My mother called me Ruby, the last of her jewels, which happened to be our surname. Jewel. The only problem was, I didn’t sparkle like the others: Opal, Jade, Garnet, and Beryl. I’d come along when they were grown and half-grown, and because she missed them (or so I supposed), she treasured me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a treasure with my lank almost-colorless hair and pale blue-gray eyes. My gangly torso got tangled up on a regular basis and caused others to whisper about how clumsy I was compared to my graceful sisters. It got to the point I didn’t even try anymore. I was what I was, and that didn’t look likely to change any time soon if at all.
But Mamma assured me I was indeed a jewel, perhaps a rough-cut one but a jewel nonetheless. I didn’t believe her, of course. The evidence was stacked against me. As I grew older, I learned not to let it bother me--or at least, not much. What did bother me was thinking about the future. What would I do if I couldn’t be like my sisters?
Opal had gone out to Hollywood as soon as she finished high school. She hadn’t become a star like she intended, but she got lots of work as an extra and a few small parts. They paid for a place to live and an entertaining lifestyle. She wrote home once a week and assured Mamma and me she was happy.
Jade went to New York and tried modeling for a while. Like Opal, she never made the bigtime, but she got enough work with ads for small magazines that she, too, could live content.
Garnet wanted a rich husband, and she found one in the state capital where she went to work as a personal assistant to a senator. She loved the social scene, traveling abroad, and buying her clothes in expensive shops and boutiques. I guess she loved her husband, too. They seemed to get along well. Mamma hoped for grandchildren, but Garnet made it plain she wasn’t going to be tied down.
Beryl worked her way up to head buyer in the local department store and then moved on to another one in the chain three states away. She wrote about all the men she went out with, but by the time she was thirty, Mamma had given up on her marrying any of them.
“So what’s next for you?” Mamma asked the morning after I graduated high school.
“You must have some idea, Ruby. Your sisters couldn’t wait to graduate and get on with their plans.”
“I’m not my sisters, and I don’t have any plans.”
“Your father, God rest his soul, wanted the best for his jewels. He didn’t mean to die before he’d put away enough to see all of you through.”
“They’ve done all right.”
“I guess so.”
“At least they had something to work with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at me, Mamma. I’m not pretty and talented like they are. I wasn’t a cheerleader or homecoming queen or prom duchess or…”
She shook her head. “You made good grades. They barely scraped by.”
“Well, I didn’t have anything to do except study.”
“You’re smart, Ruby. The others are, too, I guess, but they got along on their looks instead of their brains. Maybe you’re better off.”
I threw up my hands. “I’m going to go downtown for some job applications. Maybe I’ll see a movie and grab a burger. Don’t wait supper.”
As I drove downtown, I grinched again about the fact my sisters were too busy with their lives to come home and watch me graduate. They’d sent nice expensive gifts, but I’d have liked to see them. I guess they just weren’t interested in watching the ugly duckling do anything. Not that I could do anything, but I did manage to walk across the stage wearing a gold honor society stole over my robe.
I went to the department store, the variety store, a dry cleaners, two nice restaurants, and the bank to ask for applications. The first three said they weren’t hiring but would be glad to keep my application on file. The restaurants would’ve put me to work that day because they tended to have a big turnover in wait staff. At the bank, which was my last stop, I ran into Mr. Harkins who’d convinced me to take his calculus class my senior year.
“So, Ruby, you made it through,” he said with a hearty handshake and a huge smile. “What’s next?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
“A job? You’re not going to college?”
“Mamma can’t send me. She does well to pay the rent and put food on the table.”
His face darkened. “I know. Raising five girls almost totally on her own hasn’t been easy. But there are scholarships.”
“It’s too late to apply now even if I wanted to.”
“It’s never too late, Ruby. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. The future’s bright for you.”
I wanted to tell him all the brightness centered on my sisters, but I just said, “Thank you, Mr. Harkins. I’ll think about what you said.”
