My father grew up in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression, in a house so close to the next one that once, when a spark ignited the shingles, a neighbor simply jumped from his roof to my father’s and stamped out the spark.
Despite the general hard times, my grandfather had a modest, steady income, and my grandmother’s somber economies provided for the family’s needs with some carefully considered extras: one very good suit for my grandfather, books for the two boys, and a few nicely made dresses for my grandmother.
When my father was small, a relative gave him a gold ring. With most of my grandparents’ attention fixed on the flashier, more sociable older brother, it took awhile to realize that the gold ring was getting tighter on a growing boy’s finger until it couldn’t come off with any household treatment—pulling, twisting, soap or soaking the boy’s hand in ice water.
After some discussion of the probable cost, my grandmother took my father to the neighborhood jeweler and had the ring cut off. For some reason, my father was allowed to put the now C-shaped ring in his pocket for the walk home.
My grandmother must have been closest to the street, firmly holding my father’s hand. I picture him with his free hand fingering the ring in his pocket, the smooth sides, the rough cut. My grandmother isn’t paying attention, perhaps thinking how the gold could be melted down, or rejoined for an eventual grandchild. A flash catches her eye. My father is tossing the gold into a mound of green beans. She screams. The green grocer rushes out. She’s a regular customer, and he’s as outraged as she is at the wanton waste. The two of them, with my father forcefully recruited, tediously go through the entire mound of green beans, with rising intensity demanding of the unrepentant boy: “Why did you do that?”
My father can only say that he figured the ring wasn’t good anymore. “But why throw it in the green beans?” He doesn’t know. They look everywhere: under the tables, all over the sidewalk, even in the squash. No ring. My grandmother is furious, more so because of the boy’s placid refusal to provide an answer to the logical question: “But why throw it in the green beans?”
In fiction, I’m sure, there would be a motive, but years later, my father couldn’t say. Sometimes real people just can’t tell you why.