CASH POOR HEART RICH

Ten years after breaking my engagement, I made good on the ring I never returned

Our bank account was minus $50,000. Scanning the spreadsheets my husband Dan prepared, it was clear our Brooklyn mortgage and elementary-school tuition for our four kids left us little cash for groceries, or nights out. Eating cold spaghetti at our makeshift dining table, I blamed our crisis on a ring gathering dust in a safe deposit box, damaging our financial karma.

I still regretted how I had broken my engagement to another man more than a decade before. I’d abandoned him abruptly, crying into the phone about how I wasn’t ready to settle down in the suburbs. He had paid $2,500 for a ring I meant to return, but never did.

By the time I met Dan, an artist who shared my Jewish roots, I had forgotten about my bad breakup and leftover jewelry. As we grew serious, I pictured Dan painting masterpieces while I paid our rent with my practical technology career. Under the chuppah, Dan slipped a plain gold band on my finger.

Then, our financial stars misaligned. I lost my job the week after our wedding. I’d dreamed of motherhood since I was seven, but felt hijacked by exhaustion and nausea when I got pregnant right away. I showed up for interviews with a bulging belly, but was never chosen. Our daughter’s arrival gave me purpose, and I bore three more children in quick succession.

Juggling my schedule, I consulted part-time while Dan went corporate, climbing the proverbial ladder. Yet our debts grew. Lying awake at night, I heard Rabbi Lazar Brody, a white bearded old man, wagging his finger at me: “All the crying and chest-beating in synagogue on Yom Kippur can’t rectify the crime of one unreturned potato.” I imagined giving my ex the money for the ring would solve our problems.

The few times my husband and I had enough cash, I couldn’t ask. No one had helped my husband buy me a diamond. It was bizarre, but the question plagued me: Was it fair to repay an old debt to my ex-fiance with my spouse’s paycheck?

On our tenth wedding anniversary, I decided to finally confess my unfinished business. Armed with a fresh pot of coffee and a Duncan Hines cake, I approached Dan, worried what he’d think of me. Yet, no matter what else we’d tried—budgeting, couponing, scrimping on everything—our mortgage remained just out of reach. I felt sad when I considered leaving our tightknit city neighborhood for somewhere cheaper.

“Remember how I was engaged a few years before we met?” Dan looked up. “I never returned the ring.”

“Many people don’t, I guess,” he said, gripping his mug.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I think it’s the source of our problems,” I told him. Staring at the coffee’s oily film, I reached for milk.

“That sounds superstitious,” Dan said, shaking his head at my twisted thoughts. “Whatever you want to do, I support you.”

Days after I maxed out our last credit card to buy groceries, Dan received surprise extra cash when his company was sold.

“Pay your ex back,” he told me the night the funds cleared our account. I Googled his name and found a tech blog with an address. I’d assumed my old flame was living a happy suburban life with the pretty blond wife I’d seen on his website, while I couldn’t get along with my husband or find full-time work. Guarding the small white envelope, I walked to the mailbox on our busy corner and sent the check.

When my ex confirmed he received the money, he didn’t seem angry about the 15-year delay. Instead he wrote a touching letter, revealing his wife’s cancer battle, as he worked and raised their two sons.

“How nice to hear from you. Just two days ago I was sharing stories of our adventures in California with a friend. Funny how the collective conscience works. It’s very kind of you to have remembered about the ring.”

His sad news brought clarity. My husband and I were broke, but healthy. I let myself feel closer to my Dan, suddenly aware of his consistency, and sacrifice. Dan was available, making supper and reading bedtime stories. When a better paying job appeared, I grabbed it. Then, after tearing up our last credit card, we took our kids out for ice cream. The kids finished their cones in a sugar trance. “Thank you for everything,” I said, smiling at Dan. He winked back, but said nothing. With the ring-guilt resolved, I felt grateful for the kind, generous man, who gave me the right ring I now wore.

You can follow Amy on Twitter at @AmyYedidaWolfe. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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