My Grandmother’s China

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When I was in my early twenties and just out of college, my grandmother flatly declared, “You might as well have the china. You will never find a man to suit you.  You will never get married.”

It had always been her intention to give her china to the grandchild who married last. We always knew that the last one to marry (in later years it was refined to the last one to marry for the first time) would get “The China.”  I am four years younger than the next youngest cousin, so by age alone, I was probably the most likely candidate, but I don’t think any of us were holding off nuptials in order to win the prize.

However, as each relative fell one by one to wedded bliss, someone would inevitably say, “Well, it looks like you aren’t going to get the china.”

I had only seen the china a few times in my life.  My father had only dined on the china once in his life to his recollection.  We had heard about the china more than we had seen it.  Who would get it, how she got it and how it doubled in the thirties.  My grandmother lived in coal country in Pennsylvania.  There we a lot of immigrants there and she was surrounded by diversity.   As with many families in the 1930s, her neighbor, Russian immigrant who attended the Eastern Orthodox Church, met with hard times and reluctantly had to part with her china, which miraculously was the same pattern as my grandmother’s.

I could only imagine the Shashlyk and Pelmeni and Borsht that had once covered those plates.  I close my eyes and almost taste the Borsht (which I learned to make and consequently love). I sometimes look at the stacks of dishes in my china cabinet and wonder which ones would have held Russian fare.     Because of the Russian lady’s misfortune; my grandmother’s china became service for 16.  She also acquired all the accouterments of table ware that go along with fine dining and civilized living.  If the Queen or Governor or president of the mine came to dinner,  she could set an elegant table.

Did I mention that my grandmother didn’t cook?  When she made her declaration and passed the china to me, it was in pristine condition – it still is.  In keeping with family tradition, I have never used it.

After doing some research, I found out that the china was made in 1921, and it’s Noritake.  The pattern name is Sheridan.  It has a delicate pattern of little flowers with a light blue checked border and a gold rim.  It is definitely not microwave safe, and I wouldn’t dare put it in the dishwasher.  It is very dainty and delicate – a fitting pattern for my grandmother.

They say men look like their dogs; well maybe women resemble their china patterns.   She was delicate and dainty at 5 foot nothing and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet.  Until she started to speak, then she seemed a lot bigger.  She was pretty feisty with a big attitude.  She was fond of saying, “lips that touch wine will never touch mine.”  Little did she know that when the men in the family gathered in the trailer, they were not catching up on each other’s lives but hiding out and drinking beer.    

She was a teetotaler and coincidently, she liked tea.  She had a tea cup collection – china cups and their matching saucers were a prominent display on her china cabinet.   That is not where she kept “the china”.  It was buried far back in the kitchen cabinets in the place no one could ever reach.  It was safe from everyday selection or accidental use.  It the china came out it was completely intentional.

After I gained possession of the china, I threatened once to bring it out for Thanksgiving dinner when my parents drove the 394 miles to stay with us for the holiday.  My father said he had never eaten turkey off of those plates and wasn’t about to start now.  That day I vowed to myself that I would keep the family tradition; I would never cover those delicate flowers with mashed potatoes and gravy.  In fact, to this day, I have never eaten off of those plates.

I started thinking about the china and what it meant to me and my past just the other day.  I have been obsessing over it lately wondering if I would have to sell it to survive this separation and inevitable divorce.   The china had nothing to do with my marriage.  In fact, my grandmother never met my husband.  As far as she knew, she was right about me until the day she died.   She died safe in the knowledge that I would never marry.

I was thinking of this the other day as I packed the dishes in a cat food bucket.  It seemed the safest way to transport those dishes from the house to the apartment.  It occurred to me that my grandmother may have been acknowledging something in me way back then that I never truly knew but warily suspected was there.

You see my grandmother’s best friend’s daughter is a lesbian.  She and her partner of nearly 40 years were “roommates” as far as my grandmother was concerned.  She had known these women for many years; they took her on their vacations with them to their cabin on the lake during the summers.  They would play cards at night and traverse the lake in a paddle boat by day.  One of my favorite pictures is of my grandmother, her friend and the “friends” is of them sitting in the paddle boat, wearing big brimmed hats and large sunglasses. They all had happy, carefree smiles.  She loved those women dearly.  In fact, the daughter and her brother are both ministers, and they both preached my grandmother’s funeral.  They loved my grandmother too.

I suspect the gift of the china was a way of giving me what she thought I would never have.  In her world, a lesbian couldn’t marry her “friend”, so there would be no occasion for china.  Maybe that was her way of giving me what she knew no one else would.  Maybe she knew long before I ever did.  Maybe she saw in me what she had seen in her best friend’s daughter.   Maybe…  Of course, I will never know in this lifetime, but I do know this, when I marry my wife to be, because somewhere in my world that is possible.  When we marry, we will be eating on that china after the wedding.  I may have to do some convincing to serve Russian food at the reception, but we are going to break that family tradition.

We are going to break a lot of family traditions… but that is another story for another time.

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