"Discovery brings life full circle" - First published in the Chicago Sun-Times
September 10, 2018
It was a kindly voice on my answering machine, pleasant with age and warm as fresh bread. It made me think of my mom.
"Bryan," it said, "I was wondering whether you lived in Laurel, Md., a long time ago. I think I have something that might interest you. My name is Mrs. Santon. Would you please call me?"
My mind reached back. Laurel. Yes, I had lived in Laurel, in another lifetime, a skinny kid with a longing to be somewhere, anywhere but there.
Wedged between Baltimore and Washington, Laurel was the nice-enough little town where I suffered through grammar, middle and high school. I fell through the ice there and was pulled out by my best friend, Brian Tribble. Jeff Mowry let me swim in his pool there in the summer, and a bully named Deano punched me in the gut there. I watched my stepfather, George Engle, a wonderful man, die there.
I loved Laurel. And hated it. Anymore, though, I just ignored it. I'd escaped to the big city, as far from ice ponds and punches as Laurel was from Lake Street.
Except for this woman. . . . What did she want? Maybe it was a marketing trick. Perhaps an obscure tax bill I'd never paid.
I ignored the call. She tried again.
Same kindly voice. Same cryptic message.
All right, I thought. I'm a reporter. I have to know.
Grace Stanton, it turned out, had worked in the guidance office at Laurel High for some 20 years and in the local school system for 30. One day, shortly before she retired, another staffer handed her a note.
Maybe you can figure this out, the staffer said.
The crumpled paper held a smiley face and a plea: "Could you please go to Laurel High and look at the 1979 yearbook and find a male; female with the following initials: B.R.E." The author had found something that belonged to that person.
At the time, Mrs. Stanton was hurting. Retirement had left a wound inside that ached whenever she thought about the school. So she put the note away. But it gnawed at her. She pulled it out again -- and got a 1979 class list. There, she did indeed find a B.R.E.: Bryan R. Engle.
Getting that far had been easy. Finding me was trickier. What she didn't know was that Bryan Engle was actually Bryan Smith. I had used Engle in high school because, after George married my mom, I mistakenly thought I'd been adopted. I hadn't. My real name -- my legal name -- was Smith.
Mrs. Stanton was unbowed. She kept looking. Glad of the chance to use her guidance-office savvy again, she began calling her old colleagues at school, and they helped her dig up reunion information for the class of 1979.
It was there she found me: Bryan Smith, formerly Bryan Engle, now a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.
When we finally connected over the phone, we were both wary -- she that I was the right Bryan and I that this wasn't a scam. We both quickly softened when she said why she'd called.
"Bryan," she said, "did you lose your class ring a long time ago?"
Yes, I said, my mind drifting back again. It'd been a sunny day in the spring of 1979, and I'd forgotten to take it off while swimming in a lake.
I'd loved that ring. Struck from 10-karat gold, it bore the words "truth, honor and wisdom" on one side and our Spartan mascot on the other. The birthstone sparkled in the light. I was embarrassed at how much I cherished it -- you didn't admit liking anything that much at that age, particularly if it was related to school -- but something about wearing it made me feel proud. When it slipped off my finger and into the murky waters of the lake, I figured it was gone forever.
That, Mrs. Stanton explained, was why she had called.
Tridelphia Lake, it turned out, had been drained in 1982. And there, in its dried bed, lay a class ring. The person who found it held on to it for 15 years until finally bringing it to my school.
It sat there for another two years, orphaned in a dusty guidance office desk -- until the staffer found it and gave it to Mrs. Stanton.
Now, in her kindly mom's voice, she was saying words I found incredible.
"I have it right here," she said. "Would you like me to send it?"
It arrived in an envelope with the crumpled note of its finder and a few words from Mrs. Stanton.
"It sure was wonderful to get in touch with you," she said, "and to be able to get this ring home where it belongs."
Mrs. Stanton explained she had lived in Laurel most of her life. She'd been there when George Wallace was shot in its shopping center. Her husband, Bill, had been the fire chief. In fact, she, Bill and her five children had all graduated from Laurel High.
"Laurel is ours for sure," she wrote. "Remember our town and good luck."
That afternoon, I turned the ring over and over in my hand. It was still crusted with lake-bottom mud. But it was beautiful. I dipped it in alcohol and wiped it off. Its gemstone glimmered again, just like I remembered. I slid it on my finger. A perfect fit.
No one noticed when I wore it to work the next day, but I kept looking at it, holding my hand up, twiddling my fingers. To me it shone like a diamond.
The ring did, as Mrs. Stanton hoped, make me "remember our town" -- the wounds and wonders, the slights and sadness, my stepfather, George.
I remembered Brian Tribble. I remembered Deano's punch. I remembered those sad, last days of George fighting cancer in an upstairs room, my mother stroking his head in the bright sunlight, her tears dropping into the wounds she dressed with such care.
Mostly, though, I thought of how good it made me feel: that someone would save a piece of my past from a dried-up lake, that another person would track me down across the years to get it back home, and that that someone would be a sweet woman named Grace, who loved the town I had sometimes hated and helped me see there was much to love about it all over again.