Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of floors and weeping on them

A New York Times piece stopped me cold recently. Specifically, the author's reaction to one of her Grandmother's plates having shattered after New Year's dinner.

"The night before New Year’s Eve, I drove to my parents’ house, packed up the dishes and brought them home. I washed them carefully the next day, discovering a perfect sugar bowl I’d never noticed, admiring the shine on the gilt handle of a sculptural serving piece. After the children had gone to bed, and we and our friends sat down to a shimmering table, I felt as if I was liberating a set of dishes from decades of oppression. Why not use them every night? And if one or two broke over the years, so what? At least the dishes would have lived, insomuch as dishes can.

That's how I felt, at least, until the startlingly loud sound of that dish, a saucer, falling to the floor almost two hours after midnight. Glittering shards scattered across the kitchen floor, each one so delicately beautiful I had to leave the room.

It was surprisingly consoling when I discovered a few minutes later that even after that mishap, we still had more saucers than we had teacups: three had apparently already been broken. I was glad we hadn’t lost a set, but it also made me wonder. Maybe my mother had remembered wrong; maybe there had been some happy late-night parties at my grandmother’s home. Wine had been drunk. A dish or two had broken, as dishes do — as anything does, eventually.

We won’t be using those dishes every night, after all. I hope to use them before next New Year’s Eve, but I can see how it takes some will to risk a little loss in the name of celebrating what’s dear."

- The Courage to Use the China, Susan Dominus for The New York Times

My Mother can remember my Grandmother picking up shards of her broken china and crying, sincerely, over the broken plates and cups as she disposed of their remains. They were not heirloom pieces. Wedding gifts, surely not inexpensive but largely replaceable at the time, I imagine.

At first, it seemed frivolous emotionally and selfishly dramatic and frankly, a touch dangerous, to fall to one's knees weeping in a pile of broken glass. But as services have come down to me, and survived all we have known as a family, I realize it could happen; Not before guests, not for my girls to witness, and maybe not weeping, because, that is decidedly not my thing.

But still, there is a chance I might have to take a long moment over the irreplaceable pieces my people's hands touched. When you relinquish any survivor, inanimate or otherwise, to its fate, it does carry some ache, does it not?

In learning one or two things since I first heard mention of the weeping over plates, it seems a good deal easier to accept that some may have just such a remarkable response.

If it happens to you, send all accusers to me, I've got your back.


Karena said...

I do use good china and crystal. Why do you think this occurred, heat from the food served?

Mrs. Blandings said...

A good friend broke a piece of family crystal while helping me get ready for my mother's funeral. There were no pieces when it hit the floor, just dust. I smiled and waved it off, "Everything breaks," but welled up a bit when I went to fetch the dust pan.

Karena said...

PS It is okay to is the memories that touch us deeply.

Laura Ingalls Gunn said...

After my grandparents died I was left to pack up their home. Even more heartbreaking than a broken dish were the slips, linens, etc, still in their original packaging that were being saved for "a special occasion".
That is what made me cry the hardest. Use the dishes.

little augury said...

Use,use,use. Don't look back-honest to God-those pieces are to be cherished,reverenced even-but not wept over. I grew up with the phrase "No bones broken." Great thought provoking post!

LPC said...

I would cry for the associated memories. I can see that.

Peanut-Butter Kitty said...

My mother (she picked the pattern) and I (paid for) purchased a set of Johnson Bros "Friendly Village" dishes while I was still living at home. It was our everyday dishes. At one point, I had to replace all the cups and a few saucers. After I moved out, one day on a visit, she told me to take all the dishes, I piled them in the back seat of my Camaro, not in boxes, just stacked and drove home slowly. A year or two later, she went into a convalescent home and passed away 10 years later. I still have the dishes. I have used them for holidays. They were bought for my mom and most of all, she enjoyed them. This past holiday season, I was shopping at Home Goods and seen a family purchase some of the dinner plates. It made me think of my mom and the dishes and how she enjoyed them. Most days, I wear my "good" jewelry to work, it's not in your face stuff, but very good quality. I don't save things for "best". I agree with Laura Ingalls Gunn's comment and I add would like to add, "enjoy them".

DocP said...

I agree with Laura Ingalls Gunn. The saddest thing in cleaning out my parents house after their deaths (within four months of each other) was finding the things with tags, never used.

Marsha said...

I read somewhere the advice that one should, upon the breakage of a loved item, try to think of the event in the same was as one would a trip or a concern or museum visit. Those things are not tangible, they are experienced and are done leaving nothing but a treasured memory. I think that with discipline I could regard broken heirlooms the same way, loving the memory of having experienced ownership and smiling at recollections.

I'm not quite there yet, but the idea makes some sense to me.

Jo said...

My mother once told me that it is important to use china and crystal on a regular basis. If it breaks, so be it. It doesn't do anyone any good sitting on a shelf. I try to keep this in mind when I set a table. Yes, we have had mishaps but I just remember my mother's words and choke out a smile.


A Flair for Vintage Decor said...

Many times I "set up" our china on our formal dining room table-- making it look like we are expecting a little dinner party with friends! Since we don't use the formal dining room (or our china...but that may change now) on a regular basis- I love having it out like we are planning to have a fun dinner party at any moment!

