‘A tough little sparrow’: How a ring helped me grieve my mother

‘I closed my eyes to connect with my mom and the first thing I saw was a sparrow.’

An illustration of a sparrow in a hand
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

At the tail-end of a social media distraction scroll, I stared at my computer, transfixed. There on my Instagram feed was the perfect signet ring: atop a gold band rested the engraved emblem of a sparrow perched on a branch looking blissfully over its shoulder. Its quiet contentment stirred in me a sense of hope I hadn’t felt in quite a while. I wanted that ring. I needed that ring.

And then I realised it already belonged to me.

The jeweller had posted a picture of it on their page nearly a year and a half after I’d designed it and brought it home. Over the next few days, like a teenager, I found myself returning to the post to see how many hearts it had racked up. I felt embarrassingly proud that my little sparrow was faring well.

But amidst the oohs and ahs were people asking to purchase it – and the jeweller instructing them to contact the shop for a quote. I was astounded. This was my ring. With my design. To honour my mother. Could the jeweller legally offer her to the world? If so, was I prepared to share my mom?

I’d long wanted a pinky signet ring. They’re so English. My parents grew up in London during World War II; I have dual citizenship and fancy myself more a Brit than an American, especially as of late.

My mother died of thyroid cancer in her late eighties, but her body had been giving out on her in so many ways for so long. Her last decade had been hard, though she rarely let on.

After her death, my dad, niece, and I went to London to sprinkle her ashes on her mother’s grave. While there, I wanted to find a pinky ring as a remembrance to her.

A month before we were set to leave, I scouted out stores online we could dash into. I wasn’t expecting much. But up popped one link and my breath caught short. Each ring was handmade and engraved by master craftsmen who’d honed their ancient trade the old school way by apprenticeship. The jewellery was elegant, timeless, substantive; I could conjure the weight of one on my hand and knew this was my ring.

My mom and I had had a tender but complicated relationship. When I was five or six, my mother – red lipstick, Chanel No 5, diamond studs – let me know that the reason she’d given birth to me was so that she would never be alone.

“We’ll always be best friends,” she’d said firmly, kneeling beside me.

In part, I was delighted: I was her treasure. In part, even at such a young age, I felt tremendous pressure. How could I shine brightly enough to fill up this wondrous being’s whole life?

“What if I let you down?” I queried, my eyes, as mom liked to say, as big as saucers.

“Oh, love,” she said, “you could never let me down.”

As I grew older, her refrain transfigured slightly into, “Isn’t our relationship wonderful? So many mothers and daughters don’t have this.”

What it was we had wasn’t clear, yet questioning it risked defiling my whole purpose. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised how angry this agreement made me – as if I needed to earn my mother’s attention by bestowing attention upon her.

For much of my life, I kept this simmering fury from my conscious mind, but I realise now it informed nearly all our interactions. Whether conjured or genuinely present, I found the expectations draining. I felt my mom wanted too much from me, wanted to be part of my life in a way that was too intimate for my comfort level, wanted to tell me things about her life, including her relationship with my dad, that as her daughter I didn’t want to hear.

In an effort not to buckle from the pressure I did my best to generate a forcefield of emotional-distancing armour that allowed me to be the good daughter we both wanted while keeping some semblance of myself intact.

An illustration of a sparrow
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

My visit that summer to the jewellers I’d found online took me to Leather Lane in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. Narrow and winding, more like an alley with trappings of an outdoor market, it reminded me of the Lower East Side in the early eighties. My mind wandered back to when my parents would visit me there. People living in cardboard boxes lined the streets then. My mom would stop and talk to each of them. She would hold their hands, ask questions about their lives, listen deeply to their answers, then give everyone a hug goodbye. It took forever to get down the street.

The jewellers’ storefront at the time was small, barely big enough to swing a cat, as my cockney grandmother would say. In the backroom, I slipped various sizes and shapes of rings from the velvet trays onto my finger. They were even weightier than I imagined. There were few things my mom loved more than jewellery and I felt her there thrilling over my shoulder.

