The Ring I Made To Remember My Father By

Modeled by Erin Donnelly.
My dad wasn’t big on jewelry. I don’t remember him wearing a wedding ring when he was married to my mother, though, frankly, I barely remember them being married. I vaguely recall a silver band with some sort of turquoise during his second marriage, but it bent and chipped and was either lost or banished to some drawer even before that, too, ended in divorce. A Fossil watch I’d gifted him was stolen from his car. When I asked why the watch was in his car and not on his wrist, he’d shrugged and said that it’d been too flashy to wear out, so he’d never taken it out of the case.

We did, however, find a green and navy loom bracelet my nephew had once made him. He’d kept it, and as he lay dying and semi-conscious in the palliative care unit in a Santa Fe hospital last June, my sister, brother, and I put all our effort into keeping that piece of rubber close. The clasp had snapped at some point, so we could only place it in his big, warm hand, pressing it closer as we held hands with him for the first time since childhood. We were helpless when it came to handling everything else, but we could damn well make sure that bracelet stayed in his grasp, even when the nurses moved him and it got tangled up in the sheets. Once it went missing for a couple of hours, and my brother interrogated the nurses until it was discovered under Dad’s body.

My sister now keeps the bracelet in a box at her home. I have my own wearable token: a ring designed by London jeweler Rachel Boston. I met Rachel through work — basically, I stalked her online, then begged her to model holiday hairstyles for a Refinery29 article — and was a fan of her spiky, slender pieces, many of which are bespoke. A few weeks after my dad’s death, I emailed Rachel to float the idea of commissioning a ring that I could wear in honor of my dad. She responded right away, and we arranged to meet at her studio.
Modeled by Erin Donnelly.
My initial thoughts about how the ring might look were vague and filled with doubt. Dad’s initials? Something Celtic to highlight our Irish roots? All I knew was that I needed something to mark his loss. The grief was like a phantom limb, and I needed to hold it; I needed something tangible. In those days, I contemplated tattooing my skin; having a baby just to name it after my dad; building a monument, anything to have something that said “he was here.” I chose a ring because it was true to me; I’ve lost every earring and tangled every necklace I’ve ever owned, but I’m always wearing a ring. In a way I was wedding myself to the memory of my father, wrapping his love, and my grief, around me.

My non-negotiables were few: It had to be gold. It had to be engraved. It had to have some sort of visual representation of me and my siblings — this was their loss, too. I suggested a triangle, with each side symbolizing one of us, but left it all up to Rachel. I apologized for my lack of clarity but sensed that she’d be able to push through them.

A month later, I was in Boston with my family for a memorial arranged by my aunt at her church. I saw that Rachel had emailed her preliminary designs as I sat listening to my sister rehearse the reading she was scheduled to give at the church that evening. Her job was to thank everyone for coming, offer up prayers for loved ones, and say a few words about our dad. There was one word she kept stumbling on, and thus kept repeating for practice: constancy. As in, Dad’s constancy.

I scanned Rachel’s email, which featured four design options. They were all striking, incorporating arrows and sleek gold bands. Her description of the third design, however, stopped me in my tracks.
Modeled by Erin Donnelly.
“This is my favorite one,” she wrote. “I looked at Navajo symbols and I based these two rings on the symbol for the sun, which means ‘constant,’ and the broken arrow, which stands for ‘peace.’”

Had she used any other word than “constant,” the word my sister was still repeating in the background, would I still have felt the “that’s the one” pang in my heart? I have no idea. But it seemed like a sign, and, like many people mourning a loved one, I was desperate for signs.

I got the ring in October, the birthday month Dad and I share. It’s actually two rings, made of 18-carat yellow gold. The black diamond setting hints at my dad’s dark humor and “Black Irish” roots. Inside, in teeny-tiny letters, his name is engraved alongside mine and my siblings'. To me, the three hash marks on the top ring represent each of us, with the whole symbolizing my dad and our family.

At first I thought I’d wear the rings separately day to day, then together for dressier nights out. I’ve surprised myself by keeping them together, because I like the way they fit. I also like when people compliment them, because it gives me a chance to talk a little about who my father was.

One admirer, however, told me about her interest in Victorian mourning jewelry. Once upon a time, people wore brooches and rings fashioned out of their deceased loved ones’ hair. It was a time when propping up dead bodies for photos wasn’t unheard of, and even the Queen wore mourning black. It seems macabre, but I get it now.

This week, amid preparations for finalizing Dad’s headstone and marking the first anniversary of his death, my siblings Skyped me to float the idea of each of us getting a tattoo in his honor. I’m the only one of us without any ink, so the conversation was really about whether or not I was willing to go under the needle when I’ve spent 37 years avoiding it. I said yes, and so the debate over designs and symbolism begins again. I look forward to it.

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