Wedding rings have been on my mind recently. Even if you don’t wear one or even if you’re not married, one phrase probably comes to mind almost immediately when you think of a wedding band: With this ring . . . . “With this ring, I thee wed.” It is a common, yet powerful symbol of that blessed union of personalities, love, hopes and dreams. On the day we receive it, the ring is precious. It slides over our finger and across our knuckle to find what we hope will be a permanent resting place. Thus begins the covenant of marriage–a blended life that we trust will enrich both parties. The ring doesn’t make it happen, but it often reminds us to live in a way that it can happen.
My wedding ring’s value became apparent the week before Christmas of 1995. The recognition itself was somewhat of an achievement because the truth is I don’t really care for jewelry if it isn’t functional. A chain lessens the chance of dragging a tie through the salad bar. A watch helps insure on-time arrivals and departures reasonably close to schedule, though with cellphones always on hand, who needs a time piece strapped to the wrist? I had occasionally worn class rings after high school and college, but I didn’t realize that I wasn’t a ring person until I had one I wasn’t supposed to take off — ever. To me, rings are like footwear–in the winter shoes are okay, but when summer arrives I want to be barefooted as much as possible. So I wear a wedding band because it is important, not because I enjoy it. Back in 1995 I only took it off for two things. When I went to bed at night, and when I played basketball.
The week before Christmas I went to the YMCA for a pickup game of basketball. Upon pulling into the parking lot, I realized the ring was still on my finger. Before getting out of the Blazer, I slipped it off, placing it securely in a little tray on the console. After an hour of running up and down the court I limped back to my vehicle gasping for oxygen, my head steaming like a hot towel in the winter air. My body tingled with exhilaration. I craved a cold Diet Mt. Dew. Life was good! I promptly went home and collapsed on the couch for the evening.
The next morning I departed for the office as usual. At the intersection of I Ave and Main St a certain naked, exposed feeling crept over me. My ring finger was bare. Immediately I remembered where I had taken it off and reached for the console tray. To my great surprise, it was empty! A quick trip back home to look for it yielded nothing. Neither did a check of coat pockets. I even called the YMCA and asked if a wedding ring had been turned in. Their answer of “no” wasn’t a surprise because I knew I hadn’t worn it inside the building. A sick feeling crept over me for two reasons. One, I had no idea where the ring was; two, if I didn’t find it soon, I’d have to tell Judi and the news would be upsetting. Over lunch I spilled the beans. The thought that one of our matching pair, rings we had chosen together to symbolize our love, may be lost permanently was as troubling as I had anticipated.
At 5:00 that afternoon I did the only thing I knew to do. I returned to the place where I had parked the previous night. Maybe, somehow, it had fallen out of the Blazer though that seemed unlikely. The tray was on the right; I exited the vehicle from the left. I wasn’t wearing a long coat that might have dragged the ring out. Looking at the Y seemed pointless but I was out of options. My heart sank as soon as I entered the parking lot. Snow covered that lot the night before. Since that time, someone had dutifully plowed the area to better serve their patrons. I almost didn’t bother to look, but when you’re desperate, you play the long shots. I made a slow pass by where the Blazer had been parked the night before, but no ring was anywhere to be seen. Circling around the end of the row of cars, I headed for the exit when, to my surprise, right by the place I had parked the previous night, was a tiny patch of white that had stubbornly resisted the snow plow’s attempt to escort it to a nearby heap. Delicately perched atop that little tuft of snow was a small golden band. For nearly 24 hours it had rested there, unmoved by the plow and undiscovered by the visitors using the lot.
Sometime life hands us a gift! You may call it luck, but finding that ring felt like grace to me. I was just as married without it as when it was on my finger. But while it was missing something felt out of kilter.
