Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: My Mother’s China

It is a peculiar habit– to possess objects that are excellent, perhaps even valuable, but unnecessary, and thus are shuttered away. I had forgotten about it, this certain thing, like most items I don’t use. I am utilitarian in my habits, I greatly admire fine creative design and enjoy holding a piece of art in my hand, or wearing it at my neck or seeing it upon a gold-lit shelf. But when an object is impractical or secretly disliked or in need of major repair, it is quite promptly forgotten.

My mother’s china pieces fall within the “impractical” category. And then a subcategory I might name “awkward.” What does one do with china that has no real place in one’s ordinary abode? And yet I have kept it, though hidden away.

I have only a distant–often unnoticeable- attachment to most of what I own. I may well like much quite a lot but a thing oddly matters very little if and when ruined or disappeared. The initial bite of loss is felt but after a bit, it seems upon reflection that it held far less meaning in my scheme of life than previously and often dramatically noted. I feel it is all easy come, easy go in the end. It’s good I am this way, and that I don’t have buckets of money. If I see something something magnetically exotic or thrillingly original that I might love, a feeling comes over me that I am not fond of having: a sudden desire to place it into my realm–and covetousness may pounce inside me. So unattractive a characteristic. I don’t mean to want things like that, even the best things. It takes such energy and attention when I need those for other activities. I’ve never even bothered to putting time or cash into properly decorating wherever I live. Nonchalant might be a good description of my style, ad-hoc and eclectic….. If it’s comfortable and has some color with a bit of pattern tossed about, I’m good. No, I am less about details that look good, more about moments that can live well in real life.

But right, my mother’s china. (Or a portion of it–yes, I’m coming to it.) It’s not the sort of item that fits well into this way of doing things, I suggest. It requires the appropriate display and use. It requires a certain kind of event. So I have left it in a box or on high dark shelves ever since she died in 2001. A sleeping stack, gathering colonies of dust mites.

The truth is, it is quite enough to manage what I have. I’m well pleased with small tokens of artistic renderings or gifted lovelies. I can get excited about simple handcrafted items or occasional treasures in a second hand store but I can walk away with no longing, too. Maybe it has been all the practice I’ve had; one feeds and clothes the children, one doesn’t buy art or jewelry. One needs orderly rooms to move about, not extra piles to stumble over. (Alright, I have bought books, too many.) The few artistic pieces that are spread about my home required a lifetime of modest acquisition– none of it would impress anyone. They are not pricey. (I have also been known to cut out inspiring pictures from magazines and tape them to a wall.) Many have been given to me. But they’re cared about for one good reason or another. Usually the experience of finding it, the person attached to it.

Yes, that’s what gets us most of all–by whom or just how an object comes to be in our lives. It resonates of these every time we use it or walk by it or try not to think on it too long. That odd energy of things imbued with an essence of place or time or person–how alluring to mind and senses.

And so this comes around to my mother’s Rosenthal china. The twelve person place settings she bought and had shipped when my parents went to Germany. She had other china, and everyday ware (Franciscan Desert Rose, which I use daily). But this was the one she used to dress the most gracious table, along with crystal water goblets and silver. The dinner plates are pure white and embossed with a faintly, to me, architectural design. Yet I don’t have those with me. The fruit bowls that I have, and love and avoid are decorated with delicate flowers of deep pink, yellow and periwinkle, arrayed atop the raised pattern.

I happened upon them again recently. I stood tiptoe on a kitchen step stool, rummaging on the top cupboard shelf for something else. My hand reached behind a front row, and barely touched the rims of the delicate fruit bowls. That sound they make when moved against one another–a soft, bright noise. I took down two more ordinary bone china tea mugs my mother-in-law gave us long ago (that we use often); a few colored or etched glass candy dishes (a couple from my mother); and a diminutive vase that looks like an old-fashioned gentlewoman with an open-top hat made for tiny blooms. (This I happened to buy in a hospital gift shop after I completed cardiac rehab 20 years ago–it made me feel even better.)

I touched the bowls gently once more, hesitant.

