Mom, Aunt Rose, and Bonnie Raitt

On the way to the Bonnie Raitt concert in Columbia, South Carolina, we stopped in to visit my Mom, who lives in a memory care unit of a local senior facility. Mom still knows me and calls me by name, for which I am grateful, but she has no short-term memory. It is like spending time in a parallel universe with a lovely, pleasant person who physically resembles my Mom, displays some of the same qualities of kindness and optimism, but who talks about an alien life we didn’t share. I nod encouragingly when she states that we lived in Hawaii. That she went to high school with Glen, one of the male residents in her unit. And that she will “have to tell Tom when she sees him” about the painting she made in arts and crafts.

Tom is my Father, who died six years ago.

Our visits are always weirdly cheery, due to my locked-down compartmentalization of the fact that I am likely looking at my future, but on the morning I was heading out of town for the Bonnie Raitt concert, Mom insisted on taking off a “good” ring she was wearing and giving it to me. I didn’t want to take it since I would be staying overnight in a hotel, but Mom was very distressed and became increasingly agitated when I offered to pick it up later in the week—so I just slipped it on the middle finger of my right hand where it more-or-less fit and thanked her. I told her I would take good care of it.

The ring was from my Mom’s Irish Aunt Rose Gallagher, one of my grandfather’s cousins. Probably the ring’s gemstones weren’t of stellar quality, but the white gold setting was unique and charming; the three larger diamonds were arranged in a skewed yet graceful vertical row. My mother wore it always. I liked it precisely because it wasn’t symmetrical or perfect—like the beauty in life, which is not often arranged in a way we would expect. I found myself looking down at it during the three-hour trip to Columbia and smiling. It was a little loose on the middle finger of my right hand but I made a fist.

Here is what I remember about Aunt Rose. She would come in from her New York City apartment on the Long Island railroad to join our family at my grandparents’ Long Island home for a big Sunday dinner outside on the screened-in porch. She could usually be coaxed to sing “Danny Boy” after dinner and she had a clear, vibrant soprano that gave me a lump in my throat at the age of five when I couldn’t have possibly known what that song was all about. Dad would have to drive her back into the city after dinner and sometimes I would tag along, riding in the rear-facing seat of our old Chevy station wagon. She was a buxom woman who displayed outstanding cleavage—and she loved me in spite of the fact that once at the dinner table after she hugged me, I announced to the family, “Aunt Rose, I really love you, even though you have a fanny in the front.”

Aunt Rose died when I was in elementary school; I recall being in the third or fourth grade. My parents were the closest relatives; they were tasked with cleaning out her apartment in the city. My father rented a trailer to haul her Steinway upright and her color television set to our home on Long Island, along with other treasures she had left our family. My brothers and sister and I played hide-and-seek using the apartment’s elevator while Mom and Dad packed.

Dad was not a precise or patient packer. The piano bounced around in the back of the trailer and shattered the color TV. Dad, too, was crushed—with four children under 12 to support, he had only one black-and-white TV that featured snowy reception and erratic, static-y sound. For sure, the Steinway took a few hits, too. But it was ours. It was one of the first uncomfortable experiences I can remember of holding opposing emotions—profoundly sad about Aunt Rose, but ecstatic to have our own piano. I wondered if I might be able to pick out the melody to “Danny Boy” one day.

            I credit my Mom wholly for the effort to procure and retain the piano—and it was an effort. Especially three weeks later, when the roaches that inhabited the piano infested our home. It is possible that I overheard my Dad wanting to “just get rid of the thing,” but my Mom persevered, tolerating the disgusting invasion with grace and multiple cans of Raid.

            All of this has nothing to do with going to see Bonnie Raitt, except that it was what I was thinking about on the way. It’s funny how a physical thing—in this case, a ring, but often a scent, and to me, especially, hearing a particular song—can flood your mind with unbidden memories.

            I wore my Mom’s ring to the concert. I was afraid to leave it in the hotel room.

            And the concert was, to succumb to a cliché, amazing! My husband and I have always loved Bonnie Raitt’s music, but this was the first time she was within driving distance, live, in South Carolina. Bonnie’s voice resonates on a powerful, emotional level. I’m sure she could sing the shit out of “Danny Boy.”

            For several hours, we clapped and danced and stood up and cheered and whistled and got teary and reflective and, well, probably exhibited a full range of feelings based on Bonnie Raitt’s incredible, passionate performance. When the concert was over, I took my husband’s left hand with my right as we wove through the dense crowd to get to our car in the parking lot; he uses a cane for stability with his right hand. It was dark, of course, but the ground was riddled with potholes and not well-illuminated at all. It might have been drizzling. Perhaps this is my exaggerated recollection. My husband squeezed my hand more and more tightly as we navigated haltingly to our car.

            I can’t remember when I first noticed the ring was gone. Was it when I was pulling on my seatbelt? When we arrived at our hotel and I reached into the back for our overnight bag? I only know I shook out my clothing and went through the entire contents of the car with a sick heart in the parking lot of a Hampton Inn well after midnight. My husband asked if I thought it came off when he was holding my hand in the parking lot, and I said I wasn’t sure. Look, honey, I told him—it’s totally my fault. It could have flung off while I was applauding. When I washed my hands in the restroom. When I repeatedly jumped to my feet in the audience to dance and plunked myself back down in my seat. He vowed we would go back the next morning in the daylight before driving home so I could walk the parking lot in search of the ring. Which we did, to no avail.

            Because this is not a Hallmark movie script, no one will read this and return my Mom’s ring to me. But the fact is—and I suppose this is a testament to the music of Bonnie Raitt—I just can’t view that entire evening as a terrible, awful night. I feel the loss deeply, obviously, which is why I wrote this unpublishable, stream-of-consciousness essay.

            But Bonnie Raitt’s concert poster hangs framed in our house. Now, whenever her Angel-from-Montgomery voice comes on the stereo, I can’t help but immediately recall that night in Columbia when I lost my mother’s ring. The memory stabs at me but I feel no pain. Because, oddly, I can also hear the clear, pure voices of my Aunt Rose and my Mother, both of whom are lost to me now.