Sentimental Garbage

(This is the original article that appeared in Women’s Health Magazine. Reprinted with Permission by Rodale Press)

Over the years, I have acquired some nice jewelry. I’m not a bling person, but I treasure jewelry with sentimental value. My high school ring, my mother’s pearls, my wedding band, and my all-time favorite, my great-grandmother’s platinum, old European-cut, diamond engagement ring, which I wear all the time. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother (she passed away when I was three), but my grandmother wore it every day. I used to play with it on her finger. Often she would let me wear it and I would run around claiming to be royalty.

My entire family was scared to death of my grandmother, who at 4’11” was opinionated and judgmental and not known for her sense of humor. In 1963, four years after her mother passed away, her husband (my grandfather) died from cancer and bitterness consumed her. Around this time, at the age of seven, I started to accompany my father on weekly visits to her apartment. She was always angry. My father listened dutifully while I sat quietly drawing cartoons on scraps of paper from her desk.

I was never afraid of her. Maybe it was her size, I’m not quite sure. My grandmother must have picked up on this and soon asked me to come to her weekly painting classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was an amateur painter of endless landscapes. Prolific is not the word; excessive seems better. Her many works hung all over our house and my father’s office. I later figured out that no one was brave enough to tell her no thank you.

I rather enjoyed the attention of this mean old woman. She would let me carry her blank 18×24 canvas into class, which at the time, was about half my size. I remember taking great care weaving through the other easels as I followed my grandmother to her painting spot. When I would catch the stolen stares of the other adults in the class, my grandmother would bellow out, “What are you looking at?” It was a harsh response for sure, but I smiled politely. I didn’t want people to think I was scared because I wasn’t. I sat there for three hours every Saturday doodling away. Occasionally, she’d ask for my opinion. “I don’t think water looks like that, Grandma,” I offered once. The entire class became deadly silent. She turned to me and asked, “Do you think it needs more green?” I became her sidekick and midget muse. For the first time, I saw what it was like to lift the sadness from a person. She was different around me, and I liked that she found me worthy enough to accompany her.

When my grandmother died 28 years later in 1993, my father gave me the ring and I became the keeper of something whose value could never be measured. I immediately got it insured, but the document said nothing about its true worth. When I put it on my finger, I was flooded with the all the memories of my grandmother’s deep affection for me. There was magic in that ring and now it was my turn to wear it. The thought that I would pass this on to my daughter one day became almost spiritual.

I like to keep the ring shiny because that’s how I remember it on my grandmother’s finger. One night last spring, it was exceptionally dirty so I took it off, cleaned it thoroughly and left it wrapped in a tissue on my bathroom counter. When I awoke in the morning, I forgot it was there as I tidied up the bathroom, and swept it into the trash, along with a few q-tips, random tissues, and an empty mouthwash bottle.

Moments later, I heard the garbage truck rumble down the street. I swept quickly through the house and dragged the trash to the driveway. Twenty minutes later when I woke my youngest for school, he let out a tremendous sneeze. “Ewww,” I said, “Use a tissue.” And with that, I looked at my finger and stopped dead in my tracks. “What’s wrong?” my son asked, but I couldn’t speak. I ran to my bathroom and looked at the counter. Empty. No tissues. I looked in the wastebasket. Empty. No liner. I looked out my front window at the garbage bins. Empty. Clean. Tipped over. The blood left my body.

There was no time for tears. I immediately called the carting company. The truck had compacted the garbage and was headed to the transfer station. I gave a succinct but passionate summary of what had occurred and begged the dispatcher to radio the driver. I would meet him at the transfer station. I would pay the extra costs, but I had to recover that ring. The dispatcher, a lovely woman named Lillian, heard the distress in my voice. “Hang on,” she said, “Let me see what I can do.”

I waited for 110 seconds. I did not breathe until she got back on the line. “How fast can you get to the transfer station?” Lillian asked. “Four minutes” I lied. (If you drive the speed limit, it’s eight.) “He’ll meet you there, but don’t stop for coffee,” she said. I left my house in my ratty pajamas, no bra, tousled hair, and very bad breath. I grabbed my dish gloves, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. I screamed out to my son to make sure he got on the bus.

I got to the transfer station in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. I was led by the gate guard to a huge building where several large refuse trucks were backing in and dumping into a cavernous rectangular compacting pit at the back. I was instructed to wait for all the trucks to finish dumping and that my truck (note the possessive) would then dump its contents onto the floor of the garage where I could sift through the entire load.

As we were waiting, I asked my driver how many more houses he had picked up since mine. I think he said 12, which meant approximately 120 bags were on top of my 10. “Your wedding ring?” he asked. “My great-grandmother’s ring,” I said with reverence. I stared at the garbage. My senses were numb. I put on my dish gloves. I sifted my mind for strategies. I remembered that I used white plastic bags with red ties. My truck backed into the enormous shed and dumped its contents. My heart sank. One half of the load was white garbage bags with red ties. Does everyone shop at Costco?

I asked the driver which heap might be my street. He pointed to somewhere in the middle and I jumped in. The bags were all compacted so you had to shake them to get them to expand. “You should rip them open and check the addresses,” said the attendant. “If you find your street, you’ll know that you’re looking in the right place.” This gave me tremendous hope.

Has anyone ever seen a week old chicken wing? An exploded diaper? I ripped open bag after bag. I saw things that I can’t even repeat. Suddenly I came across a soiled envelope with my neighbors address on it. “My street!” I screamed, and my garbage man came over to help me sort through the compacted bags. Soon I had exposed my entire street’s garbage. That’s when I saw it. A compacted, white bag with red ties and an empty mouthwash bottle in it. My hands were shaking. I opened the bag and recognized my garbage.

I gently squeezed each balled up tissue until I felt it. I opened the tissue and there in all its shiny glory, was my great-grandmother’s ring. I burst into tears. Hysterical, sobbing tears. My garbage man came over, patted my back and put his arm around me. In broken English he said, “It’s okay, Miss. No cry. You found ring.” I pulled it together enough to ask him one question. “What is your name?” I sobbed. “Jose,” he said. “Thank you, Jose,” is all that came out.

I walked back to my car and turned to watch the attendant use a backhoe to dump the contents of my garbage truck into the in-ground compacter. I heard the crushing sounds as the 500 cubic feet were reduced to five. I peeled off my gloves and placed the ring on my finger. It glistened in the early morning sunlight. The sentimental value of things can never be measured, but they can remind you of the power of love. I only hope that one day, when this ring belongs to my daughter; she will have an even better story of how she kept it alive.

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