This is the story of a ring — not like the Lord of the Rings, “My Precious,” and all that — but sort of an heirloom my Aunt Celle always wore.
Because this is the story of her ring, I think you should know a little about this woman, who made her own way in the world, eventually marrying for the first time at age sixty-six.
Aunt Celle was my grandmother’s younger sister, which meant she was actually my great-aunt, and her real name was Lacelle.
Grantsville, West Virginia, where Celle was born is not a large place. Despite being the seat of Calhoun County, the population was just 561 in 2010, 99% of them white.The 2000 census figures show a fairly high percentage were poor (20%), and according to Google Maps, there’s a Dollar General, a chain frequently seen in poorer, rural areas. However, a 1942 history of the town indicates it was once a busier place, boasting five barbers and three doctors!
By that time, however, the Lang family was long gone, having moved to a farm on Road Run in Troy, Gilmer County. Aunt Celle’s father, Thomas Jefferson Lang, not only farmed, he also was a RFD (Rural Free Delivery) mail carrier, first as a contractor and later as a government employee. (As an interesting side-note, RFD actually began in West Virginia in 1896, though not in Calhoun County.)
For a long time, I assumed Great Grandpa delivered the mail by horse, but my brother Sam corrected that misperception, telling me Grandma once said her dad did the route by mule because the terrain was too steep for horses.
According to Sam, Grandma said sometimes the mail was early, and sometimes it was late. It all depended on how the mule was feeling that day.
Lacelle was one of six children, preceded by Leone Catherine (my grandmother), Harold Clare, and Fay Dorrette, and followed by Thomas Jefferson (always called Jeff), George W — likely George Washington Lang after his Uncle and, of course, the first president — and Darlette Kay.
From these names, you may think the Langs had a propensity for interesting names, and you would be right. Grandma named her children Merlin and Mescal Jean (always called Jean, and no wonder!).
The 1930s visited tragedy on the family when Fay, who was a nurse, died of tuberculosis at age twenty-four in 1933. The thought of one so young dying so shockingly young brings tears to my eyes.
Meanwhile, Celle continued to live with her family until she was at least thirty, working as a maid in a private house in 1940. This fact, which I only just discovered, makes me wonder. Whose house? Who was rich enough in West Virginia in 1940 to employ a maid? And what, exactly, would that maid be expected to do? Aunt Celle worked nearly 60 hours in the week before the census, so they obviously expected a lot of effort for her pay!
Leone married my grandfather, Everett Byrd, in 1925; Harold married Everett’s sister Alma Bird in 1930 (the Byrds/Birds seemed to spell the name however they felt like it, even in the same family); and in 1941, George married his wife Alah in Summit County, Ohio.
Grandma once told me Aunt Celle told her she never married because she never met a man as good as my grandpa.
I’m not sure whether to be intrigued by this tidbit or not. Is there some hidden story? Or was it just a sweet compliment? We’ll never know, but it should be noted this was well before Aunt Celle met and married Teddy Peters.
But, let’s get back to the plot of this tale.
As you can probably imagine, there was little work available during the Depression, and West Virginia was hit particularly hard.
My mom told me my grandfather worked digging ditches to support his family during the depression, and the 1940 census confirms this saying he was “assigned to public emergency work” as a “laborer, road work.”
It’s not surprising my relatives’ efforts to find better jobs left them scattered.
According to family lore (which I have not yet confirmed), Uncle Jeff rode the rails as a hobo during this time, eventually marrying at least once, maybe twice, and finally ending up in Florida.
Harold and Alma went to California sometime after 1940
And I’m not sure who followed whom, but Celle, my grandparents, father and Aunt Jean ended up in northeastern Ohio, not far from George.
Another family tragedy occurred in 1954 when Darle died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. My mom said she went out to her dad’s barn and shot herself there with his shotgun. For some reason, I think she was my father’s favorite aunt, and I remember him saying something about her being told she had some kind of illness that couldn’t be cured. So she shot herself.
These are the memories of someone who was very young, so I may be completely wrong.
Whatever the reason, she was far too young to feel so desperate — only 36.
Back in Ohio, Aunt Celle remained single, finding work in Massillon at Eaton. My memories are scattered, but I know she lived in a converted garage, where my siblings and I would visit.
On the slender side, she frequently wore floaty nylon scarves around her neck, which sounds rather more fashionable than it appeared to me.
Of course, I was a child, so what did I know?
We liked visiting because Aunt Celle would take us out to dinner at exotic restaurants — like Burger Chef and the PDQ (“Pretty Darned Quick”). When my younger brother picked, it was always PDQ because they had hot dogs, but I preferred the milkshakes at the burger places.
My aunt spoiled us in her own way, but like many single people, she had definite ideas on how children should behave. I distinctly remember her scolding us for slurping those milkshakes.
Eventually Celle bought a house, where I believe my cousin (her grand-nephew) still lives. For a single woman who came of age during the Depression, this was quite an accomplishment!
I remember my Uncle Mac telling us how Massillon prohibited burning trash, but not having weiner roasts. He went on to explain that when Aunt Celle wanted to burn paper goods, she would stand outside and roast a hot dog over the flames.
I can so easily picture this, and the thought always makes me smile.
When I was sixteen when Aunt Celle married, and that same uncle kept teasing that he was going to call her and her new husband up on their wedding night, just to see how things were going.
Like me, Aunt Celle was born in February, and she had an amethyst ring with a deep purple stone that she always wore. She once told me someone asked if it was a particular kind of old-fashioned stone, and from her answer to him (which, of course, I can’t remember), I got the impression she’d purchased it for herself. She said she would leave it to me, and that promise felt like a special link between us, the two family members who shared a birth month.
However, after she married, Aunt Celle and her new husband (who I remember as being very nice) moved back to West Virginia, and I rarely saw them.
She returned to Ohio sometime before her death in 1994, but by that time I was always working at least two jobs and experiencing drama in my own life. Then I married and became pregnant with Darling Daughter.
These are poor excuses for not visiting someone who was so kind to me as a child, I know.
After Aunt Celle’s death, I certainly didn’t pine for the ring (“My Precious!”), but from time to time, I wondered what had happened to it, eventually concluding that it had probably gone to one of her other, more deserving, nieces who actually visited her.
Now, here’s the Christmas magic.
Last night, I met some friends for dinner, including one I’ve known since high school. She eventually became a stepsister when my dad married her mom, so we have a long and storied relationship.
While we were eating, I saw she was wearing a ring similar to my aunt’s. I mentioned the one Aunt Celle used to wear that she’d promised me, and kind of joked about how you should be careful what you say to kids because they never forget anything.
Reader, I had not seen Aunt Celle’s ring in a very long time and had no idea it was the same piece of jewelry. My stepsis was also born in February, and I thought someone had bought her a birthstone ring for her.
After we ate, she took off the ring and handed it to me.
I was speechless — which never happens.
In fact, our other two friends joked that they needed to take a picture because something finally shut Kym up.
“I’m pretty sure this is your Aunt Celle’s ring,” Stepsis said. “I found it in the bottom of one of Mom’s boxes when we moved her.”
When she showed her mother, my stepmom had no idea where it had come from.
Ponder on the generosity of this gesture for a moment. Stepsis could have easily kept the ring for herself. I would never have known, never questioned where it came from.
She didn’t. She gave it to me because she knew I would treasure it and remember Aunt Celle every time I look at it.
Now, I will also think of Stepsis, her honesty, and her unselfish gesture.
Aunt Celle’s ring,
with my father’s class ring on the right.
Later, I tried to calculate how long ago Aunt Celle made that promise, and my best guess is forty to fifty years ago.
Was the ring in that box of my stepmother’s for twenty-five years?
Probably not, since she had no memory of it. Certainly my dad was the conduit, but he’s been gone for sixteen years, and we can’t ask him.
So, here ends a story of an heirloom, Christmas magic, and a stepsister/friend’s generosity.