Opals were meant to be worn only by those for whom opal was their birthstone, that’s what my mother said. But I loved opals, loved their mystery, their hologram-like coloring. So I used my babysitting money to buy an opal ring from Lowell Hays Jewelers. It was a dainty ring, the setting bright, yellow gold, with two small stones nestled together, yin-yang style. It was feminine, delicate, sophisticated; and it softened my overly large hands, I thought, made them look prettier, properly adorned for Thanksgiving.
It was chilly, but not cold, and overcast, the kind of weather that required a coat but not mittens or hats or boots. I was wearing a blue cotton quilted jacket and black cotton China shoes, purchased, too, with babysitting money because my mother did not find the shoes attractive, didn’t think them appropriate footwear to accompany anything other than pajamas.
Pam wore black cotton China shoes, and Pam was an artist in art school and also the source of my income because she and her husband, the two of them dead-ringers for Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, went out almost every weekend and always needed a babysitter. And I was almost always available to babysit for them, except when someone else called me first. And I used the money to buy clothes that looked like Pam’s clothes because her clothes were artsy and grown-up-looking, and I was tired of being a child.
The ring was the crowning touch for my outfit; but now my ring was lost, gone missing, mysteriously, somewhere in Daddy’s blue Oldsmobile, which was parked in the driveway, warming up for the road trip to Como because it was Trudy’s turn to host Thanksgiving. And we were late, as usual, trying to leave by 11 but not doing so until almost 12. Something was always lost, something else never quite ready; and we were always running late, which was always a source of embarrassment, as if there weren’t enough of those already.
My mother was taking her chocolate roll, one of her two signature desserts, so she sat in the back seat with my sister to keep the baking sheet from sliding around, the carton of whipping cream secure in its ice. I sat up front with my father, who always drove, even when we were going to see my mother’s family, which we would do later, around Christmas. Holidays meant going somewhere else, never staying home for the day.
Since it was chilly, we had the heat turned on; but I had the window cracked, too, just enough for fresh air because the heat in the car made me carsick, even sitting in the front seat. There isn’t much to see between Memphis and Como, even from the front seat, even now. Acres of farmland, cotton mostly, back then. Some fields were still smoldering from their post-harvest burn, the acrid smell the price to pay for a thin stream of breeze. Occasionally the thick sky was interrupted by a V of birds while the miles ticked by, my father lost in private thought, my mother entertaining my little sister with a game of I Spy.
When we got to Como, my sister would have playmates, cousins her very own age. There were older cousins, too, full-fledged teenagers, too old to be interested in me. With my mother’s family I had Ethyl, who was just 10 days my elder and who was also interested in art. But with my father’s people I was stuck in the middle, caught in between booger jokes on one side, bras and braces on the other, no natural place to fit in. There would be football and bourbon at one end of the house, a steamy kitchen and Winstons at the other, teenagers in their rooms in between, and children playing outside where they wouldn’t break anything. I wandered around outside, too, for a bit, looking at the greys and browns of November. Then we ate; then we drove home. We had grilled cheese sandwiches and soup for dinner, snuggled in the den to watch The Wizard of Oz.
This would be the last year for the blue Olds, replaced by a cherry-red LTD station wagon that would usher in a new era for our family. I would never find my opal ring, but from my mother, one year later, would come a new ring, two small sapphires set yin-yang style in soft rose gold to complement hands that had grown into themselves, that were learning to tackle Rachmaninoff, to stretch ten full keys on the piano. I still have that ring, now, though I left the piano behind years ago.
By Thanksgiving that next year, and after, my older cousins would depart for college, leaving open space for me at the big table. There I would find conversation about Georgia O’Keefe and New York and Vogue magazine, all for my benefit, though I would not realize it.
Through the march of holidays to come I would learn to make both my mother’s chocolate roll and her crème brûlée, to make Trudy’s stuffing (both with and without oysters), and Julia’s turkey and even Peggy’s rolls, though that recipe would come last and only after proving myself trustworthy.
I would learn that all families are both alike and different, the dynamics complicated in every case. I would come to admit that The Wizard of Oz terrifies me, and to be thankful for its replacement by Harry Potter marathons which we watch, snuggled in the den, with my son, born in the month of sapphires, and my daughter, born in the month of opals.
I would learn, through my own children, that life holds exactly one year of this strange 12-year-old wilderness I remember, of floating in limbo, jettisoned from childhood toward an invisible receiving net that appears like magic, woven by the generations ahead.