9

The Ring of the Queen

By Terri Dixon

Part I

"Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things."

--Denis Diderot

Russia called to me. To explain it would be to make the illogical sound logical. I spent my life listening to my grandmother talk about Russia. She'd been there before I was born, but it seemed that her passion ran deeper than just the memories of a trip that lodged in her mind, never letting her forget it.

I spent many years thinking that it was my grandma's reminiscing that made me long to live elsewhere. I thought that maybe it was her stories of the grandeur of the palaces of the Tzars that made me want to leave Indiana. Looking back, I guess that wasn't it. I spent most of my childhood wondering what the secret was to finding the perfect place to live. Was it the food, the climate, the politics, the taxes, the schools, the property values, or maybe even the church? I wondered why some people were always happy and never wanted to move on. I always wanted to leave my home. I felt that it was wrong, but I simply couldn't shake the feeling.

I envy people who like where they live. I'm not talking about the ones that accept their geographical location due to lack of ambition to strive for better. I'm not describing the cynical citizen who sees no beneficial differences between any two given points on a globe. And, I certainly don't mean to speak of the lack lustered bunch of uncreative dispassionate locals around the world who never had the curiosity to leave their childhood homes. I'm speaking about a select few in the grand scheme of things—possibly one in a million. I'm talking about that special person who has gone out into the world, looked around, and found the one perfect spot that they could forever call home. I'm talking about the traveled person who settled in a place twenty years ago and is still happy to wake up there every day. I envy the person who knows where they belong.

What is that magic thread that ties the happy homemakers of the world together?

I finally got a clue in my dying grandmother's last words to me.

I'd spent my whole life listening to my grandmother's tales. She always said that my grandfather should have told them to me, but he hated to tell stories. She insisted that the stories needed to be handed down since they didn't teach such things in school, so she took it upon herself to tell them to me.

Most children grew up in Indiana farm land hearing stories about how their ancestors worked the fields or lived in harmony with the Indians. The stories my grandma told me were of the plight of the Russian people through the ages. She told stories of how the Russians came to be in Alaska. She told stories of how the Soviets executed the Tzars. For the most part, all of her tales were gruesome and caused me countless nightmares in my youngest years.

One day, when I was ten years old, grandma had just finished telling me a story about the Russian government finding the corpses of the last Tzar, Nicholas II, and his family in a mine shaft. I asked her why she told me stories like that. I'll never forget her answer.

Grandma said, "I tell you these stories because one day you will need to know them."

"Why?" I asked.

"That I can't tell you."

"Then, how will I know when the time comes when I need to know?"

"You'll know. No one will have to tell you."

Several years passed without us ever discussing the topic again. She continued to tell me stories of Mother Russia and the Soviets. I asked about the Tzars, but she didn't speak much of them. She said that she would teach me that when the time was right.

I waited and waited through discussions about the Berlin Wall, Siberia, Glasnost, and Sputnik. At the end of my senior year in high school, my grandmother suffered a heart attack following a bizarre car accident at her house. One of the local teenagers was driving drunk one night and drove right into her living room on the deserted country road where she lived outside of North Manchester, Indiana. She couldn't take the stress of the situation, and she had a heart attack. It was only the first.

For weeks she was too weak to talk. She was on and off of breathing devices and was in and out of intensive care. When she finally gained enough strength to visit, she immediately asked for me.

I went to her bedside and sat down in the chair next to her bed. "I came as fast as I could," I told her.

She smiled at me. "I knew you would. I must speak to you."

"Okay," I replied. Her tone frightened me. I wasn't sure why.

She pointed to the night stand next to her bed. "Open the drawer," she ordered me.

I opened the drawer. The only thing in it was a ring that she'd worn since before I was born. I'd always said that it was the most fascinating ring I'd ever seen. It was inlaid—I liked to think with real gems, but that would have made it outrageously expensive. I'd never imagined that it could be valuable. My family wasn't wealthy enough to buy such a piece of jewelry. I'd always believed that it was costume jewelry. The inlay was a tiny picture of a woman who looked like a queen receiving something from a man in uniform. I knew it was Russian. Grandma had gone there many years before. I believed that she'd bought the ring there and worn it all these years as a magnificent souvenir. After all, she'd been nearly obsessed with Russia.

"Take the ring," she said.

I picked up the ring and looked at it. "You love this ring, grandma," I said.

"I've guarded it for you. I only wish I had more time. There's so much I never got to tell you."

"So, tell me now."

"It would take far more time than I have left. The ring is yours. Put it on."

I did as she said. I put it on my left ring finger. It fit as though it was made for me.

Grandma smiled. "A perfect fit. I always knew it would be. I knew it would be you."

"Always knew what would be me?" I thought she was fading on me.

"I can't explain it now. You'll have to find out the rest on your own. You're a big girl now. You will find your place in the world."

She was scaring me on many levels. "Where do I begin?"

"Follow the ring."

"What does that mean?"

"It will guide you to the place where you belong."

"Don't I belong here?"

She smiled. "No. Your one true home is far from here."

"Where is it?" I was getting frustrated.

