was. She eventually forgot about it, and other “sale clothes” replaced it. They weren’t all awful, exactly, but they didn’t look right. Let me put it this way: In my teens, I was wearing acid wash black jeans (on sale), a giant blue FUBU sweater (another killer deal) and cowboy boots (she popped for expensive ones, because she thought they made me look tall). From a fashion standpoint, I was a horrific mess. Not that I knew any different. There was also this one shirt that she insisted was “hip and cool” and it made me look like a deep sea diver. It was short sleeve and had sort of a turtle neck and was made of meshy stuff. But it was on sale! My point in all this being, even though she shopped “cheap”, she shopped a lot and bought awful clothes in bulk. So, yes, a sweater might be $5, but if you buy 10 and then some shoes and then a few blouses and then something for Tim…it’s not $5 anymore. I don’t think she ever got that concept.

When things were tight, she’d still go to sales and the grocery store. Grandma would offer to buy groceries, and Mom would get angry. If she was feeling particularly surly, Grandma would also point out we had stuff in the freezer. Fights would ensue, ending with Mom hopping into the car and going to the store. Often, she’d try to take us with her.

Mom: Let’s go, Tim. Let’s go, Danny.

Me: Where are you going?

Mom: Out.

Tim: Out where?

Mom: The store.

Me: Which store?

If it wasn’t a store I was interested in, I would be reluctant to go. Some clothing stores had SNES games or SEGA games in the kid’s department – you could hang out and play the games while the parents shopped. I would happily go to those stores. But I couldn’t endure the long and agonizing bargain hunting as a general rule. Sometimes we’d stay home with Grandma, who would make us a sympathetic sandwich while Mom huffed away, slamming doors as she went. Sometimes we’d go with Mom while she brooded and shopped in utter silence. Tim and I would amuse ourselves, talking about games or comics or whatever.

Despite spending big on groceries and clothes, she got panicked and tight-fisted when the money squeeze was on. In other words, we needed to watch what we ordered at McDonald’s.

Mom: Get it without cheese.

Me: …but I like it with the cheese.

Mom: But if you get it without cheese, it’s forty cents cheaper.

I scowled.

Me: Alright, I guess.

To put a fine point on it, a friend told me once that my Mother was penny wise and pound foolish. That about sums it up.

Regardless, one of those times she was in a total panic – this was nothing unusual in and of itself, but she was actually talking about selling stuff to get through the month. Finally, she turned to Grandma.

Mom: What do you have that we could sell?

Grandma: I don’t know, Donna…

Mom: What about jewelry? Do you have any jewelry?

Grandma sighed.

Mom: We need this. We’re short.

Me: What’s going on?

Mom: Your Grandmother needs to find some jewelry we can sell fast. If she doesn’t, you’ll have to stop going to New York. I’ll have to put you in regular school or send you to be with your father. I can’t afford this. We’re out of money!

Her eyes were bugging out, and spittle was forming at the corners of her mouth. She was in a full on, panicked frenzy.

Mom: What about your diamond?

Grandma: I’m not selling my engagement ring.

Mom: No, the one you got when you were 16!

According to family lore, Grandma had been given a blue chip diamond for her 16th birthday by her uncle. Even then, it was worth a bit of money. Knowing this, Grandma wore it only rarely – she was afraid to lose it. Nevertheless, Mom was able to convince her that my ENTIRE FUTURE was at stake! We couldn’t afford GAS for the CAR! The diamond manifested itself, and we piled into the car.

We drove an hour to a jewelry store that was only a little better than a pawn shop. They promised quick cash for gold on the spot. Mom and Grandma marched up to the counter and offered up Grandma’s ring.

Mom: What’s it worth?

The clerk eyed the ring for a moment.

Clerk: Let me check.

He disappeared into the back where, ostensibly, he was to examine it. When he emerged, he shook his head.

Clerk: I’m sorry, this is not worth anything. It is costume jewelry.

He plopped the ring unceremoniously back into Grandma’s waiting palm. She examined it.

Grandma: This isn’t my ring.

Mom looked over at it.

Mom: No, it’s not. That’s a ring from a fifty cent machine.

The clerk blanched. Grandma got angry.

Grandma: You took my ring in the back and swapped it out!

The Clerk stammered. Even to me, he looked guilty as hell. I took one glance at the ring and could see it was cheap – it was even bent. Mom roared at the clerk.


Clerk: I swear…I didn’t…


Mom seemed to turn down her wrath from a rolling boil.

Mom: You don’t even have to worry about the police. Because sometimes…you don’t even know who you’re messing with.

If I had been so inclined, I could have tapped the clerk and he would have fallen over. That’s how he looked. We stormed outside, made a big show about making a phone call from a nearby payphone, and debated what to do.

Grandma: Call the police!

Mom: We shouldn’t.

Me: What!? Call the cops, Mom.

Mom: We can’t. It’s just his word against ours.

Me: Yeah, but there’s three of us…

In the end, for whatever reason, it was determined that we should drop the matter, get back into the car, and go home. Grandma mourned her ring for years. And I always felt incredibly angry and bad about what happened. Mom handled it poorly, and I should have taken the reins from her…somehow. I feel like we could have gotten the ring back if we tried – maybe there would have been footage on one of the store cameras. I also felt like it was all my fault, somehow – if I hadn’t been acting and songwriting, Mom wouldn’t have needed the money or had to sell the ring. I mean, ultimately, the ring was being sold for me (at least in theory). But then logic kicks in, and I realize the truth: Mom would have needed money regardless. She would have found a way to twist arms to get what she wanted. And when the money from whatever she sold was gone, she’d try to move on to another pile of cash to blow. That was the problem, I think, that she got used to having money. And in my line of work, there was always more money.



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