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Globe Magazine

Diamonds are whatever

My mother and I disagree about the stones’ importance.

Gracia Lam

Don’t talk to me about diamonds. My eyelids will droop and my toes will itch; I may even sprint out of the room. I know I’m supposed to be fascinated by them on some level, but I haven’t discovered that level.

I definitely didn’t inherit my disinterest in diamonds from my mother. She’ll giddily discuss carats, settings, and emerald-cut versus, uh, other kinds of cuts, until the sun goes down. My mother has stories about diamonds, ones she tells with verve. There was the ring her dying friend Helen — the wife of a San Francisco jeweler — left to my mother in her will. And her own engagement band, whose stone sprang from its setting during a tetherball game in Denmark, Maine, in the 1970s, never to be seen again. A decade later, she arrived home from London to find a pendant twinkling on her pillow, a surprise from my father.

When my boyfriend and I decided to marry, it didn’t occur to either of us to purchase an engagement ring. This greatly puzzled my mother, and she needled me about it until I finally gave in and slunk alone into a jewelry store on 47th Street in Manhattan on my lunch break. I emerged with a gold wire bearing a teensy sapphire and two microscopic diamonds. I especially liked the gold coils flanking the invisible gemstones. More than 20 years later, I still have the jeweler’s card with the $250 price scrawled on it. I had mixed feelings about buying my own engagement ring. At the time, my boyfriend was living in New Haven and I was in New York. We were paying off student loans and neither of us had much money. It seemed easier for me to procure the ring without bothering him.

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I felt some pride in the way I’d skirted convention, but that was slowly corroded by shame. I’d succumbed to a tradition that had very little meaning for me — and my boyfriend had played no role in this transaction! I knew Tom cared for me; he just wasn’t a romantic, and neither was I. Every time someone noticed my false engagement ring — which, frankly, wasn’t often — I felt mortified. I was such a fraud! Eventually, with relief, I stopped wearing it.

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For my mother, acquiring diamonds meant arriving squarely in the middle class. She grew up during the Great Depression, one of four sisters in a cash-strapped household. She still remembers sharing a single can of Campbell’s soup with her family for dinner. As a college student, she sold her blood for pocket money. But I grew up in a very different time. We had all the Campbell’s soup we wanted, and feminism had entered the culture in a big way. At Brown University in the early 1980s, my friends and I were reading Andrea Dworkin, vowing never to change our names. Engagement rings were far from our minds.

In recent years, my mother — who is 86 — has been divesting herself of her jewelry. She’d replaced her engagement ring and gave it to my sister, Anne; I got the ring Helen had left to her. I was touched, but it wasn’t my style at all. It had a yellow gold band with a raised setting: pretty, but, well  .  .  .  boring. I asked my mother if she’d mind if I had it redesigned; she said she didn’t. On the contrary, she was very, very excited.

Last fall, I was at the Lost Baggage desk at Logan Airport, waving my hands around while complaining to an exhausted British Airways staffer about my misdirected suitcase. She nodded wearily, then her eyes flew like laser beams to my left hand. A smile lit her face. “I can’t help it,” she gushed, “but your ring is just so sparkly, isn’t it?” It certainly is. I must admit that it’s growing on me.

Mary Granfield is a writer living in Belmont. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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