"Follow the ring. Don't ever let it leave you. It must stay with you at all times. That is very important. No one else must ever have the ring. We all have one place that we call home. The ring. That's your clue. It's up to you to find your way home."

Then I asked her the one question that I'd always wanted to know the answer to. "How will I know when I've found the place that I will want to call my home for the rest of my life?" I asked.

"The view," she answered with a grin. "It's all about the view. When you find the perfect view, when you look out the window and see a picture that you would fight to the death to protect; that's when you know you're home." She took my hand. "I love you, Stacie dear. Never forget that. Now go, I'm needing to sleep."

I gave her a kiss on the forehead. "I love you more, grandma."

Grandma died that night. The final heart attack struck in her sleep.

The church was extremely crowded for grandma's funeral. Everyone in town knew her, but that day I think that they realized how little she talked to most of them. She spent a lot of time listening to others. I think I was the only person who couldn't get her to stop talking when I was with her. I guess that made me special.

When the service started, I sat down between my parents. My older brother was allowed to sit on the opposite side of the room with the rest of the pall bearers. I was jealous. I wanted a little space that day myself.

As the preacher spoke, I gazed at the beautiful ring that had been such a prize to grandma. I felt like a chosen one. She'd given me her ring. I would never let it go, just as she'd asked.

I looked up midway through a prayer, which I knew was wrong, but for some reason I couldn't help it. I noticed my dad staring at the ring. He smiled at me, which was rare coming from him, and put his hand on mine.

"Be careful with that," he whispered.

"I promised grandma," I whispered back.

"I meant that you should keep it put away," he said. "It's a private gem, not for public viewing."

"I like to wear it," I argued.

"I just want you to be safe."

Safe? I wondered what he was talking about. I wanted to ask him, but I never did. He never spoke of the ring again. My mother would have never allowed that.

Mom hated the ring. I found that out the day of the funeral. She didn't slow down and quit fussing until the flow of the visitors slowed at our house after the burial. I wasn't sure where to start cleaning up or what to do with all the food that the visitors had brought for us.

Mom started to carry dishes to the kitchen. Mom had her ways. I think that she believed that if you unloaded a table crowded with food and transferred it to a kitchen counter full of food, that it would spark storage ideas in her mind.

After I'd carried the last tuna casserole into the kitchen, I stood opposite mom, waiting for her to create some direction for my next move. I put both arms out and leaned on my hands to take some of the stress off of my four inch heels, which were killing me. I only wore skirts or dresses when it was absolutely necessary.

Instead of deciding what to do with six months worth of food, mom focused on my grandma's ring. Her face turned to stone.

"Where did you get that?" she asked, pointing to the ring.

I covered my hand and removed it from the counter. I recognized all of my mom's angry expressions. I knew that this was one of the worst ones.

"Grandma gave it to me," I replied.

"I thought they buried that thing with her. They should have done that generations ago."

I wanted to cry. Mom always left me feeling as though she hated grandma. I knew that many in law relationships were strained to say the least. But I loved my grandma. I idolized her. It hurt me and angered me to hear a harsh word spoken about her.

"It was special to her, and she wanted me to have it," I replied. "I love it. It's mine now."

"Well, put it away somewhere. That damn thing is nothing but trouble."

When she walked out of the kitchen, leaving tons of food that would spoil in a matter of hours sprawled across every inch of the room; I wondered what it was about grandma's ring that upset her so much.

I would spend years wondering about that.

When I enrolled in college, my mother was thrilled. When I enrolled at the local college, Manchester College, she was elated. Mom never wanted me to be far from home. She was thrilled that I would easily be able to commute, rather than have to live on campus to attend school.

Her excitement didn't last long however. Mom's moods could change from ecstatic to enraged in 0 seconds, which was exactly what happened when I told her that I wanted to study history—primarily Russian history. Mom's reaction to anything Russian was abnormal in my opinion. I couldn't understand why anyone would actually despise Russian history. I could understand why most people would find it so boring that they couldn't stay awake around it, but hate seemed extreme to me.

I wrote it off to the fact that grandma had always been so interested in it and mom didn't seem to like her. Grandma was the only person I'd ever know who'd been even remotely interested in the land of the Tsars. That's where I got it from. She'd sparked a passion in me that my mother could not extinguish.

But still, Russia called to me, like the voice of a siren floating on the wind. I know that sounds melodramatic and downright delusional, but I keep trying to find a way to explain it so that someone besides my grandma might understand. My family never got it, and neither did my friends. I tried so hard to make the people around me understand, but I never was able to. I loved everything I knew about Russia, from the folk art to the scarves, to the nesting dolls, to the culture. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know about the politics and the history and the tsars.

When I started school, I also started a trend in my life. I'd promised my mother that I would explore other possibilities and not be so focused on everything Russian. I tried, but that mysterious inner voice kept talking to me. Every time I went to sign up for classes, I was systematically drawn to classes that focused on Russia. The voice finally did me in during the fall term of my junior year. There was a flyer on a bulletin board in the snack bar for a class in Moscow. It was a three week class about the tsars. There was no way that I could possibly walk away from that. I saw the professor in charge immediately, made all of my arrangements, and filed for a passport. Then all I had to do was go home and tell my mom.