Miracles … are not for the unbeliever; they are to console the Saints, and to strengthen and confirm the faith of those who love, fear, and serve God. (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 254.)
Stepping through Ellie’s front door of her modest home was something of an experience. I was welcomed by beautiful artwork, family pictures, and a sewing machine, all in her living room. What first caught my attention were the eloquent paintings and remarkable family photos which captured people of elegance and affluence, and spoke of a life full of intriguing stories. The rest of the room was sparse of furniture with just a lazy boy, a few nice chairs and television.
When Ellie noticed my curious gaze, she explained, as if she read my thoughts, “I only surround myself with things I love that bring me joy.” I was certain this did not come from a study of the Marie Kondo Method, it came from her heart. Ellie’s journey in life seemed to be of hard work, riches, loss, and an exuberance that could be felt. I could hear it in her hearty laugh.
At the time of my visit, Covid was raging, and due to Ellie’s health challenges and age, she could not go to Church or entertain many visitors. Loneliness pierced through her mask as we talked, which she did not deny, explaining she understood the blessings of hardship, knowing they were for our eternal good.
Turning toward the sewing machine, Ellie told me she was no quitter and with determination in her voice stated we serve the Lord by using the talents we’ve been given and developed along life’s path of choices; that is when we find joy in the journey. She was strengthened by the Savior during this difficult time and knew it!
Next to the sewing machine I noticed a bag of heart-shaped pillows. “This is what has kept me going; sewing pillows for veterans, Christmas, and people who have needed a heartfelt hug,” explained Ellie. “By profession, I was a designer and seamstress, creating beautiful, delicate skirts, aprons, and more. I have been using these talents to bring joy to others.”
Ellie could see the golden threads of small miracles in her life, and wanted to express thanks through giving these simple gifts to others. This reminded me of my mother, who was stricken with dementia in her last years of life. She took to holding and hugging a stuffed bear which was given as a gift when she endured open-heart surgery years before. It comforted her greatly while recovering and then again toward the end of her life. My mother would have loved seeing the pillows, and would have admired Ellie’s beautiful family photos as she was a true family historian.
Ellie, then, took me on a tour of her home. We entered her multipurpose room: study, sewing room, and genealogy library. Fabric, pillows, and sewing supplies adorned the shelves next to the desk, and the back shelves held rows of white notebooks full of organized memories prepared for generations to come. The pages in these volumes contained genealogies, letters, articles, pictures, and stories creating a documented history of family. Tucked inside was a particular story about a little gold, oval Lapis Lazuli ring.
Ellie’s mother, Eleanor Rich Van Staagen, loved to tell this sweet story from her life. In 1985, Eleanor once again dipped into this memory as a tape recorder captured her voice to preserve the tale of two young girls on a summer adventure exploring the shores of Georgian Bay.
Mom’s Favorite Memory
This is a story of a little gold ring with an oval Lapis Lazuli. It was a gift from my father on my ninth birthday in June 1915. He had brought it all the way from Lord & Taylor in New York City — just for me! (You see, in those days we lived in Rochester, New York, our family’s home for generations.)
By the fourth of July, I was on my way to Georgian Bay, 180 miles north of Toronto, Canada, along with my friend Frances. We had met in kindergarten. This trip was a long-promised treat for Frances, and I was to be her lucky companion; secretly selected, I learned many years later, by her Aunt Helen.
Now, Aunt Helen was our fairy godmother, and a two-acre island was to be our home for a whole month – a rustic cottage complete with wood stoves, a pump in the kitchen for our running water, and meals on fair days eaten on the porch overlooking the islands in a large bay; and in the evenings, the sunset.
Our days were filled with swimming. It seems to me we never would get out of our bathing suits. Dunking in and out three or four times a day was really a common practice — and of course we could go in the rowboat if we wore our swimming suits. We learned how to fall out of the boat and how to climb back in; these were lessons taught to us by a young professor from the University of Rochester, who came as an assistant to Aunt Helen, to do such things as chop wood, and keep Frances and me from drowning.
