Bill Long 2/10/05
Exploring the Sources of Personal Identity
One of my most recent acquisitions of personal property is a gold-plated ring, almost 90 years old, that belonged to my maternal grandfather, Rudolf Vontobel. He was born in this country in 1901, of German immigrants, made it only through high school and then went to work in the laundry industry after WWI. My earliest memories of him from the late 1950s (I was born in 1952) are when he owned the Woodside Laundry in Stamford, CT. I remember occasionally going to work with him on Saturday mornings at the laundry and trying to find interesting places to hide or explore among the presses, irons and hanging clothes.
He was from that generation of Americans who believed that having a new car nearly every year was a sign that one had "made it" in America. In 1959 he obtained, as part of a deal selling his laundry, a 1959 Pink Imperial which was, for the day, "loaded" with accessories. It had a tilt steering wheel, mirrors galore, seats that moved at the press of a button and even an air conditioner. I remember perching myself on the middle seat between my grandfather and grandmother and asking him to turn up the air conditioner full blast during the summer months. He would happily comply with my request, even though grandma repeatedly issued dire warnings about catching cold in the middle of summer.
He was an avid card player, and each weekend when I visited he and I would play our games of rummy or war, and he always found a way to let me win. His favorite line, when urging me to start the game was, "Lead on, Macduff, and don't make it too tough." I didn't know it at the time, but he was quoting (or misquoting is more accurate), in a Mark Twain-like fashion, Shakespeare in Macbeth, when he says, "lay on Macduff,/ And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"
My grandfather died late in February 1963, even before I reached my 11th birthday, and it was the first time in my life I remember confronting the painful reality of death. I didn't do too well in that instance, I think. Grief is a hard topic for a child then as it is now, and no one was around to interpret to me what I was feeling. Death was not then, nor even 18 years later when my own father died, a subject that my family easily discussed.
I knew that my grandfather had a special ring which he wore daily on the ring finger of his right hand. It was a gold ring, with a large face, on which was inscribed in cursive letters "RV." But the cursive lettering is so elaborate that you can see an "R," a "V," a "W" and even several other possible letters in the "RV." I could almost imagine a "WRL" (my initials) there, though my son solemnly tells me that there is no "L" inscribed on the ring. On the smooth underside of the ring is a date. It reads "10/22/1?," with the last digit being undecipherable to me, even though it looks like it could be a "7." If so, the ring was probably a birthday present for him when he turned 16.
When I was visiting my mother in Jan. 2005 she offered the ring to me. I had lost track of it for the 40 years since my grandfather's death, but she hadn't. I never was one for wearing much jewelry (no chains dangling from my neck), but I immediately slipped on the ring and strangely felt something like a surge of energy through my body when I put it on. It was too big for my ring fingers, but fits my middle finger just fine. My grandfather as well as my father were men who knew the rigors of daily physical toil for many years of their lives, and they had massive hands and thick fingers. My hands, in contrast, are those of a mandarin, despite being blessed with a larger and stonger physique than either of them. I have taken an immediate liking to the ring, and now I wear it everyday. In a way that it not so strange at all, it connects me to a part of my heritage that I don't want to forget.
Connecting with Other Images
The ring is a third in a three-fold cluster of family images that play an increasingly larger role in my life. Earlier I wrote about a painting of my maternal great-grandfather's younger brother, who died in his youth during the Civil War, and how he who left no legacy now has the biggest legacy for me, because his painting survives and is in my mother's home. I also wrote about a picture taken by my older brother's wife of the four "Long boys" in a carefree moment in 1974 or 1975 in the back yard of my parents' home in CA. I learned early in life, from the Scriptures, that a three-fold cord is not quickly broken. So these three images form a cord tying me to my past and to my family and to good and strong people whose life was over (my great grand-uncle and grandfather) ere mine was really beginning. But now mine is in my full flowering, and I can't help but think that I am stronger and wiser, more rooted to this earth as well as more yearning for eternity, because I wear the ring, study the painting and see the picture. I wouldn't mind wearing this ring and studying these pictures each day for the rest of my life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long