Jim Bradshaw: Jewelry store always kept its promise
During the 1940s, novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes wrote a column that was circulated through several newspapers. In one of them, she told a touching story centered on the Krauss jewelry store which once stood in downtown Lafayette, and on simple wedding rings that were sold there.
We remember Keyes, who died in 1970 in New Orleans, for a handful of books based in south Louisiana, but she got here by a a circuitous route. She was born Frances Parkinson Wheeler in 1885 in Charlottesville, Virginia, but moved to New England after her marriage in 1904 to Henry W. Keyes, governor of New Hampshire from 1917 to 1919 and its U.S. senator from 1919 to 1937.
She did a good bit of traveling after his death in 1938, and fell in love with New Orleans. She bought the old Beauregard House in the French Quarter in 1950, restored it, and used it as her winter home for the next twenty years. (It’s now a museum.)
Even before that, she made forays into south Louisiana to do the meticulous research for which she is known. During a 1942 trip to Lafayette she met Mary Alice Fontenot, journalist, historian, and creator of Clovis Crawfish. Keyes’s 1957 novel “Blue Camellia” about the rice industry is dedicated to Mary Alice. Her “suggestion that I should visit a rice mill,” Keyes wrote, “and … subsequent helpfulness, hospitality, confidence, and affection sowed the seed which resulted in Blue Camellia.”
Lafayette became “one of my favorite places,” Keyes wrote in that 1940s column, and one of her favorite places in Lafayette, “strangely enough,” was “a jewelry store which does not seem, at first, to be remarkable. … It sells the same sort of thing as any shop of its type in any other small city; silver forks and spoons, cream pitchers and sugar bowls; brooches, pendants, and wrist watches.” But, she wrote, plain gold wedding rings known as “alliances” set the Krauss jewelry store apart.
“For years, … people have flocked in from the surrounding countryside to buy their wedding rings here,” she said. Most of them followed a common ritual.
“There are generally five persons in the party, the parents of both the prospective bride and groom, and the groom himself. … The prospective bride has remained modestly at home. But of course her finger has been carefully measured and the measurements are duly submitted to the clerk, who notes them carefully before submitting a wedding ring for inspection of the intent little group.”
But no matter how careful the measurement, or the clerk’s attention to it, an important part of the transaction was the “distinct understanding” that the ring could be returned if it did not fit. That promise of a perfect fit was irrevocable and forever, Keyes wrote.
“If you linger, as I like to do, in this jewelry shop, you may see a middle-aged man coming in, approaching with an anxious face the clerk who has just waited on the prospective bridegroom. His wife has been ill for a long time now, and her wedding ring will not stay on any longer. He has brought a new measurement. The clerk takes the slip of paper and the old ring; then, gravely and carefully, an exchange is made. ... Years ago the store made a promise.
“The middle-aged man turns to leave, his expression happier than when he came in. At the door he meets a woman, older and more bent than he is. Evidently they are friends and neighbors, for they pause to pass the time of day. Then she approaches the clerk with confidence. She had a pretty little hand when she married, she admits with a smile of pleased reminiscence. … But that was a long while back ... She has worked hard, not only in the house, but in the garden and in the rice fields, too…[and] it is understood that a woman’s hands do not stay pretty, or small either, when she works like that. … Her wedding ring hurts her because it is so tight. Look, she can hardly get it off.”
The clerk replaced that too-tight ring with a shiny new one.
“No wonder the customers return confidently to his store year after year,” Keyes wrote. “But it is not only the clerk and all that the store that stands for that have revived my faith in human nature and in the just rewards of steadfastness. The customers have also done so. They are keeping their promises too. They come to change their wedding rings, yes. But not for some lesser baubles. For others that will fit better. So that they will be just right in sickness and in health, in poor times and rich, until death brings the first parting between giver and receiver. “They are symbols of marriages which require adjustments, but which last in spite of them. And which are right to the very end, too.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.