Margaret Renkl: I give thanks for the family matriarchs

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Nashville, Tenn. • Whenever I’m nervous, I find some sort of amulet to drop into my pocket. A buckeye. A feather molted from a blue jay’s tail. The river rock my middle son always called a “worry stone.” The spent egg sac from a praying mantis. A seashell from my mother-in-law’s grave. I hold onto what’s in my pocket the way an anxious baby clings to a beloved blanket at bedtime.

When I was about to give my first talk at a gathering of English teachers, my department head tried to reassure me. “Rule No. 1: Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “Rule No. 2: It’s all small stuff.” That was more than 30 years ago, and I’ve lived long enough now, and buried enough loved ones, to know that in fact it’s not all small stuff. Yet I still find myself fixating on matters that are indeed very small: the fancy wedding for which I have no suitable clothes, the thank-you notes I should’ve written by now. And the worst, by far, is the prospect of standing in front of a microphone.

Last summer, facing the first book tour of my life, I understood that no seashell or blue feather would carry me through two dozen public events. I needed a security blanket more potent than any I’d ever before clutched in my sweaty hands. Then, for reasons that aren’t at all clear to me — reasons that in retrospect feel like an outright miracle — I thought of the family wedding rings.

Seven years ago, in the hospital where my mother was suddenly dying, I took the wedding band from her finger and slipped it on my own. At first it was simply a way to keep the ring from being lost in the shock and tumult of unplanned grief. But I’ve continued to wear it, year after year, because it means what a wedding band is supposed to mean. Like the ring my husband gave me 31 years ago, it’s a reminder of love and fidelity — of my parents’ unshakable love for each other, but also of their love for me, as reliable as any immutable force.

I’m the keeper of other family rings: my great-grandmother’s, my grandmother’s, my mother-in-law’s. From time to time I would take them out to ponder for a moment, but I never thought to wear them. Along with my mother, these women are at the very heart of the essay collection that was about to send me out on a book tour, and one day it finally dawned on me that their wedding rings would make the perfect talismans against fear. They would remind me that worry is pointless, that fretting about my own shortcomings as a public speaker would not in any way make me a better public speaker. I took out the wedding rings of all my treasured forebears and put them on.

In what might be another minor miracle, for we are clearly in the realm of magical thinking here, it worked. I stood in front of microphone after microphone, spinning the thin bands around my fingers, and I looked out upon all those strangers, and, lo, I was not afraid.

Full disclosure: It’s possible that menopause, which has fostered an “Oh, who in hell really cares?” attitude in me for some time now, may have dispensed with my lifelong stage fright, too, and I just never noticed, having been on no stages in recent years. But I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.

I think of them again in this season of family gatherings, when heirloom recipes and holiday decorations are time capsules. I fiddle with their rings, which I’m still wearing, and remember the women who taught me what it means to face genuine hardship.

I give thanks for my great-grandmother, Ollie Mims, whose steadfast faith and unflinching calm got her through the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II and countless family losses, including the death of her own son. I give thanks for my grandmother, Mildred Weems, who taught in a two-room country schoolhouse because my grandfather’s farm never quite paid the bills. When the schools in Lower Alabama finally desegregated and everyone she knew, including my grandfather, urged her to retire, she ignored them all. “A child is a child,” she said and kept on teaching.

I give thanks for my funny, creative mother, Olivia Renkl, whose laugh was so infectious that friends and strangers alike would laugh out loud in response, never suspecting the depressions she endured all her adult life. I give thanks for my mother-in-law, Marie Moxley, who raised six children and still welcomed me into the family as a full daughter. For 18 years she weathered Parkinson’s disease without a word of complaint and set an example of dignity, forbearance and love that no one who knew her will ever forget.

Every family history includes such stories of survival, of prevailing against great suffering and despair. Perhaps these family histories, small as they might be and utterly invisible to the world, hold the key to facing our larger worries, too, and showing the way through.

“Your hand feels just like your mother’s hand,” my father would tell me when I was still young enough to be holding his hand but already old enough to be growing into a woman’s hands. I look at my hand now, my mother’s ring on my finger, and I know what he meant. My hand is broad now where hers was broad, wrinkled where hers was wrinkled, and the same knuckles are just beginning to swell.

Margaret Renkl is a New York Times contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

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