Once upon a time there was a shop girl and a wealthy man who fell in love. The shop girl was well past her socially acceptable sell-by date and, for that matter, so was the wealthy man. She sold (chocolates) (neckties) (flowers) and their paths crossed one rainy afternoon when he ducked inside the shop where she worked to escape the downpour.
"May I help you?" she asked in her shades-of-Brooklyn accent as he strode toward the counter.
"Have supper with me," he said in his shades-of-Bermuda accent, "and then I'll tell you."
They were married two weeks later.
Six months after that he died.
You probably know the rest. This is one of those urban legends that have been told and retold in as many languages and with twice as many variations as Cinderella. The poor little timeworn shop girl was suddenly a wealthy widow living a life she'd imagined only in the darkness of the local movie house as she munched popcorn and dreamed of the roads not taken.
But this time the story is true.
The shop girl's name was Ann and she was my Grandma Bess's aunt and rumor had it she owned a burgundy velvet pouch filled with emeralds.
I've told you about my Grandpa Larry and his fifth and last wife Bess. Bess was a widow with a young son, a tony woman who came from the right side of the Brooklyn tracks and married very well the first time. (Think Radio Shack connection, okay?) She and Grandpa Larry (my mother's father) met when he was on the rebound from my Grandma El (my father's mother) in 1953 and they married in 1954. Which happens to be the same year Grandma El married Grandpa Les in retaliation.
I was way too little at the time to know or understand what was going on beyond the fact that I seemed to have more than my share of grandparents. Three of each, if my count is right -- not a bad thing at all for an only child.
Anyway, Grandma Bess was part of my life for as far back as I can clearly remember and she was every bit as much of a grandmother as the ones I'd acquired through blood ties. She was a wonderful needlewoman whose stitching and knitting and crocheting projects always elicited well-deserved praise from anyone lucky enough to receive a finished object as a gift.
(Please remember that last paragraph.)
Time passed and we were fifteen years down the road. I was a madly-in-love newlywed, living with her airman husband in the wilds of Omaha, Nebraska a million miles from home.
We were poor. Oh boy, were we poor. Dead broke, for that matter. We barely managed to scrape together enough money each month to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. But we were young and in love and believed with every fiber in our bodies that love was all we needed.
And then Grandma Bess's Aunt Ann in Bermuda died and left one-third of her estate to Grandma Bess. The pouch of emeralds? Yep. Grandma Bess had full possession of them. I know it sounds like another urban legend but my mother got to see and touch them one Sunday afternoon and subwayed back to Queens in a state of advanced dazzlement. This was one urban legend that wasn't a legend at all.
So imagine my excitement when Grandma Bess phoned me to tell me to make sure I was home later in the week to sign for an insurance package that was heading my way. "It's not a big parcel," she said with a chuckle in her voice, "but I think you'll like it."
The emeralds!! I was dead sure of it. Everyone knew we were flat broke. I mean, we got down to three dollars in our checking account on more than one occasion. Grandma Bess had peeled off a couple of emeralds, wrapped them up, then sent them my way. A couple of emeralds wouldn't be missed, right? And what a difference they could make to us.
You can probably imagine the dreams I dreamed the next few days! We could pay the rent and the phone, buy groceries at the commissary, and have money left over to gas up the car and do it all over again the next month.
"Don't get your hopes up," my mom warned me on the phone the day before the package arrived. "Bess has a son and he has a wife who would look very good in emeralds."
But I wasn't listening. Or if I was listening I simply couldn't hear. I knew in my bones that our fortunes were about to change the second the mail carrier showed up at our front door.
Cut to the next day. My hand shook as I signed for the package which, to my dismay, seemed way too big to hold a couple of precious gems. Then again that could be clever camouflage on Grandma Bess's part to keep jewel thieves from sussing out the contents before they reached Omaha. I cut the string. I tore open the brown paper wrappings.
And I found an afghan.
A beautiful afghan -- all yellows and oranges and rich browns, my favorite colors at the time -- but an afghan just the same.
I steadied myself and took a deep breath. Okay. This is just another clever ruse to hide the emeralds. I luck into a fabulous afghan to keep the prairie winter at bay =and= some emeralds to boot.
Except there were no emeralds. My gift was the beautiful afghan and a tender, loving note.
But no emeralds.
I loved the afghan but I'd be lying if I told you that my eighteen year old self was anything but bitterly disappointed. I had never thought of myself as a materialistic sort (it was the late 60s after all) but I had to struggle to appreciate the time and love that went into the afghan and put aside the thought of the beautiful green stones with the hidden blue flame.
Years later when Grandma Bess was dying I helped her sort through some of her belongings. The Hummel figurines, the Wedgwood, the Baccarat crystal that had once graced her Aunt Ann's palatial home in Hamilton, Bermuda. side. Old letters and postcards. Stacks of finished needlework and afghans exquisitely stitched by Grandma Bess. And yes a faded burgundy pouch with six square cut emeralds bumping up against each other.
I don't know what happened to the emeralds but I have the letters and the cards, the needlework and the afghans.
I wouldn't trade them for the world.