Abby and Nic Brown with their daughter, Frances, at their home in Oxford, Miss.
I have the good fortune of being born into a family that well documents its past. My mother still has the receipt from the hotel in New Orleans where my grandparents spent their wedding night. She has tax returns from the forties. Checkbooks from three generations ago. Christmas cards that were mailed early in the last century. Artwork, furniture and jewelry. There's a whole attic in North Carolina filled with this sort of thing. And though I know it's a blessing to have these artifacts preserved and in good hands, none of them has ever been as much use to me as one letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother more than half a century ago, just after he proposed marriage.
I'd never seen this letter until the summer of 2004, when I was living in Manhattan with my girlfriend, Abby. We'd been there for years. She had a great job managing part of a high-end European art gallery, but I – well, I was a drummer. I know, I know. It was a decent enough job, though, albeit one that usually required long hours in a variety of dingy studios. And we lived in a fifth-floor walk-up in Hell's Kitchen. Thank God we were young.
At the end of the summer we were due to be leaving New York City, though, because I was going to graduate school. And much to my pleasure, Abby had decided to come with me, which means that not only was she dating a drummer, she was going to quit her job and move with me to Iowa (yes, Iowa) so I could attend grad school for – of all things – fiction writing. My career prospects as a drummer looked rosy in comparison.
Now I know a good thing when I see it, and Abby was a good thing. A very good thing. Probably too good of a thing, if we're going to be honest, and I understood I'd better propose soon. And I wanted to; God knows I did. I just had no idea how to do it. I had no idea with what to do it. And I had no idea where to do it.
Then I got hired by RCA Records to live and record in a mansion.
It sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. The house – Glen Tonche – was an honest-to- God mansion. It was a 35-acre Tudor estate atop a mountain in the Catskills with more than 19 bedrooms, great halls with 60-foot-high vaulted ceilings, a heated swimming pool, a tennis court, a support staff, and a well-appointed art library. It had recently been converted into a recording studio, but the hallways still bore the old paint from when they doubled as shuffleboard courts. David Bowie and Norah Jones had recently finished albums there. And now I was going to live there, for the summer at least, where I'd be fed by a chef and play drums for a few hours a day until we left for Iowa. I'd never live in splendor like this again, and I knew it – this was surely the place to propose.
I called my mother to discuss my plan, and she said, "I have a ring." What she really meant, I think, was that she had about a dozen rings stashed in the family vault, but the one she mailed me was my grandmother's.
The ring arrived in the Catskills a few days before Abby was scheduled to visit. It was lovely, but of equal interest was the letter my mother included with it. It was a note that my grandfather had sent to my grandmother just days after he had used that ring to propose to her, and in it he outlined the history of the diamond, tracing it back to an unmarried uncle of his, concluding that ". . . a diamond like this can have only one destiny: to sparkle upon the finger of a fair lady."
A nice touch, I thought. Very nice. I folded the letter and put it in the drawer of my bedside table. I'd show it to Abby after I proposed, but I had to get to that point first, and it still wasn't clear exactly how that was going to happen. Abby would be with me for several days, I had a ring, and a mountaintop estate, but beyond that I had no real plan of action. Something, I told myself, would arise.
I put the ring in my pocket when I drove to the train station to pick her up. On the way, I thought, maybe I'll just do it right there, get down on a knee and ask. But then I saw her and I couldn't. Not because I didn't want to, but why do it at the train station? I had a Tudor estate at my disposal; I should use it. But then we got back to Glen Tonche, and I still couldn't do it. I just couldn't find the right moment. This went on for days, days when I carried the ring in my pocket and never took it out.
Finally, on Saturday morning – the last full day Abby and I would be together – I awoke before dawn. With Abby asleep beside me, I silently retrieved my grandfather's letter and read it, looking for inspiration. And it worked: I had an idea. I'd let Abby read the letter, claiming it was something my mother had recently shared with me on a whim (which, in our family, was believable), and then, later, when the right moment presented itself, I could say, "Remember that ring you read about?" and I'd pop the thing out.
So when Abby awoke I showed her the letter, and as she read the words of my grandfather, I watched them enact some type of magic. Abby's eyes began tearing up, and by the time she reached the "sparkle on the finger of a fair lady" line, I knew that this, right then and there, was my chance. In a rush I grabbed the ring.
"And here it is," I said, opening the box. "Will you marry me?"
The tears that had been welling up in Abby's eyes suddenly disappeared.
"Oh my God," she said, in complete and utter shock.
"Uh, that's not what I was looking for," I said.
"My God," she said again, even more emphatically, and took the ring into her hands.
"Still not quite . . ."
I worried that maybe the words of my grandfather had led me astray here, that perhaps his eloquence was such that, in comparison, I was only a disappointment, what with my proposal coming while I was still in pajamas, yet to even brush my teeth. But then, looking up, Abby said, "Well, yes, of course," as if it were silly to actually even have to say it.
The poetry of an ancestor helped me convince the woman I love to marry me. Those family archives couldn't have been preserved for a more noble cause. But I'm happy to say that neither the ring nor the magic of my grandfather's words has returned to their dusty attic home. Because these days Abby is the keeper of that letter and ring, and its diamond does sparkle, indeed, right there on the finger of the fairest fair lady I know.