I didn’t attempt to bring the them all down. I counted them: twelve, as meant to be. And then–because I suddenly wanted to hold it in my hands–I took the top one off the stack gingerly and stepped down from the stool. I proceeded to wash it with my fingertips and a spot of dish detergent under running water. I grabbed a tea towel. I decided I wanted to use one, perhaps just once. Applesauce, perhaps. Blueberries. Chocolate covered raisins. I visualized a vivid mound of raspberries against the white hollow in the bowl, rinsing it clean.

And then I dropped the china bowl. It lightly struck the quartz countertop, delicate against rock-hard. Only a bare inch from my hand to surface. I snatched it back up. But too late, though it somehow held together in my wretched hands.

You can imagine the bad words I said. How my heart plummeted. Eighteen years well sequestered and then, when once in two years I take one down to clean it, I drop it? Why was I not ever more careful? (My hands are notorious for dropping things. I suffered severe myalgias and weakness after taking statins 13 years; some days grasping strength is still impacted.) I ought to have called Marc to help. And so on.

I examined the bowl more closely in the light. The thinnest telltale line crossed from the smooth edge of rim and continued two thirds to the other side. I expected it to split apart but it did not, so I firmly pressed it tight together so that the line of fracture disappeared, then set it far back from counter’s edge. And then, after showing it to Marc, I thought once more how often my favorite things have been damaged or destroyed. It has happened again and again–and most often it is an accident not even of my doing. (I have come to see it as a further lesson to not hold tightly to things of this world.) I fussed a bit more, then decided if it sat there safely it might be useful, afterall, until I found the correct glue to fix it. If I dared to fix it. I put raisins in it and plucked them one at a time. The next day I put two pieces of chocolate in it and delicately lifted one piece and the other. The next day, a few crackers. It was being used just fine, but I was wary of moving it. I watched it as if it might.

I know I need to fix it soon, and fix it right. I am the caretaker.

The truth is, these fruit bowls are not mine, but are for my daughter, Naomi. The artist. She was originally to inherit the whole set, twelve of everything imaginable. This is what my mother had told me, and what she told Naomi so long ago. My daughter has been to Germany, also, and she appreciates beautiful, well made and interesting objects. She is my oldest child, was close to my mother dearly (so adored, that woman), visiting her and helping her off and on the last few years. My mother’s children had long gone from Michigan. But her granddaughter Naomi stayed with and worked with her father and his side of her family–construction and plant nursery work– many summers when she had time off from university and later from teaching jobs. Gladwin, a rural area where her paternal kin lived, was not far from Midland where my parents, then only my mother, resided. Mom looked forward to Naomi’s visits greatly. They gabbed, watched television and read, walked, did errands. They both loved to sew, to cook. They enjoyed classical music and much more. Later, when it was needed, my daughter helped with more personal needs. I recall feeling burdensome guilt that I had moved far away, that I could not visit Mom often since I lived in Oregon. And feeling deep gratitude that Naomi could, and without any prompting. She loved her dearly. And was appreciated and loved by Mom.

So the Rosenthal china was to go to Naomi, among other things. But things are open to interpretation when an estate comes into question–if some intentions are not signed and sealed. My oldest sister was the executor of the estate and told me after our mother’s death that it was not going to happen. Apparently, Marinell understood things differently; that Naomi got it was not explicit. She suggested that her daughter would like the china at first but in the end, she determined it would be shipped to her home state of WA. And then, to my surprise and for an unknown reason, I was t old the whole lot was ultimately sold.

Yes, I was aghast. Why did that happen, I wondered. It was entirely uncharacteristic of kind, fair-minded Marinell (now deceased or I wouldn’t write of it), the whole thing. She hadn’t taken my word as the truth. It was very disappointing–and she’d not even thought it might hurt us. Maybe because she had many fine things, herself, it didn’t impact her much in the general view of things. But there it was–the china was gone. Naomi and I simply let it go, as one must–it wasn’t worth holding any grudge.

Except. I had the fruit bowls.

I barely recall it–perhaps such details matter yet they’re blurred–but they were separate from the rest as we sorted things after the funeral. Or they ended up being sent to me accidentally with a box of other things; either may be the case… But Mom likely used them as she loved a small snack of fruit, cottage cheese, carrots and so on. She had left them out, then boxed them up at some point. But I chose to keep them for Naomi as the vast bulk of china slipped away. I knew she would be happy to eat a little yogurt or ice cream or pear slices or strawberries from them one day. My sister never mentioned missing anything. I felt it was justified, even that it was meant to be. They stayed with me and have remained here– until Naomi can use them.

It is about time, I sense. I am not getting any younger. And I don’t want to break one more. They are a meaningful remnant of a time, place and person for her to keep close.

How much do things matter? Things that may not be used as one hopes or imagines? My mother entertained, happily if modestly, and pulled out all the stops when friends or visitors from the arts and education and church worlds came for dinners and lunches. I was a shadow part of that as a teen. I helped prepare food, set the table just so, laid the silver and the place settings. I served others with a smile and a nod. I sat with them at those extraordinary tables–the loveliness of her centerpieces, the light slipping over crystal and silver– and talked about books and music and a mix of ideas. Nothin earth shaking, but good topics. Music played always in the background. I easily crossed over from inquisitive child to a seeking and also forlorn young adult at that table. Such rituals held us all together.

So, that Rosenthal–“All food tastes better when eaten from it” Mom said, and it was true– was partly mine, perhaps, long after my older siblings departed from home, and still when I came around a few more years when attaining adulthood. I never once needed it for myself–I am a mix-and-match person, a casual meal person. I have a cupboard full of handmade mugs, ones from special places; I hold on to chipped pieces. I had a couple of pretty goblets but they–of course–broke. Mom had a different passion for beautiful things, and worked them well into my parents’ middle class, educated, well travelled lifestyle, the pleasing china cabinet brimming with perfect, shining pieces. Ones she used with ease and often, as if it was always so. She, a farmer’s daughter, with an eye for more diverse beauty.

So that was in my mind when I pulled down one bowl–that I ought to use one now and again until Naomi has them for fond use in her own life. I had rarely done so before. I’ve regularly used her bone china teacups sets and those doomed goblets and many other culinary-related items. I have her LLadro figurines in a cabinet. I wear a couple pieces of her good jewelry. But those bowls… Maybe I felt a niggling guilt for having them, though it’s unlikely as the years rolled by and they weren’t missed–who used fruit bowls, anymore? Mostly I wanted them to stay safe.

You never know what means the most until faced with it’s possible loss. I was mad at myself last week and sad, but it didn’t make me weep. I have blinked back a few leaks over few possessions badly ruined. But full tears come easily for me only when it is a true matter of heart. Like when I awakened the other morning with cheeks wet and I thought to myself, Oh yes, it is April, then comes May, June. These times are full of losing a sister, a brother, my mother. Then, after that, my father. And all this has no shape but fills an amorphous realm of bittersweetness, and not one sharp memory to stun me but a tender and brazen moving picture of long, mysterious, amazing lives, and no heft in my hand or within my arms but the silken air and the puzzling ether beyond.

But inside there is resounding love, far more valued and useful than a fine white and floral china bowl meant for berries. Still, I gaze at and touch that broken bowl with a private tenderness. The line remains invisible, but it is there in the center.

4 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: My Mother’s China

  1. I cannot tell how this resonates in so very many ways with me. The objects that interweave with our memories, with the affection and love for others, with desire and loss and aspiration.With use. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Jan, thank you… sorry I am delayed. (My granddaughter passed; all has been that and nothing more.) I’m pleased you found something to connect with in this story and that you have your own fondness for family- shared objects. It truly means something to keep them at hand, and in hand.

  2. Such a telling post, touching many of us. For years, my mother has been labelling her gifts, so they will eventually return to the donors, some of whom have now pre-deceased her. She has given some back early – e.g. those given by me and my late first wife. A few years ago I told Mum I wasn’t going to give her any more presents I wouldn’t want back 🙂

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