How I Proposed to My Girlfriend

I asked my girlfriend to marry me on Ash Wednesday. It was an accident—not the asking, the timing. The asking had been on my mind for the better part of two years. From almost the beginning of my relationship with C., I had known that I would someday propose to her, and, for almost as…

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I asked my girlfriend to marry me on Ash Wednesday. It was an accident—not the asking, the timing. The asking had been on my mind for the better part of two years. From almost the beginning of my relationship with C., I had known that I would someday propose to her, and, for almost as long, both of us had talked about the future in terms that made it perfectly clear we planned to share it. But unless your partner has spent years dropping hints about a Caribbean beach at sunset or you are in sudden need of a shotgun wedding, there’s no obvious moment to ask someone to spend the rest of her life with you, a fact that had become clear to me long before that particular Lent rolled around.

In my defense, I will say that I was, at least, prepared. Feeling quite confident that C. would not want a conventional engagement ring, yet hoping to give her something meaningful from my family, I had called up my mother the previous autumn to discuss the options. She was thrilled to hear that I was planning to propose, but she laughed out loud when I asked if her own mother, my grandmother, might have left behind anything appropriate in her considerable jewelry collection. My mother told me that I was welcome to look, but that she couldn’t imagine I would want any of it, and belatedly I saw her point. My grandmother had been exceptionally glamorous in her day; she had Amelia Earhart bravura and Elizabeth Taylor looks, but, although she was about as patrician as a middle-class Jew could be, her taste in jewelry ran to things that could be admired from down the block. My mother was right: there was no way C. would be caught dead in any of it. I was still registering that reality and thinking about other options when my mother said, quite serenely, Why don’t you give her Daddy’s wedding ring?

My father’s wedding ring: the last time I had thought about it was while my father was in the hospital, dying. My mother, warned about possible swelling in his hands, had preëmptively removed it and put it in her purse. It was identical to hers, and unusual. Although my parents were not remotely bohemian, they had gone in search of something unique when they’d decided to get married, and had settled on broad gold bands with a distinctive cable-like engraving. When I was young, I thought they looked like little crowns; as an adult, I found them somehow both ancient and Art Deco. Now I pictured C. wearing the one from my father—not as a ring but as a necklace, the V of it falling just below her collarbones—and could not imagine anything more perfect. I hadn’t thought to wonder what my mother had done with it since my father’s death, but it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps she had kept it in her purse all that time, or started wearing it herself, and I worried out loud that surely she must want to keep it. No, she replied, I want C. to have it, and I know that Dad would have wanted that, too. I called up my sister, concerned that she might want the ring for herself, or simply not want it repurposed. There’s nowhere else I’d rather see it, she told me.

My mother brought the ring to me that Thanksgiving, our first without my father. All throughout that difficult holiday, it sat in a little blue box in my luggage, its solitary state redolent of loss, its essence redolent of union: of my mother and father, of C. and me, of my past and my future, of the family that had made me and the family I was making. When I got back home, I took it to a jeweller to pick out a necklace to go with it. My father had worn it continuously for forty-nine years—at work and at home, in the car and on public transit, while raking leaves and grilling hamburgers and taking out the trash. He had been twenty-four when my mother put it on him. He was seventy-four when she took it off. Life had grown on it, grown into it; for as long as I could remember, the grooves of the pattern had been charcoal, the surface a flat deep bronze. But while I was browsing, the jeweller polished it, and when he handed it back my eyes filled with tears: it looked as it must have when my parents first saw it, the color of midmorning sunshine.

For months afterward, I kept that ring with its new necklace in my desk drawer. I was waiting, I suppose, for some kind of magically right moment: the right mood, the right occasion, the right location, the right weather—in reality, I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but it seemed to me that I would recognize it when I found it.