Caroline said...

I recently watched a TV program on ancient Rome. Apparently during the time of Augustus crystal goblets were a new thing, very rare and expensive. If a slave broke one he was thrown into a pool filled with moray eels to be eaten alive as punishment.

So really, all things considered, dealing with isn't so bad.

home before dark said...

I am no longer a member of any religion, but I think that china, crystal used by families in loving meals is as sacred as any religious goblet. As the last custodian of many family pieces, when I wish I will release them to the wild for other families to add their own blessed memories. Until then, the memories are with me at the table.

Ms. Bake-it said...

I too have had the sad experience of coming across items put away for special occasions which still had the tags on them. I had been so hung up on worrying about a piece of my antique china sets breaking that I was hesitant about using them for special occasions, let alone everyday use. I have boys and they went through a very destructive phase for a while so each set was carefully packed away. I missed the sets and recently brought them back out and have been using them a few times a week. Yes, I still worry but I am getting so much enjoyment from their use and I hope it will override any distress I may feel should something happen to a piece. Despite the misgivings I had about using one of the sets for Christmas, I did just that and was rewarded for it. I agree, use them, show them off and accumulate more wonderful memories.

magnaverde said...

I just recently moved into a new apartment. It's only one floor down & around the corner, but it was just as big a hassle as if I'd moved halfway across the country, and as usual, stuff got busted: my grandmother Blanche's big vaseline glass bowl the color of Mountain Dew, a brightly-glazed oranages-in-a-wicker basket marmalade jar from the 1920s that belonged to my grandmother Gladys & a bright yellow Harlequinware cup I bought while I was still in college all bit the dust. What can I say? I'm a klutz.

Anyway, it was too bad, but Gladys already had a sensible, Waste-Not-Want-Not solution for such domestic tragedies: the recognizable shards all get put in the bottom of flowerpots for drainage. That way, whenever it's time to repot, or to plant some hyacinth bulbs for forcing, it's like Old Home Week. Rooting through the dirt, you keep turning up pieces of the past. It's like archaelogogy on a tabletop scale.

After my Gladys died & we were cleaning out her house, my sister-in-law wondered why the hell I was dragging dead houseplants out of the trash. It turned out that I was either the only one in my family whom Gladys had ever bothered telling about this, or I was the only one who had been listening, or maybe I just happened to be there on a day when she broke something.

At any rate, I knew The Secret of the Flowerpots, so, one-by-one, I turned them upside down, and sure enough, under the dried-out soil & dead leaves were bright bits of Coalport, Blue Onion & Aesthetic Brown china. Some of the fragments I recognized--she had had a set of Meissen when I was a kid--and other pieces were probably from her mother's or her grandmother's wedding china. Now, though, they're all mine, so somebody's pretty, gold-trimmed 1820s porcelain is still being used almost two centuries after it was made, although not the way it was intended to be used. Then again, life's full of surprises. Anyway, trash is only 'trash' if you don't know what to do with the pieces.

susanne said...

magnaverde - that is a great comment - thanks for sharing.
When I find pieces of my mom's or grandmother's china on ebay or wherever, I just buy it and mix it in with the others (usually to cover a recent "accident".) I don't know which ones are the originals or not - who cares? They all become my mom's. And one day, they'll be my daughters'.

The Blushing Hostess said...

Karena - they were dropped. And indeed.

Mrs. B. - probably the hardest time to have a family piece broken, when you help to remind yourself you are not alone by keeping their family items close.

Laura - No doubt my Mother's home would yield same, although mine will not. Like you, that would be the worst, along with they tiny .things, toothbrushes and eyeglasses that will make it sheer agony.

Little A - trying. Will drag out the whole show when you come by!

Shelley - a lovely gesture for your Mother which will doubt carry for further generations. regarding the jewelry, I need to take a lesson from you...

DocP - it would near-about kill me.

Jo - Indeed, I was of this same school until recently when one of my patterns became discontinued and went through the roof, now I am mixed on this...

Flair - I adore that it is an exhibit when not in use!

Marsha - makes perfect send to me as well, if only I had that mental discipline.

Home - I've a huge noritake set that came from the charity store in which my Mother volunteers. The were so lovingly cared for: in lined carriers with interlining dividing plates in the stackes inside. We knew she loved them, now they are happily with us, where we do the best we can to honor her, whoever she was, and keep that service in the rotation of a happy family... someone will love them.

Mrs. Bake-It - I share your concern with my two tiny girls. we keep a careful eye on them but have no reservation about putting the china down in front of the two year old, the 10 month old is another story. Soon, soon...

Magnaverde - You are long a favorite commented from other sites I read, I have long scanned comment lists always stopping when I come to you. I am humbled you've joined us and only I hope I can retain you and along side these esteemed others.... My Mother has this same habit which, I must tell you, being her garden-oversight, is concernign when I reach into a pot not knowing the shards are there. Inevitably, I hear, "be careful, I can't remember which have the glass?" after i have reached in! But really, in therapy, that will be the least of it... ha!