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That airport morning, after I checked in for my Boston-bound flight, I had time for a café breakfast. For once, I could take my time completing the mandatory U.S. Customs Declaration form.
Usually, on every trip back from my native Ireland, I completed this form with my mind on dimmer switch, inserting names and ticking boxes while also texting my siblings a last goodbye.
But that morning, I was dreading Question 15, asking the total value of all goods I was bringing back to the United States.
At my café table, I unzipped my carry-on backpack to check for the jewelry box that, two hours earlier, I had tucked into a white sports sock. Inside that box was my late grandmother’s engagement ring.
The night before, over the traditional goodbye dinner that my four siblings jokingly call “your American wake,” we decided to finally divvy up my late mother’s and grandmother’s jewelry. I got Grandma’s ring. It had long lost its diamond, and on one side, the gold band had separated from the setting.
Just how much is a 98-year-old ring worth?
As I nibbled on my eggs and toast and fried blood pudding, Question 15 sat blank as my brain ticked and clicked, Wheel-of-Fortune style. $30? $100? $500? Just how much is a 98-year-old ring worth?
As in many rural households, our maternal grandparents lived with us — a three-generational setup that wasn’t without its adult quarrels and silent grudges. But for us five kids, it brought a daily feed of history and songs and stories.
One of my earliest memories is of Grandma pulling a flannel pajama top over my head. I’m sitting on her lap and her tweed skirt itches my fat toddler legs. In a later scene, we’ve all moved off the farm to the nearby village, where I’m a moody teen in a navy-blue school uniform. In her gossamer white hair, Grandma persists in calling me “Nan,” her childhood nickname for me and her personal antidote to the surliest teenage pout. Her octogenarian's eyes sparkle with mischief as she whispers: Ach, you know what I always say about you, Nan? Your bark is much worse than your bite.
But mainly I remember her telling stories, hands looping and cutting through the air for dramatic emphasis.
Her octogenarian's eyes sparkle with mischief as she whispers: Ach, you know what I always say about you, Nan? Your bark is much worse than your bite.
My favorite story was how, at 19 years old, she got herself engaged. It was circa 1916, at the zenith of World War I and, closer to home, Ireland’s long and bloody struggle against British rule.
To uphold the law and keep the peace, the British had appointed a troupe of Irish recruits, including my grandfather. These policemen, called the Royal Irish Constabulary, were often regarded as traitors by the local Irish.
As a young rookie cop, my grandfather was stationed at a rural outpost over five hours' from his childhood home. There he met a girl who was pretty as a picture, bold as brass and game to date across the political divide.
They talked of marriage, but he was dispatched to a city barracks. How could he propose without incurring my great-grandparents’ wrath or outright forbidding?
My grandfather found an accomplice. He mailed the ring and a written marriage proposal to the girl who worked at our village post office, not his sweetheart. Then, on a seemingly innocent girlfriend outing, the post office clerk slipped the envelope to my grandmother.
Six years later, in 1922, the Constabulary was disbanded as British rule as replaced by the newly minted Irish Free State. So Grandad hung up his British uniform to become a small-time farmer on his wife’s family farm.
Grandma wore her ring as she birthed each of her 11 children, including my mother. She wore it as she waved goodbye to each of her four American-bound siblings, and, a generation later, her two British-emigrant sons. She wore it at the graveside of her 16-year-old-daughter and, later, her husband. She wore it as she teased me, nicknamed me, dressed me and told me what to look for and avoid in a suitor.
New or old, scared or bold, here’s what every immigrant knows: Lying to the U.S. government is a stupid move. So there at that airport café table, in bold, black ink, I declared what I hoped was a plausible value for an old, broken ring: $200.
Seven hours later at Boston’s Logan Airport, I joined all the other trans-Atlantic travelers at the luggage carousel and then in the queue for customs.
When it was my turn, the uniformed man glanced at the green card I then held, my passport photo, my sleepy face. Then, he scanned my completed customs form and that place where I declared that, except for a gift item of $200, I was not carrying any “commercial merchandise or articles for sale.”
With a flick of his head he waved me through, a middle-aged woman with a suitcase and a backpack and, inside, a priceless inheritance.
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