Then, that February, C. and I both came down with one of those dreadful winter colds, the kind that make you miserable in part by making you disgusting. We had low-grade fevers and deep racking coughs and seemingly endless quantities of mucus; when we woke up in the mornings, the sheets were clammy and our eyes were encrusted with microbial goop. By the third night, we felt too lousy to make dinner, or even remain upright at the table. Instead, we sat in bed, eating ramen, surrounded by used tissues and the empty capsule packages from cold meds. I felt exhausted and achy and unable to swallow and also, quite suddenly, overwhelmed by the desire to ask C. to marry me. Outside of early childhood, I had never wanted to be in someone’s company when I was ill. But I wanted to be in C.’s company all the time, even when we were both objectively repellent. I looked at her and felt a wild flare of adoration and gratitude and tenderness and even, improbable and impracticable as it was under the circumstances, desire. In sickness and in health, I thought: here at last was someone I knew I would cherish through both. I had just enough wherewithal to look around and keep myself from blurting out the words. Granted, I had never planned to go down on one knee in a rose garden in Paris; still, I realized, anything short of a trip to the landfill would be a more romantic way to propose than this. And so instead I touched her feverish cheek and blew my nose and, with difficulty, held my tongue.

I suppose it was partly the effort of doing so that caused me to propose when I did. Some weeks had passed. We were, at the time, in the middle of a top-to-bottom D.I.Y. renovation of our home, and, that particular afternoon, we were upstairs in the guest room, laying new flooring. Eventually, C., who is a devout Lutheran, stripped out of her jeans and work shirt, went to take a shower, and emerged transformed, beautiful and a little bit solemn and dressed for church. I kissed her goodbye at the door and went back upstairs to inspect our progress. Almost half the floor was done; I figured I could probably finish by the time she returned. I took a new batch of boards into the adjacent room, which we’d turned into a temporary woodshop, and trimmed them down to size. It took maybe three minutes. Then I walked them back into the guest room and set them down on the subfloor and, in that exact moment, it came to me that I must ask C. to marry me when she got home.

The force of this feeling propelled me out of the room and into the shower. I scrubbed the grime and sawdust from my body, feeling clear and excited and nervous and ebullient, like something that had long been contained and was now on the point of release, a dove in a box or a horse at the post. Afterward I got dressed as if I, too, were going to church, and went downstairs to make dinner. We had pasta in the pantry, onions and tomatoes on the counter, fennel and feta cheese in the refrigerator; together, they went into a soup pot to simmer. I had just set the table and lit a candle when C. walked in the door, a cross of ashes on her forehead.

I admit, until that moment, the ecclesiastical calendar had been the furthest thing from my mind. I knew that C. had gone to church, obviously, but I hadn’t for a moment stopped to think about why. Now, looking at her, I suddenly felt alarmed: although I am about as secular a Jew as it is possible to be, I would not have proposed marriage on Yom Kippur. She, meanwhile, hadn’t noticed anything unusual about me or about the evening—and why would she? I had simply showered after working on the floors, as she had done, and made us dinner, as I often do. We sat down to break her Lenten fast, and for the second time in a month I found myself wondering over a bowl of soup if I should put off asking her to marry me. Meanwhile, C. asked about the flooring and talked about her evening, and then told me a story about another Ash Wednesday service some years back, one that she had helped lead. After the sermon, a little girl had come up to the altar with her mother, belatedly grasped the point of the occasion, and, just as C. bent to make the mark of the cross on her forehead, there in the solemn hush of the sanctuary, hollered at the top of her tiny lungs, “I don’t want to die!”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The candle flame bent double, then straightened up again. The world moves with our laughter, with our breath, with our grief, just not very much. The firelight fell on C. as in a Flemish painting, setting her loveliness against the dark. I had in my pocket a wedding ring that six months earlier had been on my father’s hand. I did not want to die, either. I especially did not want to die without telling C. that I would always love her and wanted to marry her. I did not want to die without being married to her, for forty-nine or seventy-nine or preferably a thousand and ninety-nine years. Deathbeds, sickrooms, a smudge of ashes on her brow: I would wait forever, I realized, if I waited until suffering and sorrow were nowhere to be found. We had finished eating; I led her into the living room and sat her down beside me on the couch. When I asked the question, I found myself so overcome by emotion that at first I didn’t even hear her answer. But it was the right one. In our household, the meal I made that night has been known ever since as proposal soup.

This essay is drawn from “Lost & Found: A Memoir,” out in January from Random House.

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