This year for Thanksgiving, I decided to use my mother’s china. Most of the time it lives safely packed away in padded storage containers in the hall closet. Nonetheless, in my continuing efforts toward decluttering and Swedish Death Cleaning, I ask myself a couple of questions almost daily., Does this item spark joy? And more perhaps importantly, who will want this when I’m gone?
Those dishes (and everything else) really do need to justify the space they take up in my house. However, the story of that china is something of a family legend.
Once upon a time, just after I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Reserves for the few extra dollars a month it brought in. As a very young man, he’d had an adventure running small boats in the South Pacific serving with the US Army Amphibians during WWII. Now close to thirty, with a wife and baby, he was called up to serve in Korea. He would tell you it was a totally different experience.
While Dad was gone my mom and I moved next door to her parents–Mamie and Grandpa–in what was then rural Orange County, California. We lived in the middle of an orange grove, next to the railroad tracks. My dad’s parents—Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Joe—lived not too far away in Long Beach.
Grandma Ruth and her sisters were accomplished, china painters. I have several pieces signed by them. My mother was creative and enjoyed many of the domestic arts throughout her life. Cake decorating. Sewing. Quilting. Stained glass. Flower arranging. So, it was no surprise that she would try her hand at china painting.
At Mom’s request, Dad shipped her a set of plain white porcelain “blanks” from Japan. Mom’s intention was to paint the plates herself with a different floral pattern for each place setting. I imagine that she wanted to try her hand at lots of different flowers so she wouldn’t get bored painting the same pattern again and again. It would also make the set unique. I’d be the same way.
The china arrived and she began painting. When Dad came home in 1951, he built her a great wooden box to contain all her supplies. He made her a similar box for her cake decorating supplies. Then nine months after Dad’s return, my baby brother arrived. Mom somehow continued painting until about 1957, completing four dinner plates and two salad plates. Then the painting stopped. Mom didn’t stop creating, but the dishes were never finished.
That box and Mom’s china live in the same hall closet. All of those plain white dinner plates stacked away. Salad plates. Bread plates. Serving platters. Sauce, soup, and serving bowls. Cups and saucers. The sugar and creamer. A tiny teapot.
Strangely, I have no strong memory of eating from those dishes. Were holiday meals always eaten at my grandparents? Was it too much trouble to get out the good stuff? Was she worried about breaking them? Did she lose interest? Was it expensive or inconvenient to have them fired? Or was that china a reminder of an unfinished task and tinged with regret?
Like I said, I am beginning to contemplate a time when those dishes might live somewhere else. I’m just not sure where. My daughters already have their own sets of heirloom Limoge and Bavarian china. And my granddaughter is at least a decade or two away from setting up a household. So maybe I’ll hang on to them a while longer. Even if I only take them out once a year.
However, when I open that box and smell the turpentine and when I see the vials of pigment, the two tiny hearts she painted with forget-me-nots. When I read Mom’s notes from classes she took and see her sketches, I see her plans for a future that is now the past.
That fragrant box evokes such strong memories that I may have to keep it just so I can open it now and then for a sniff. That’s where the memories live. Not in the dishes themselves, but in the plans, the hopes, and the dreams that they signify. Perhaps it’s simply a lesson, a reminder that time passes quickly and I’d better tackle a few of those “someday” tasks today. Thanks, Mom.