I peered into the glossy box trembling in Sam’s hands. Inside sat an oval-cut diamond engagement ring. Hand-engraved leaves and milgrain edges detailed the rose gold band, while a baguette and two smaller diamonds hugged both sides of the center stone.
The ring was immaculately designed, flawlessly constructed and not at all me. “How did this happen?” I thought. But I knew how this happened. I knew exactly how this strange, stunning, not-really-my-style ring ended up in the shaky hands of the man I love.
Vladimir is a petite Russian jeweler with dark skin, deep-set eyes and an intimidating accent. He got his start in the jewelry industry as a teenager in the Soviet Union, selling rings he made out of walnut shells.
While working under the table — or in the closet, rather — he graduated to more sophisticated heirloom materials like silver birth spoons or gold fillings from the deceased. (In the Soviet Union it was unheard-of to put any kind of precious metal into the ground, so all valuables were left to surviving family members.)
In his 40s, Vladimir immigrated to America, where after a few years of working factory jobs, he opened his own jewelry shop in Chicago.
How do I know all this? Because Vladimir is my father.
When I was a child, Eastern European salesmen smelling of cologne-dipped cigarettes used to bring briefcases filled with treasures to our house. They would lay their spoils on our glass coffee table, delicately handling the pieces as if they were made of phyllo dough.
Using a bottle-cap-size magnifying glass, my father would meticulously examine everything for defects. I did lunges, pirouettes and cartwheels around him — anything to divert his focus back to me.
Those treasures became my biggest competition when it came to my father’s attention.
My distaste for jewelry deepened as I watched Vladimir, the sole provider for our family, wilt under the stress of running his own business. In an attempt to offset my guilt, I began to distance myself from anything frivolous. Like diamonds.
“Why you don’t want to wear it?” my father once inquired, dangling a chunky gold chain with a massive emerald in front of me. “Your neck is so nice for this.”
If it were up to my father, I would be covered head to toe in jewelry; a giant, year-round Christmas tree, twinkling in every room I entered. I prefer to spend money on more practical things, like dental insurance.
His favorite pieces always look like they were designed for Elizabeth Taylor’s earlobes or Audrey Hepburn’s clavicle. Not for a chick who still wears hand-me-downs, stress-picks her nail polish and often forgets to wear deodorant to work.
After I fell in love with Sam, I grew increasingly vocal about my aversion to ostentatious jewelry. “Diamonds are a sham, you know,” I’d say while pinch-zooming the latest engagement announcement to populate my newsfeed. “They’re an antiquated tradition created by Big Advertising.”
“I know, honey,” Sam would reply while reading the actual news.
So you can imagine my shock when, after nearly four years of listening to these appraisals, Sam opened that sleek red box and I was greeted by seven diamonds.
That ring reeked of my father’s deep passion for extravagant design.
“So, um, will you marry me?” Sam asked from his bent knee on our kitchen floor.
It’s hard to remember what I said, exactly, because the excitement of the moment caused my mind to go blank. According to Sam my response was, “No, no … no way.” Of course, my “no, no … no way” was more of an expression of surprise than rejection, but I’m sure it made for an unpleasant few seconds for my sweet man.
Regardless of what I did or didn’t say, my real answer was yes. Because of course I wanted to marry a core-rattlingly hilarious human with a brilliant mind, brighter future and cyclist’s derrière.
The next morning, hungover from celebrating our new relationship status, I stuck my left hand in front of Sam’s sleepy face. “Do you like it?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.
“Sure,” he said, then yawned and kissed my palm. “Do you want noodles? I want noodles. Is that weird?”
I glared at the ring as it twinkled in the morning light. Would Sam notice if I didn’t wear it to noodles? I wondered. You see, when he proposed, Sam was a grad student and I was a writers’ room assistant. The quality and size of my rock did not reflect our lifestyle.
I knew Sam saved his hard-earned money to get me something nice, but I also knew Vladimir bumped it up to something nicer. I wanted Sam to propose with a ring that made sense for two barely employed people — copper wire, some fishing line, maybe a gum wrapper.
As we began to share our engagement news, I found it difficult to go through the ritualistic “let’s see the ring” moment.
“I’m basically engaged to my father,” I said to friends. I made that joke so often that Sam put a cap on how many times I could say it in public. “I’m basically engaged to my father,” I whispered to a bewildered grocery store clerk after Sam had stepped away.
A month later, when we were in Chicago celebrating with family, my father put his arm around my shoulders and steered me away from everyone. “Let’s change the ring,” he quietly offered. A wave of relief flooded my body, and I felt like a monster.
“Why?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“I know you, I see you don’t like it. Let’s change it.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just not something I would have picked out for myself.” I squirmed under the weight of his arm.
“O.K., well it’s no problem to change. I can do it over the weekend,” my father said. It was the first time he’d ever offered to downgrade a piece of jewelry for me. My eyes began to burn with shame, and I let out the smallest of sniffles.
“Oh God, Marina,” my mother said upon entering the kitchen. “You got nothing better to do than cry over a ring? I wish I have your problems.” Before I could react, she grabbed her cigarettes and headed to the backyard.
That’s Olga. Her comments cut like a knife, and she’s gone before you realize you’re bleeding.
That evening, Sam and I escaped the madness of our families to the refuge of a bar we used to frequent when we first started dating.
“Can you believe we’re here, engaged?” he asked, flipping through the beer menu.
“I don’t know what to do about my ring,” I said. “I feel like I’m hurting my dad’s feelings, but why did he even put me in this position?”
Sam shut the menu. “Hey, no. Be here with me now. Look where we are!”
I surveyed the crowded bar. Maybe I should ask strangers for their objective opinions? I thought.
But after swallowing a couple of drinks and, consequently, my anxiety, our conversation moved on. A few hours later, as we walked out into the crisp Chicago night, I suggested we visit another haunt of ours: the nearby 7-Eleven.
“Give me your ring,” Sam demanded.
“Just give it to me.”
I cautiously slid the ring off my finger and handed it over. Sam’s eyes glimmered under the streetlights, and his nose turned red. The immeasurable warmth of the moment created an indestructible snapshot within my memory; in this snapshot Sam slowly drops down to one knee and holds the engagement ring up in the air, making it sparkle in the light of the 7-Eleven sign.
“Marina, will you marry me with this ring? The one I proposed with, the one your father designed for you?”
Then something unbelievable happened: The ring changed right in front of our eyes. Standing there in the middle of West Buena Avenue, Sam and I watched as the ring melted into my finger and became a part of my bloodstream. (I told you it was hard to believe.)
When the ring reappeared, it no longer looked like a flashy status symbol but more like an extraordinary token of promise.
The next day, when I told my father I wasn’t going to change the ring, he delicately took my hand and angled it toward the window. Beams of light exploded from the center diamond.
“There’s no other ring like this, you know,” he said, admiring his work. My eyes widened as the ring morphed again. This time, it became a goodbye present from a father to a daughter.
To this day, the ring continues to shape shift. One day it’s an accessory, the next it’s an investment. It’s a beginning, an ending and a reminder to accept the love you’re given. Every time I tilt the ring toward the light, it becomes something different, but still, it shines all the same.
Marina Shifrin, the author of “30 Before 30: How I Made a Mess of My 20s and You Can Too,” is a TV writer in Los Angeles, where she lives with her new husband, Sam.
Rites of Passage is a weekly-ish column from Styles and The Times Gender Initiative. To read past essays and for information on how to submit one, check out this page.