I'm not much of a jewelry guy. This is not due to any false machismo line of thinking that real men don't wear jewelry. On the contrary, my wife's family is full of tall, heavily muscled real Italian men wearing jewelry that would make Mr. T jealous. I am not about to tell a group of modern day roman gladiator mobster types that they look girly wearing a gold necklace nestled in their chest-hair. No way. I like life without concrete boots thank you very much.
My aversion to jewelry is more... pragmatic. I have a tendency to lose small things. Since jewelry is usually both expensive and small, it doesn't make a lot of practical sense for me to invest in something that I'm highly likely to misplace at some point. Therefore most of my high-end, big-ticket purchases tend to be physically large to ensure I'm able to keep tabs on their whereabouts. To prove this point, think about this. Since I was sixteen years old I have owned eight vehicles. I have never lost one of them. Bu the keys to those vehicles?
Misplaced many, many times.
But there are two pieces of jewelry I own that are very precious to me. Both are rings. The first is, obviously, my wedding ring; that tiny slip of gold and metal that a man is supposed to guard with his life because his wife will take it as a keen insult that your marriage means so little to you that you'd lose it. It's that small reminder to all other women out there that you're off the market. Yes ladies, you can relax, I'm wearing a wedding ring as proof that someone else already gave up the will to live and settled on me for a spouse, and that there really are worse things than being single.
The second ring was given to me just three years ago. I was reminded of this recently by Facebook of all things. I got one of those reminders on my page of an event that happened on a recent date three years ago. It was a picture of me and my wife's grandfather, Gene, on the day he gave me the ring. The picture shows me sitting next to Gene, the ring proudly sparkling on my right hand.
It's hard to believe it's been three years since that day.
We had got the call from my wife's grandmother that she wanted to have everyone over for a big, extended-family, Sunday dinner. My father-in-law, his brother, and both families would be coming. Gene had recently returned from his latest stint in the hospital and his health was improving ever so slightly. It was one of those days where everyone went to spend time together, reminisce over old times and smile. While everyone also tried their best to ignore the somber pallor that hung in the air. That sad, silent knowing that, in spite of the fact that Gene was in good spirits and better health, this might be the last time to spend the day with him, and we should enjoy it while we could.
While we were there, the grandparents sprung it on us that Gene wanted to pass along his jewelry to his surviving family members. It was his desire to see us wearing the items he wanted us to have before he passed away. One by one the men of family had their names called, they went forward and Gene handed them a small box.
It should be noted that Gene is not my grandfather, but my wife's. Therefore I sat quietly, pleased for the sons and grandsons of this man I deeply respected at this moment they could share. I was happy to be a spectator only because I know that, though Gene never made me feel as though I was not one of the family, I was not, in fact, his blood.
So I was very surprised, shocked even, when my name was called.
I don't know that I have ever felt so guilty, or such an intruder. The feelings only increased when I opened the box I was given and I saw that it was Gene's ring given to me. Not just any ring. It was the ring that everyone referred to as "Grandpa's Ring".
Each of his sons and grandsons received expensive, beautiful, wonderful jewelry. Gold bracelets or rings with more diamonds in them than I have ever seen in one place. Obviously I felt no expectation of anything, as I said, I was there as an invited guest, spectator only.
While Gene had lots of nice jewelry, he had one ring that everyone knew him by. The ring he wore everyday. The ring all the grandkids remembered him wearing when they would sit by his chair twisting and spinning the tiny diamond setting. And by some odd twist of fate, he and grandma had decided to pass it to me, a son by marriage.
It was not long after that Sunday, that Gene was checked into Hospice. Shortly after that, late one evening I drove home alone, my wife staying with her grandfather that night. It wouldn't be long we were told. My wife's father and grandmother left Hospice for a few hours to get showered and some fresh clothes before coming back for the night. My wife wanted to stay with him, even for those few hours - just in case - because she felt no one should be alone when they passed. Certainly no one's death should be so lonesome when their life was cherished by so many. As I stepped into the house that cold, fall night my phone rang. It was my wife. Her words were simple, her voice broken and tremulous.
"He's gone," she said.
The ring is strong and sturdy, simple but elegant. Like Gene himself, it's not flashy. It is a gold band that encases a square, onyx stone. The onyx is cracked, which is no surprise really. Gene was one of the hardest working people I have ever met, the ring merely displays the marks of his life of labor. Within the onyx is a small diamond setting. The ring is beaten, battered and worn. But this does not diminish its beauty. On the contrary, each crack and scratch is a reminder of a man who spent his life working to provide for the family he loved. Each dent merely enhances the rugged beauty of it. In contradiction to the typical way value is placed on possessions, where each scrape lessens the value, each dent on the ring only makes it more and more precious to those who loved and admired the man known to wear it everyday.
Gene was very similar to the ring actually. He was strong, stable, and not flashy. He was sturdy and reliable, the sort of man you could count on in a pinch or to be somewhere when he said he would be there. Much like the ring that's more valuable than it looks, he was not the sort of man to display his worth for all the world to see. I'm reminded of the quote from the book "The Millionaire Next Door" that spoke of men who looked rich but were, in fact, poor. The quote says men like that have: "Big hats, but no cattle."
Gene was the sort of man to wear small hats, while possessing many cattle.
He wasn't showy like the modern day peacock of a man with flashy suits, shiny sports cars or big, gaudy houses. He wasn't a loud sort of guy either, like a firecracker going off in a trash can, proclaiming his virtues, accomplishments or opinions. He was quiet, reserved and calm. He wouldn't be the sort of person to stand up and give a grand speech that moved thousands an inch. No, he was the sort of man whose quiet, steady life moved those who knew him well miles in the right direction. Gene was like a boulder beside the ocean, unmovable and steady, the sort of thing you rely on, build your life on; wind, water and sand could pummel him, but he would not be moved.
