A friend of mine recently got engaged after many years of a fulfilling and active life as a single person and entrepreneur. She plans a casual wedding with a few close friends and seems unconcerned about the wedding dress or an engagement ring, which she and her fiancé will shop for together when there is time between her business trips. Her lack of concern about getting a ring on her finger to symbolize this upcoming rite struck me as I remembered a visit I paid a few years ago to one of the historic Tidewater mansions outside of Richmond, Virginia, Shirley Plantation.
In this house, which has been looming over the James River for 400 years, the daughters of the family had a tradition of etching their names and the date in a particular window pane with their diamond rings when they got engaged. The docent informed those of us taking the house tour that they did it to ensure that their suitors’ diamonds were genuine because only a real diamond can cut glass. Presumably the girls, or more likely their fathers, would have sent the future husband packing if the diamond turned out to be a fake, preventing him from entering into an alliance with one of the most powerful families in the state under false pretenses. These etchings can still be seen today, reminding us not only of the longevity of the window glass and the family’s roots in Virginia, but also of the triumph of those young women in achieving what was for them a critical life goal.
Though she grew up in Virginia not far from Shirley Plantation, my friend is unlikely to test her diamond on the pane of a New York apartment. Though her love life and career path have been rocky at times, I know she is grateful for the opportunities she has had to explore the boundaries of relationships and geography. Her ring will symbolize only one of many personal goals sought and achieved, and in the wisdom gained through her experiences, she knows what the real thing looks like.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.