On colder days you’d find Frances and me puddling around shore among the rocks, looking for the water lilies to pick. So, I guess it was only natural that my ring should disappear. And in all the water and in all the places we played, who could know where it might possibly be? We did search. We did dive down and try to swim underwater and look in the sand and under the stones, but never did we find a trace of my little ring.
Needless to say, it was not replaced. We went on to more exciting things, apparently, because we had such beautiful times. Our July vacations were to continue for six more summers, and they established with us a lifelong friendship. Trouble was, Frances didn’t like to write letters; and we lost track of each other. I went to one college, she went to another; I forgot her birthday, and she forgot mine — and on it went.
But that is not the end of the story! Years and years passed by. I married and raised a family of three with my late husband, an engineer. Frances married and raised a family of four. She and her husband, a doctor, traveled a great deal. We didn’t know where the other was of many, many years. But as it happened, on her last summer at camp (of course, Aunt Helen had willed the island with all of its buildings and boats to her niece) — Frances was sitting on the porch, and all her boys and grandchildren were down at the waterfront.
They decided to widen the channel between their island and the next, so they wouldn’t continually scrape the bottom of the boats when they took the shortcut. One of the little grandchildren with his snorkel and mask came out of the water and said, “Look what I found!” And there, in his fingers, was the little gold ring with the Lapis Lazuli. Frances immediately said, “Oh! But that’s Eleanor’s ring: she lost that when she was nine!”
And so, the little ring went into France’s jewelry box. Last November, when her sweet husband discovered my phone number in the final issue of my high school alumni newsletter — and called to tell me that Frances had been taken away by cancer — told me that in her box was a little gold ring, and I immediately yelled over the telephone, “Not the one with carved flowers on the band and the oval Lapis Lazuli! My father gave it to me and I loved my father and I loved that little ring!”
He said, “All right, get on a plane — we’ll send you a ticket —and come out to Cincinnati and visit us and meet the family. They’re crazy to meet Grandmother’s oldest friend. And you can have the ring!” And that is exactly what I did.
Of course, no one ever expected that the little ring would fit my elderly hand. But do you know, I had worn it on my ring finger when I was nine; and my little finger is adorned with it now. It is a constant and joyous reminder that there is such a thing as a miracle. When I realized that for sixty-nine years this precious little ring had been through winters and freezing cold and hot summers, too, down under the water, 180 miles north of Toronto, it seems to me that anything could happen!”
An Author’s Note (2003) . . . by Ellie Van Staagan Mitchell
Mother and I happily shared an old house on Bell Island in the quaint town of Rowayton, Connecticut, for the last five years of her life. After she passed away in 1986, having been in a coma for seven weeks, the ring was then worn by my sister, Sara Van Staagen, for eleven years until she died suddenly in 1997. Since then, the little ring has adorned my little finger. It continues to be a source of great joy as well as a terrific conversation piece — not to mention being a constant reminder to look for the “small miracles” in daily life!
I miss visiting Ellie, who still wears the little gold ring. She lives far from me now, but we do talk through texts and occasional phone calls. Listening to her hearty laugh always lifts my spirits as she tells me about the incredible miracles that still abound in her daily life.
Miracles, signs, and wonders abound among followers of Jesus Christ today, in your lives and in mine. . . Many of you have witnessed miracles, more than you realize. They may seem small in comparison to Jesus raising the dead. But the magnitude does not distinguish a miracle, only that it came from God… Miracles are extensions of God’s eternal plan; miracles are a lifeline from heaven to earth. (Rasband, Ronald A; Behold! I Am a God of Miracles; April 2021, General Conference; www.churchofjesuschrist.org)
Used with permission:
- Mitchell, Ellie Van Staagen, (2003); Mom’s Favorite Memory; The Rich family Association Kinfolk Newsletter, Volume XXXVIII, Issue 2 (The story first published in 1985 in The Newsletter, New Cannan, Connecticut)