When I first see it, I shudder. The knuckles are wrinkled and gnarly. The skin is gray. The middle finger tilts too far to the right and nudges the ring finger like a baby girl hangs on her mother’s leg, irritating, but not so much that it can’t be ignored. An amber ring sparkles on the ring finger. The skin is puffy around it, keeping it in place.
I remember getting my amber ring around Christmas years ago. My mother tapped the jewelry case in the antique store. Matching amber rings nestled among turquoise and silver. “There are three,” she said to my sister and me.
Amber was my grandmother’s name. My mother collected the gemstone in jewelry whenever she found it. I wear my ring with pride. My sister puts hers on but hides her hand in her pocket.
Now I watch as the amber in the ring reflects the light. The lamp here, next to my bed, shines with warmth. The ring is cold. I pull at it to see if I can finally free it from that crooked finger. No luck.
My sister is seven years older than me. I learned everything from her, sometimes while out in the open but often from behind closed doors. I learned to paint my nails and stuff my bra from spying on her from the hall. She didn’t speak to me much. She didn’t offer to help me with anything. At best, she ignored me. At worst, she ridiculed me. “You look like a bag lady,” she said once. I was in third grade. I still wore whatever clothes our mother put out for me.
Often, my sister ignored my mother, too. At mealtimes, our mother would sit with us and prod my sister. “How are you feeling about history?” or, “How about the game next week?” or, “How is Ryan?” To which my sister snarled, “It’s none of your business.” Each word poked at my mother. Words like artillery fire, shrapnel flying.
My mother’s favorite time to cry was while washing dishes. She seemed to think the running water covered the sound. “Don’t worry,” I said more than once. “I won’t be like her.” More than once my mother responded by flicking dishwater at me and scowling. “You’re right.”
I was in high school when my sister achieved her second DUI. My mother answered the phone. “Yes?” she clutched the receiver. “Yes, yes, OK,” she said. Then, walking through the living room where I was finishing my homework on that Friday night, my mother said without looking at me, “Your sister needs me. I’ll be back later.”
“OK. Can I go out?”
My mother flipped her coat around her shoulders. She looked at me then. “No.”
I slumped. I finished my algebra.
My sister came home that night, wet from rain. My mother helped her out of her coat and ushered her off to a hot shower and bed. I didn’t hear her speak from the moment she walked through the door until she left the next morning. My mother, practically hand-feeding her bacon and eggs and pouring her coffee after coffee, murmured to her how much she understood her pain. She pet my sister on the shoulder and arm. My sister downed the hot coffee and shoved herself away from the table. She unstuck herself from my mother and left us in silence.
I see the ring gleaming on pale skin now. I’ve grown so old. There are dark spots all over my hands and face. My hair is thinning. My kids are adults, but none of them has given me grandchildren. Grandchildren might keep me young. But looking at this splotchy skin now, I know where I’m headed.
My mother effectively abandoned me when my sister was no longer in the house. She dropped me off at my high school graduation and drove away to help my sister move into yet another new apartment. I was valedictorian and gave a speech. I had no family in the audience.
And yet I loved her. My mother told me time and time again that my sister was special. That my sister needed to be challenged, that she was just difficult sometimes. Even now, as a grown woman, my sister is sullen and needy. She asks and she always receives.
She never wore that amber ring. I didn’t see it on her finger after the day we got it. I’ve never taken mine off. My mother wore hers. She did not mention mine when she saw it, but she did ask my sister where hers was. “I’ve lost it,” my sister replied. She sniffed and turned away.
My mother deflated. This was only a week or so after we’d gotten it. She shook her head then and said, “Maybe your sister can give you hers.” But I was never asked for it. My sister hardly spoke to me.
Just last week I learned my mother bought my sister a house. Just last week I learned that my mother paid for my sister’s divorce a few years ago. Just last week I learned that my sister has never done a thing for herself her whole life.
Enough is enough, I guess.
Now I’m tired and ready to go to sleep. I pull at the ring on that tilted finger one more time, but it still won’t budge. I’ll try again tomorrow. I lift the hand and place it back in the box. I wrap the gauze around it and close the lid, watching the light dance on the ring. “Nighty night,” I say, and tuck my mother’s hand back under my bed.