Some 25 years later, history decided to repeat itself. Throughout my working life, when I prepared to depart for the office each morning I would stop by the bedside, kiss my wife good bye, take the ring from a Waterford crystal ring holder on the nightstand and return it to its rightful place on my finger before leaving home. The ring and the kiss were each daily reminders of the covenant that accompanied me throughout the day. That routine changed when I retired. The covenant was no less important, but I no longer left home each morning so I didn’t kiss Judi until she was out of bed. Plus my various projects around the house invariably would snag the ring. On more than one occasion over the years a trip to the jeweler was required to reshape a lopsided wedding band. Maybe it didn’t matter, but I’ve never once heard vows recited that say, “With this oval or with this warped shape, I thee wed.” For better or worse, my retirement practice became one of wearing the ring only when I left home.
One day this past November I rode into Richmond to meet a friend for lunch. My ring went with me. It made the return trip home as well, for I remember walking down the hallway later that afternoon and being mindful that it was still on my finger. I removed it before I went down to the shop in the basement to do the kind of menial project that usually means dirt, grime, and/or minor scrapes to the hand. My mind, which I realize can play tricks, hears the clinking sound made when metal contacts glass as the ring returned to its resting place that day. The following Sunday when we prepared to leave for church I stopped by the nightstand to collect my ring. Only it wasn’t there. So far, I have had no luck finding it. Not under the bed. Not inside the nightstand. Not between the floor molding and the wall. Not in the basket beside the door to the garage. Not in the truck. Nowhere! I feel absolutely certain it is in this house – somewhere – but at this point I’m left to hope it turns up. Again, my finger felt naked, missing the security of a covenantal reminder, especially now that it was not available. Funny and sad how that can be the case with so many things in life!
Meanwhile, my ever enterprising wife contacted my mother to ask if she still had the wedding ring my late father wore. For many years mama wore it on a chain around her neck after my daddy’s passing. Since she no longer wore it, Judi wondered if she’d give it to me. Actually, my mother thought she had already given it to me so wasn’t opposed to the idea. As it turns out, the ring came with a story.
My father was a hard working farmer. When he had a break, he often liked to nap on the couch in the living room. When he stretched out for a snooze, he was known to take off his ring and place it on the arm of the couch. (I guess you’d call that a family resemblance, huh?!) One day it slipped down into the couch and they never found it. At some point he replaced it. Years later after his death my mother had that couch recovered. When the upholsterer returned the couch, he also returned that wedding ring! This Christmas, that ring was wrapped in a box and placed in the toe of my Christmas stocking as the final gift of the season.
I sat there on Christmas day thinking about Judi’s successful sneakiness and the multiple threads that unite in this symbolism. It was enough to make a person’s head spin. The ring is not the same as the original, and I continue to hope my lost ring turns up. Though I’m still not a jewelry kind of guy, it felt good to place that band on my finger and be reminded of a covenant that endures and sustains with or without the accompanying symbol. When I look at it, this ring not only symbolizes our union. It also unites me with the prior covenant shared by my parents, as well as also reminding me daily of my daddy.
This whole ordeal reminds me that we sometimes have to lose something to appreciate all that it means to us. Love. Youth. Friendship. A ring. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it can certainly dull our awareness to the point we are numb to the things we value most. That may be a sign of a privileged life that permits taking things for granted without noticing the cost of doing so. It may indicate a failure to live in the present moment so that we don’t recognize the fullness of our experience and thereby miss the significance of what is occurring. Or perhaps that is just part of the human condition and only our intentional commitment to attentiveness can alter that.
It also reminds me that sometimes we have to lose something to discover the lost thing itself isn’t what is most important. If I never find the original ring, I will forever treasure it. But symbols are never supposed to be just about themselves. Their function is to represent and point to the more important substance, aiding us in our understanding of that to which it points. For me, that something more important is the marriage covenant with my wife. Ever since my Old Testament studies in seminary and the doctoral program, the idea of covenant has been important for understanding the terms and nature of the relationships we keep, and the fact that honoring those relationships is a matter of personal integrity. I suppose that is one of the reasons the people who make it into my orbit matter so much to me.
I intend to guard this new ring carefully. But then again, I would have said that about the last ring. After all, there are some family precedents at play! In any event, it is good to know that the strength of our covenant is stronger than its symbols!