When the bank called a week later and asked me to come in for an interview, I went without any expectations. When they hired me as a teller-in-training, I couldn’t believe it. “George Harkins recommended you,” the bank manager said. “He’s on the board of directors.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“He said you had a head for figures.”
“I liked math. He made it fun.”
“Banking is a good career,” he went on. “If you like it, the sky’s the limit.”
“I’ll try to do a good job for you,” I said.
“I’m sure you will. That’s why you got the job over the other eight applicants.”
Mamma made my favorite meatloaf that night to celebrate, and I whipped up a batch of brownies from scratch. “I’m proud of you, Ruby,” she said for the dozenth time.
“Well, the pay’s good. It’ll help out around here.”
Mr. Harkins came in every week. I wondered if he were checking on me. By fall I had a window of my own, so I guessed I was doing all right. By the time he retired from teaching eight years later, I had my own desk. Mamma and I had been able to move to a better apartment, and I’d accumulated a professional wardrobe that even my sister Beryl approved.
Thankfully, Mamma lived long enough to know I’d been promoted to vice-president in charge of commercial loans. My sisters managed to carve enough time out of their schedules to come home for the funeral. They appeared impressed with the house I’d bought for Mamma and me several years before--a new one in a better part of town than we’d ever lived before.
“Well, you surprised us, Ruby,” Opal said. Long past her starlet days, she had a solid position with the makeup department at a major studio.
“Yes, indeed,” Jade echoed. No longer modeling, she worked for an advertising agency as personal assistant to the president. “You were such a mouse growing up.”
Garnet toyed with her newest diamond ring. “You’ve done well for yourself,” she said--somewhat grudgingly I thought. We’d all suspected there was trouble in paradise with the now-Congressman.
Beryl, now head buyer for the entire chain of department stores, didn’t say anything, but I got the feeling she knew I’d been as successful as any of them.
A newspaper photographer was on hand the day I moved into my new office. He took a variety of pictures and promised a nice article for the Sunday edition. The bank manager who’d hired me--now retired--came by to congratulate me later. “I knew you’d do well,” he said.
“How did you know?”
“There was something about you. A modesty maybe. You didn’t see to have an inflated idea of your own importance the way a great many young girls had then and still have.”
If you only knew, I thought.
“And my friend George Harkins had faith in you. He told me you grew up in the shadow of four older sisters who were so-called high school stars but couldn’t add a column of figures to save their souls.”
I laughed. “Oh, I think they were smart enough to do that. They’ve all been successful.”
“I’m glad for them. But gladder for you, Ruby--though sorry you’re alone now since your mother passed.”
“I’m all right.”
“How old are you now? I know a gentleman shouldn’t ask, but…”
“Well, that’s not over the hill.” He turned and motioned a someone into my office. “Come in, come in, Red.”
The man fit his nickname with the orangey hair and freckles all over the backs of his hands. He ducked his head in an odd shyness but came the rest of the way in. “Do we have a date for lunch, Uncle Edgar?”
“Indeed, we do. Red, I’d like you to meet our new vice-president of commercial affairs. I hired her as a green kid right out of high school.”
I extended my hand. “I’m Ruby Jewel,” I said.
He startled. “Ruby what?”
“Jewel. And I have four sisters named Opal, Garnet, Beryl, and Jade.”
“Actually, I’m not.
He grinned. “My name’s John,” he said.
“I’m delighted to meet you, John.”
I liked the way his bright blue eyes seemed alive--and how they couldn’t seem to remove themselves from me.
“I’m new in town,” he went on. “I just went to work at the state archives as their chief researcher.”
“John Pendleton, Ph.D,” my mentor spoke up.
“Well, it’s quite an accomplishment, Red. Er, John. You know, I think I just remembered a dental appointment. Why don’t you take Miss Jewel to lunch instead?”
John nodded. “That’s a great idea.” He looked back at me. “What do you think?”
I didn’t say what I thought as I reached for my purse. John Pendleton, Ph.D., held my coat for me, and we walked out of the bank together. Behind us, I was sure his great-uncle Edgar was smiling.