Having attended nursery school since the age of 3, I skipped kindergarten and was enrolled in first grade at the public school a few blocks from our Brooklyn apartment. Even in 1951 the school had appeared ancient with its brick walls of hanging ivy and oppressive pea green interiors.
There was no busing then, so either my mother or father would walk me to school, dropping me off on the playground, where the girls jumped rope while the boys ran in tight little circles shrieking and playing tag.
Funny, but I can only recall the mornings of nearly perfect weather. I have no recollection of a day where we might have walked in heavy showers, me splashing my red rubber boots through shallow puddles. Perhaps on those bad weather days my mother kept me home from school. I certainly don’t remember flurries or the heavy accumulation of snow. And, if it were not for a handful of photos of me and my grandmother standing in her snow-plowed driveway bordered on all sides by a solid white wall, all my snow memories would be reserved for those years after we moved to the suburbs.
There was the designated place for our chubby little snowman, perched above the irregular two-foot drop on our front lawn. And all sleigh-riding was limited to just our block, one long winding road, where my brothers and I took turns on our Hi-Flier wooden sled until it was time to come in for supper. We walked in starving, our woolen mittens crusty with snow, our cheeks chapped and nearly purple.
One afternoon — maybe it was late spring, because I am certain she was coatless and dressed in a blouse and slacks — my mother picked me up on the playground like always, but instead of her usual distracted demeanor, this time she appeared angry, as if telegraphing the message that I’d done something terribly wrong. Actually, she shoved her left hand in front of my face, the hand I’d held with my right that morning while she’d walked me to school.
“See?” she said, her mouth pinched, as if she had tasted a pickle. “My beautiful engagement ring is gone. You always hold my hand so tight. It must have slipped off my finger this morning while we were walking.”
Even at 6, I was hardly a stranger to guilt, and certainly not a stranger to blame. Both of those emotional traits were part of my genetic makeup. It was the way most of my family members dealt with their fears — laying everything off. Everyone, even my mother, was capable of shifting the responsibility of a deed or event, sometimes using the innocence of a child as a convenient front. I doubt she had told my father she was frantic because she couldn’t find her ring; a perfectionist, he would have accused her of being irresponsible.
That was the longest walk home I would ever remember. Together, her fingers tightly gripping mine, my mother and I crossed, then re-crossed, endless quiet streets. We walked, heads down to the ground, scanning every sidewalk crack, every chipped concrete curb. As we approached our apartment building I began to feel queasy, but my mother started tugging at me and warned I better speed up my pace. To an onlooker, I must have looked like a spoiled or misbehaving child pulled against my will, hovering just behind her mother’s hip.
By the time we walked into the apartment, all sweaty and ring-less, I’d already accepted the fact that, yes, I must have somehow slid my mother’s beautiful emerald-cut diamond ring from her finger. The intensity of her reaction was enough to convince me that I was guilty as charged.
Then later that day before dinnertime our building superintendent, Mr. O’Hara, knocked loudly on our door. He marched through our foyer determined to do his job. In his hands he carried a long, strange-looking tool that he called a plumber’s snake. With it, he carefully explored the contents of the pipes in both our kitchen and bathroom sink, where, after a very short time, he fished and caught what resembled a silvery little guppy. It was my mother’s diamond.
Though I did feel a measure of relief, in truth I could barely look at my mother while she jumped and cheered in an almost drunken joy. So quickly she became a happy mother again, as if nothing had happened and I’d done nothing wrong.
But because she had already raised the possibility that my fingers might have slipped the ring off her knuckle and onto the sidewalk, my walk to school with her could never be the same. I had already learned what I was much too young to fully comprehend: I was not, like I’d hoped and thought, the center of her universe. Instead, I was old enough to be made culpable, even by her.
I imagine the fact that I’d felt such anger toward her then must have filled me with enormous guilt, guilt layered on top of worrying about her missing ring in the first place.
Whenever I held my mother’s hand after that incident, I was never truly comfortable. I’m not sure if this came solely from me. But as I got older, on those rare occasions when she reached for my hand, hers always felt cold to the touch, and mine rested limply, slightly curled, waiting for what? I am still not certain.
Sande Boritz Berger, who lives in Bridgehampton, has recently completed a master’s in fine arts degree in writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton. Her novel “The Sweetness” was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel semi-finalist. “The Ring” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress.