This story takes place in The Before, as in: before the house we live in now, before this dog, before these kids. This story begins not with me losing my grandfather’s ring — which had been his grandfather’s — but with me standing on the stoop of a very plain postwar ranch house, in a neighborhood of well-kept but very plain ranch houses, with my father. “You know,” he said to me, “you could put the deck out here.”
“What,” I said, “in the front?”
“Sure,” he said. “It could wrap all the way around over there. Cut it off at a 45 and build a wide set of stairs.”
This is what I had time to do in the Before. I built what absolutely had to be a 400-square-foot deck off the front of that house, cantilevered it around the stoop and up to the screened-in side porch, made an eight-foot-wide staircase that the old dog really liked to hook her paws over, and called it a porch. There was even a trellis. I did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself, but no amount of squinting could make it look like anything other than a massive backyard deck sailing through the front yard.
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Still, I set about to beautify it. I transplanted two huge azaleas from under the bedroom window to anchor a corner that ended up being four feet off the ground. I broke a shovel, in a rainstorm, digging them out — and cut to: me, standing in line at a big-box home improvement store, covered in mud, holding a brand-new shovel. Old one broke? said everyone. Ha ha, said I.
I also bought a bevy of little gallon azaleas to anchor the big ones. I remember pretty clearly that they were $2.99 each, but that doesn’t seem possible, so maybe all of this is suspect. The deck, though, the last time I drove by, was still there — flying a pirate flag, which delights me, but that isn’t part of this story. That’s only proof of concept. But let us say that I bought 20 azaleas — $60 seems an amount of money I could have plausibly spent on a thing like that. Let us say that I planted them all, and all along the front of the pirate porch.
Let us say that at some point later that night, I noticed that my grandfather’s ring was gone.
The author’s garnet ring is a family treasure, passed down from his great-great-grandfather: Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather received it upon the deaths of their fathers. Drew’s grandmother saved it and gave it to her grandson when he graduated from high school. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
This is the ring that my grandmother gave me for my high school graduation. I barely knew my grandfather. He died when I was 3. The ring is a beautiful object, simple, unassuming, a faceted garnet set smooth-side-up into a barely embellished gold setting. Engraved on the inside of the band are my grandfather’s initials, WDM, and mine, ATP, along with the date of my graduation. It’s something that’s quite precious to me, and to my mother. And it was gone.
This was during a phase of my life when I wore the ring all the time. I spun it around my finger while I taught class, I messed with it while I wrote, I kept it on while cooking, and I wore it, stupidly, even to plant gallon azaleas. I searched the house, though I knew where it was. I told my neighbor, who, although he did not present as a person possessed of front-yard-deck patience, was actually blessed with an abundance of same. He offered a metal detector. He offered to help dig. He offered, eventually, the solution: He would build me a foot-square sieve.
I unplanted all but three of the little azaleas over the course of a long morning. I found quarters and deck screws and many grubs and worms and half of a child’s plastic bucket and, just as my despair was cresting, I found the ring. Maybe, in retrospect, it’s not such a miracle, but at the time, it felt like my grandfather had perhaps intervened to help his foolish grandson out a bit. My neighbor was delighted, though I think maybe more about his sieve working than anything else. I replanted the azaleas. I changed my ring policy: never again while landscaping. I called my mother to tell her the story.
Walter Dixon McKay, pictured with the author as a baby, was better known as Dandy to his grandkids. He died in 1978, but his cherished ring has helped the family keep his memory close. Drew wore it at his wedding, just like his grandfather before him. Photography courtesy of Drew Perry
When we moved, I took two of the little azaleas, which even then bloomed a kind of pink so fierce that they looked, at peak, plugged in. I planted them, while not wearing the ring, at this new house, and they have grown into the Now: a now of kids and a near-doppelganger of that old dog and of time flashing by so quickly that one spring often blurs into the next. But when the Dandy Azaleas bloom — that’s what they’re called, because Dandy was what the grandchildren named my grandfather — I always send a picture to my mother. The Dandy Azaleas are blooming, I tell her. The pictures don’t come close to doing them justice. They’re so pink that they change the color of the light coming in through the window.
It’s a moment when she and I can remember a man I didn’t really know, but someone who, by all accounts, would have been very on board with a backyard deck in the front yard. Maybe he shows up all through this story. Maybe he helped my dad help me decide to build a pirate ship. Maybe he helped my neighbor learn to love it in spite of himself. Maybe he helped me leave the ring where I could find it again. And I know he helped me take those two azaleas — all of the Dandy Azaleas could not possibly convey from the old house to the new one. I think of him every year when these two huge bushes, as large as the two that broke my shovel, blaze their way through one more spring.
He’d have loved you in that checkout line, my mother tells me. He’d have loved that. He’d have stood, covered in mud, right there with you.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.