Age was his only weakness, time the only thing that could defeat him. That can hardly count against him. Time is, after all, the great leveler and no matter how we run it eventually catches and overtakes each of us.
I called him Gene-O, a name that came from a story he told me years ago. That was the name a group of hookers called him everyday when he came by to deliver soft drinks to a local dive of a hotel on his route with his Dr. Pepper truck. They would cat call out to him, calling him Gene-O as he passed on his way, and for some reason the name stuck. He and I shared a good laugh about that story, and it's one of my fondest memories of him.
Gene-O always made me feel welcome. I can't imagine what a shock it must've been for him when my wife brought me to the first family Christmas all those years ago. Gene-O was a man's man, and he seemed to me to be an expert in everything that made a man a man. Growing up in the suburbs, the only child of a single mother, it's safe to say I didn't know much about being a man. I'm still surprised at his patience with me, especially in those early years. How difficult it must've been for him to not laugh me to scorn when I asked stupid questions, or made foolish comments about things I should have known. I was the sort of kid who would say: "Work boots? Why would I need work boots?"
He was the sort of man who would say: "Who doesn't have work boots?"
Gene-O wouldn't be the guy you'd turn to if you had a problem with your smart phone. He had no need of such frivolities. If I had told him years ago I would write a blog post about him, he'd say: "Blog? What's a blog? Sounds like something you'd scrape out of a toilet."
As I said, Gene-O seemed to know something about everything. Everything from fixing a leaky faucet, balancing a checkbook, saving for retirement, to getting along with people. No one had anything bad to say about Ol' Gene-O Barnes. Men would meet him for the first time and walk away with the utmost respect for him.
He was sly, witty and charming. He almost always wore a mischievous grin, the sort that said he saw a joke in something you missed, but he wasn't going to tell you. Or that said he'd just set a prank in motion that would come ripe in a few minutes and, like a child on Christmas morning, he just couldn't wait for the payoff. When baling hay in the summer heat he would roll up the bottom of his t-shirt, proudly displaying his round belly in a pose we all now affectionately call: "The Grandpa".
He loved his wife, his kids, his grandkids and playing cards. His favorite game was Pitch, and most of my fondest memories are of learning to play Pitch with him and "The Uncles". The Uncles were my wife's grandmother's (Gene-O's wife) brothers. I would sit for hours with Gene-O, Uncle Carl, Uncle Joe, Uncle John, and learn the vast intricacies of Pitch, while they shouted and carried on with each other, regaling me of stories from their childhoods. Occasionally they would shout at me for the heinous crime of throwing away the off jack (a Pitch specific thing) as I was learning the game. But it was all in good fun, and it was amazing to be a part of such camaraderie.
Since his passing Pitch has never been the same for me.
But Gene-O was good for more than just a fun game of cards. Right after I bought my first house, the bank told me I had to paint it within thirty days of closing. Right after closing I had the joy of impacted and infected wisdom teeth and I had to have them removed via surgery. I remember coming home from surgery, doped and drugged to pass out on the couch, worrying how I would get the entire house painted in time. There was a knock at the door, and who was on the front porch steps but Gene-O, paint brush in hand, out to make full use of his retired schedule and paint the house for me I was to invalided to do myself. He rolled up his sleeve, and his shirt and got to it painting most of it before I was up and about two days later.
I could talk to Gene-O and ask him anything. I'd tell him what was going on at work, problems with people and projects and he would sit and listen. I would quietly ask him his advice and he would sit silent for a moment before speaking. Invariably he would, in just a few short words, drop some mind blowing truth on me that helped me see how best to handle the situation. He taught me the value of hard work. I remember he said to me once: "What you do from 8-5 is how you pay your bills. What you do from 5-9 is how you get ahead."
As a kid who firmly believed in the power of sitting on your butt and watching TV and playing video games, it took me a while to see the profound wisdom in a diligent spirit. But he remained patient with me, never insulting me or putting me down for something I should have known already. He taught me the value of loving your wife, working on your marriage, keeping a sense of humor when life is hard, being a father, being a man and the value of an awkward silence when bartering.
Truth be told, it's Gene-O's wisdom I miss the most. One of the greatest injustices of this life is that it takes years to gain wisdom and experience. By the time you have it and you can share it and teach others, you are old, and younger generations no longer value you. Thus experience and wisdom die too often with the elderly. I regret the years it took me to change my own worldview.
How much more Gene-O could have taught me, had I been ready and willing.
I know it's presumptuous to write a post about a man who was not really my grandfather. The best I can do is borrow him for my own. I do not know my Dad's parents, he was an orphan and grew up in foster homes, but his family says enough about the sort of people they must have been. My mom's father died when I was very young and, by all accounts, his death was perceived as an act of Karmic justice, a leveling of accounts long overdrawn and past due.
I don't wear Gene-O's ring everyday, mostly because I don't feel worthy of it. I wear it on Sundays for church, and special events and family gatherings. Also anytime I do a big business deal I wear it, out of an almost superstitious belief that somehow the ring will grant me some of Gene-O's wisdom and bartering prowess when I need it most.
But when I wear it, I'm reminded of the man who bequeathed it to me, who wore it before me and the sort of man he was. The sort of ever increasingly rare breed of man the world seems to no longer value. The sort of men who loved their families, quietly going about life living for them, serving them, providing for them, staying faithful to them. Gene-O was one of those.
Most of all the ring is a constant reminder that if I somehow manage to turn out to be half the man Gene-O was, I'll be doing alright.