Next, I met with the engraver who sketched out a sparrow from a photo I’d brought along, his workbench gloriously strewn with various worn clamps, scrapers and chisels. When coming up with the design, I’d closed my eyes to connect with my mom and the first thing I saw was a sparrow.

I wasn’t surprised I’d conjured a bird, my mother loved them. As far back as I can remember she cared for them, the birdfeeders in our yard blossoming from one to three to seven or eight, plus a heated birdbath. Their songs and antics delighted her.

Every day, one of the feeders needed filling and, no matter the weather, she scurried outside, scooped in seeds from a huge tub in the garage, then reverentially hung them back in place. When I lived in Manhattan, she’d call to tell me what “her” birds were up to, and when I was home for a visit, she would cajole me into feeding them alongside her.

She’d long shared stories of Sally Ann, one of the chickens her family kept in their back garden, who regularly wandered into the house. My mother had loved her. The youngest of nine children, her brothers were off at war, her brothers-in-law had been taken prisoner and most of her sisters were involved in the war effort. There was the Blitz, the rations, a father who drank too much and a mother who wore her teeth to nubs trying to keep her family safe. I imagine her a lonely child, finding comfort from the merry strut of Sally Ann. No wonder she desired the guarantee of a best friend.

It took several weeks to complete my ring and once I slipped it on, I never wanted to take it off. I realised that more than a remembrance, my grief had taken the shape of this tiny bird. There’s nothing regal or elegant about the chubby little brown feathered ave that’s now permanently perched atop my finger.

It’s not the sort of bird that usually graces an expensive trinket – but its friendly, communal manner is true to my mom’s spirit, the spirit that tended to the unhoused people in New York back in the day. The spirit that tended to so many others through her volunteer work and simply how she lived her life. Everywhere she went she “adopted” people: church, Kroger’s, her manicurist, neighbours, my friends, even the garage attendant on a holiday in London who was so taken with her he bought her a Union Jack bell as a parting gift.

As she grew older her eyesight and hearing worsened, so she would stand close, her hand resting on their arm, asking all her questions and leaning close enough that her eyelashes nearly fluttered their cheek as she listened to their answers. People lit up in her presence.

In many ways, I did, too. Generous beyond measure, she was always keen to treat me to that special something I couldn’t swing for myself – be it a cosy sweater or pocket money for a trip. Every Easter in Manhattan friends flocked to my apartment as I opened the massive box of chocolate turtles, jellybeans, and homemade pumpkin bread my mother sent. I could call her any time of day or night and often she was expecting me; she seemed to intuit key moments of my life.

When she was alive, so much of her goodness had been buried beneath the exhausting bargain to complete her life. Now I could appreciate the beauty of her love without feeling like she needed my energy to survive. She was just lonely, too. This gentle sparrow became a reminder I was a beloved daughter not just someone’s promised companion.

And now the jewellers wanted to allow others to have a piece of the mother I was just growing to properly appreciate, a piece of my grief. My initial impulse was to shoot them an email, instructing them they couldn’t sell my design. But I waited a few days and kept counting hearts. I also kept filling my birdfeeder following the routine my mom had imprinted. The feeder was the first gift my parents gave me when I left Manhattan to be closer to them – both in their eighties and my mom well into her health struggles – and bought my first home in Michigan. Dressed in my Boggs and J Crew parka, my version of my mom’s Uggs and Burberry duffel, I felt her spirit move inside me – both of us most content when the birds are fed and their birdbath full.

In the end, I simply made a comment on the jewellers’ post thanking them for their beautiful work. I claimed the ring as mine but didn’t try to prevent others from owning it too. Now I imagine my tough little sparrow perched on fingers across the world and it delights me. Of course, the wearer wouldn’t know any of this – not consciously, at least – but my mom would be there nonetheless, adopting each of them as a welcome member of her flock.

Source: Al Jazeera