When journalist and author Jo Piazza got married, everyone gave her advice about the wedding. No one talked to her about the marriage. Piazza set out on a trip around the world to interview hundreds of women about how to be happily married. The result is a new memoir, How to Be Married, which comes out April 18th.
I didn’t want an engagement ring. I’m the kind of person who loses jewelry. I’m cheap and thought the money should go towards a vacation or furniture for our empty new home. But, more importantly, I felt like a ring was a way of my almost-husband marking his territory, of claiming me as his before our life together had even begun.
Most of this was in my head. I was marrying a guy who was more of a feminist than I was, a dude who once told me he read all of the Judy Blume books as a kid (“Didn’t all little boys read Blubber?” he asked me once with baleful honesty).
But engagement rings come with baggage. Some historians believe a pagan caveman would bind his mate’s ankles and wrists with braided grass to signify his control of her before they consecrated a relationship. Some sources claim the first engagement rings were used by the ancient Romans, rings with tiny keys attached to them that denoted a husband’s ownership of his wife. Since the Middle Ages a betrothal ring has often been considered to be an insurance policy for the bride’s virginity leading up to the wedding. The entire history of the engagement ring is pretty gross.
These days, engagement rings get even more attention. Brides-to‑be give them their very own Facebook posts, tacitly telling the world according to social media: “I’m taken.” Getting married already felt like surrendering my independence in so many ways. I at least wanted to start the marriage on equal footing.
I found a solution in South America.
While researching my latest book, I learned men in Chile happily wear simple engagement bands until their wedding day. After that, they switch the jewelry to their opposite hand.
I wanted to mark my own territory. I wanted to propose.
I’d be an outlier for sure. The tradition has never caught on in America. In 1926 the department store Bamberger’s, which would eventually become Macy’s, tried to market a male engagement ring with over-the-top macho names like “The Pilot,” “The Stag” and “The Master.” Imagine walking up to the jewelry counter in a place with a name like Bamberger’s and having the saleswoman ask you, “Is your husband more a Stag or a Master?”
Before we got married, my then-fiancé Nick and I planned a research and reporting trip to Chile for both my book and my job as a travel editor for Yahoo.
This was my moment.
On a walk one evening, I ditched him to wander alone into a warm jewelry shop carved out of an adobe row house in San Pedro de Atacama. The ring that caught my eye on was cool. Really cool. It was silver with three intricate braids of copper on the inside. Indiana Jones would wear this ring. I imagined all manner of scenarios for how I would propose. I could drop it into Nick’s wine glass or hide it in a molten chocolate cake. I could wait until the sun began to rise over the volcano and drop to one knee on our terrace wearing very tiny underwear. For a brief moment I wondered what would happen if he said no. This foray into the unknown terrified and excited me. I bought the ring and slipped it into an innocuous brown paper bag.
After rejoining Nick, we strolled on. Eight minutes later, we realized we were lost.
“Maybe we can cut across this field,” Nick said, heading into a pasture of cows. An angry German shepherd leapt at us, snarling and baring his teeth.
Shaken from the near dog attack, I stretched my arms wide and folded them around my shoulders in a pinched hug. In the past, with any other boyfriend, this would have been the moment I would have said, “I told you we should have taken a cab,” and stomped back to town to hail my own taxi.
Instead I dropped down on one knee in the gnarly bushes, the rocks scratching my skin, dust billowing into my nose, exposed and cold.
Nick looked down, confusion flickering across his face.
“I hate getting lost,” I said. “I hate it. It makes me nervous and angry and I’m freezing right now.” I pulled more air into my lungs. My voice quavered. I finally understood why men get nervous when they propose and why they feel such a rush when their bride-to-be finally says yes. It was terrible and wonderful all at once. I felt empowered as hell. “But I don’t mind getting lost with you. I love you and I am going to love you for a hundred thousand years. Will you marry me?”
He paused, cocked his head to the side and got down into the dirt with me. Now we were on equal ground. This was what I wanted all along.
Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.