My Grandmother’s Ring

Left, Anne Homkes on July 4, 1944, on the beach at Lake Makatawa in Holland, Michigan. Right, the ring Anne's granddaugher, Erin K. O'Neill, inherited.

It’s small and gold and is set with precious green stones. I doubt they are real emeralds. It catches on all my T-shirts. But despite its destructive power it almost never leaves my right ring finger.

I wear my grandmother’s ring every day.

My grandmother, Anne Homkes (née Anna Kooistra), was awesome. She was born in 1920 on a farm in Iowa. The oldest of eight children, her father gave her the option of going to high school or getting married. Anna Kooistra decided to go to high school and boarded with an old woman who only spoke Dutch.

My grandmother put herself through college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She read Hemingway. She graduated from Calvin College in 1942. She taught elementary school and got married in Holland, Michigan. An ambitious woman with a career and a family right after World War II was almost unheard of.

Anne Homkes would have never identified as a feminist.

As progressive as my grandmother was for her time, she stopped progressing after about 1958. When I was younger she seemed horribly conservative and backwards. She could be close-minded about social issues, and she really hated that my mom and I didn’t go to church every Sunday. I never actually told her I’m an atheist. I didn’t understand why she was the way she was. Sometimes her disapproval was more than my sarcastic middle school self could stand. I thought she lived in a bubble, and I was disdainful of it.

When I started college I began to understand the sacrifices she made for her education. She wrote me letters. I occasionally responded.  But, it took being on my own to really learn to respect her.

In a letter dated Nov. 24, 2007, I wrote:

“I wanted you to know how very much I admire you and your accomplishments. To be a woman who is smart, ambitious and successful is difficult enough today – to go to college and have a career and a family when you did 60 years ago must have been much harder and required more fortitude and bravery . . . I find strength in the history of the women in my family – from you and what you gave your daughters and the values of education and strength you have installed in them, and by proxy, myself.”

I sent it weeks after I started it, and she never read it.

She died of a series of strokes following knee replacement surgery before my letter arrived. It was Finals Week and I presented my senior capstone project on the day of her funeral.

I wear her ring to remember that there are strong women in my family who, despite differences in religion, politics and lifestyle, I aspire to emulate. These heirlooms come from Anne Homkes, née Anna Kooistra – the farm girl who became a college graduate and teacher – my grandmother.

– By Erin K. O’Neill

Erin’s story is a part of our series called “My Favorite Things,” in which writers identify an item they love to wear.