I stood in the corridor of the chemistry department; its characteristic odor bothered me. As I moved into the formation a teacher suggested it was time to make, I could see beakers, microscopes, atomic element charts through the panel of glass above each classroom door.
My white graduation cloak, and white mortarboard cap with its orange and gold tassels, made me feel both giddy and sad. I liked high school and felt going away to a university wouldn’t compare to these years.
My mother appeared in the hallway looking for me. I waved. She smiled and took tiny steps in her high heels until she reached me. The shiny floor was not slippery but appeared so, and she walked with a different swing from her usual stride in case the finish was polished wax.
I caught her fragrance of Shalimar and it contrasted with chemicals.
“Hi, sweetie.” She touched my arm. “You look beautiful.”
She freed a few strands of my blonde hair that appeared caught under the mortar board. “I need your ring now. It goes to Joyce.”
I looked at the diamond set in hexagonal prongs; two tiny sapphires were on either side. The ring itself was platinum and the sideview that held the setting looked like lace.
“Remember,” my mother continued, “it was mine, then your sister Carole got it when she started high school, then you, and now it’s your sister Joyce’s turn. Later it’ll be handed down to all your children the very same way.”
“Now?” I felt surprised that she’d come to me in the corridor right before this very special event.
“Didn’t I give it to you as you lined up to graduate from elementary school? I remember holding your old-fashioned bouquet while you slipped it on.” My mother was pretty, although I didn’t tell her that. Her hazel eyes looked into mine and I felt her timing wasn’t correct.
“But now,” I whined.
“Now.” She didn’t move away. “Things, honey, are not important; people are.”
I hated lectures on values, morality, philosophy. There I was, queuing up for commencement, and I was getting a people-are-important lecture.
Ever since “Pomp and Circumstance” played before my elementary school diploma ended childhood, I’d worn this ring. I loved the sparkle. I loved the lacy look. I loved that it was now an heirloom. I didn’t want to give it up.
I couldn’t see beyond the corridor but tried to figure out how soon this commencement would begin its parade of graduates to seats. I really wanted to stall handing over the ring but I wiggled my fingers, forcing the platinum circle to rotate. I wanted it to rub against my skin for the very last time. Then I used my other hand’s fingers and slid it off.
My mother inserted it into a velvet case she’d carried in her brown leather handbag. She hugged me, reminded me to walk straight and tall down the aisle, keep my head steady, then she walked away.
My finger felt naked; exposed was an indentation where the ring had been. I worried that my sister Joyce might not appreciate the tradition, and maybe she’d lose the ring so it could never continue its generational journey.
“Line up, graduates. You’ve got about ten minutes before the processional,” a teacher ordered.
It was bad enough I was confined to a smelly chemistry hallway so guests wouldn’t see us or, maybe I was there because the corridor was long and wide and right straight ahead was the auditorium. The cloak was getting warm and every time I moved my head in a certain position, the tassel tickled my cheek. I stuck my small hand in front of me. The pale pink polish I’d so carefully applied to my nails caught my attention, but when I moved my aqua eyes upwards all I saw was a vacant digit.
“Remember what we’ve practiced, students. When it’s time to turn the tassel as graduates, turn them at the very same moment; you’ll get a signal. Make sure no mortar board is crooked! It’s not a hat to be worn as a cap or any-which-way. Straight. Flat top.” The teacher moved up and down the aisle of students.
I got caught up in the anticipation again. My father entered. I watched him walk and smiled at the familiar sight of his movements; one shoulder always seemed lower than the other. His stride was pleasant.
“Hi, princess,” he grinned.
“I’m too old for that,” I blushed.
“Is it crowded in the auditorium?” I wondered.
“Yes. And the sunlight is streaming in from the long windows. It’s a pretty room.” He spoke softly.
“You always see the pretty, dad.”
“I’m looking at you, aren’t I?” His light blue eyes met mine.
“Oh, daddy.” I reverted to my girlhood word for him.
“I’ve got something for you.” He reached into the right pocket of his double-breasted suit, and removed a ring box.
At first, I thought it was my familiar ring and my mother had decided I could wear it for this ceremony, but the box was different.
My father opened the box, removed a white gold ring with three tiny diamonds in a row set in a raised oval, and then moved it onto my vacant ring finger. “This is for you. It’s new. It’s yours to start on an heirloom trip through time. Give it to your daughter, then her daughter…”
I cut him off with a whispered “thanks” and a shallow hug so my mortar board wouldn’t fall off. I was in ecstasy.
“Princess, remember it’s a thing. Wear and enjoy it, but it’ll outlast all of us. People are precious and not things. Don’t ‘save’ it because it’s new.”
Why, when he gave a speech, did it seem unlike a lecture? Was it his tone? Was it his quiet way that revealed his sensitivity? Was it that fathers to girls are special and not role models to be accepted/fought?
“We’re ready to move,” the teacher ordered.
The school band could be heard introducing the processional.
“I love you, daddy.” I looked at my beautiful ring.
He kissed my cheek and I inhaled the scent of his Yardley aftershave lotion. I knew I’d wear only that ring until I was engaged. My high school class one would go on my right hand, whenever it finally came from its Boston manufacturers.
What had been, to me, a stench from chemicals was now mixed with Shalimar and aftershave lotion. The chemistry corridor seemed less offensive since getting my ring, and I marched, with my group, out of the science wing and into the auditorium to assigned seats.
Under the spot of ceiling light, I wiggled my finger, watching the stones sparkle while the commencement address was being recited. I turned my tassel and felt grown up. Of course I’ll wear my ring and not save it, and maybe eventually understand the ‘people not things are precious’ philosophy, but for now I just want to look quickly and see if I can find where my parents are sitting.
This is a reprint of work originally published in The Christian Science Monitor.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/photos/memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.