My Mother's China

Cartons landed on my doorstep, and I unpacked back in time

When I was eight months pregnant, an unexpected delivery arrived: an early Mother's Day gift.

Cartons landed at my doorstop, and I unpacked back in time. My mother was cleaning out her cabinets. At 75, she seemed compelled to transfer old possessions from her home into mine, 1,500 miles away. It began when I'd told her I was shopping for a new set of dishes, replacing my broken and incomplete set. It was time for something new.

"I want you to have my wedding china," she told me over the phone.

I tried to hide my disappointment. Those old-fashioned dishes? I wanted something modern, moving into the future along with my first child.

"I'm touched," I told her. "But don't you want it?"

"What do I need it for? Do you know Grandma and I each chipped in a hundred dollars apiece to buy 12 place settings? Today you can't even buy one setting for that price. And let me tell you, $200 was very hard to come up with back then."

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I visualized my poverty-stricken grandmother, raising three children after her husband's early death from tuberculosis, making sure her daughter would begin her married life with a set of fine china.

Mom had brought these plates out for every holiday in my childhood, but I could only vaguely describe them to my husband.

"Blue," I told him. "I hate blue."

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When he learned they were Rosenthal, he whistled. "Fine china."

"They're just dishes," I shrugged. "I don't even like them."

There was still a part of me that resisted identifying with my mother. Our tumultuous years of arguments and differences gradually subsided through shared tragedies. Together, we grieved over the death of my father at the age of 75 and the tragic loss of my oldest brother Jay of lung cancer. Our family was getting smaller and we needed each other more than ever. I could enjoy an afternoon with Mom in a museum, but did I want to eat off her plates?

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Removing each china plate from its bubble wrap insulator, I ran my fingers over the raised flowers on the border and admired the painted blue flowers on the white background.

"They're actually nice," I conceded to my husband.

"She sent you the family heirlooms," he said.

A service for 12. Dainty coffee cups. Soup bowls made more for consummé than the hearty bean stews I concocted. Due to our hectic schedules, we often ate out, or quickly made pasta at home. Could we ever really do these plates justice?

There was more. A collection of antique tea cups and saucers, each a different color and pattern. A second collection had scalloped edges, a few chips of age here and there, a few missing saucers.

"Those are really old," my mother told me over the phone. "When you have company, they'll look so nice on the table when you serve tea and cookies."

"Steve says they're too delicate to actually use," I said. "He says they're just for show."

"Nonsense! Use them."

I didn't have tea parties, and more often I met my friends for cappuccino.

"Those three blue flowered serving dishes," Mother continued. "They're from my mother's set of china. All I have left."

These were not just "things"—there were lives and stories behind each of them. My grandmother ran away from Russia after a "jilted love affair," according to my mother. She sailed alone to America. Her parents were well off. Her father, who could read and write, was paid to keep books for a wealthy family. My great grandfather even had his own horse and carriage, comfortable living quarters, plenty of food. But he was afraid his teenage daughter might be attacked by Indians in America.

"He folded up his stakes and moved his family here to keep an eye on her," my mother told me.

My grandmother went to school, learned English, worked in a factory by day and scrubbed floors in an office building at night. Years later, as a young widow with three children, she was poverty-stricken.

"She had a still and made gin during prohibition," my mother told me.

Elevated into the middle class by marrying my father, an engineer-turned-accountant, Mom was now a widow and grandmother who was establishing her own immortality through a set of dishes.

"Put them in a safe place," she advised. "Did you find those plastic covers? Stack them in there, zip them up, and they won't get dusty. You'll never have to wash them. I'm glad nothing broke. I knew you'd like them."

I imagined setting them upon a crisply ironed white tablecloth and cooking an elegant dinner for 12. Steve and I were up until midnight, unpacking. I carried each plate carefully into the kitchen, as if carrying an infant.

When my daughter was born a few months before my first Mother's Day, my mother gave me something new, which was actually old. A handmade peach baby sweater, bonnet and booties, knitted by my grandmother 25 years ago. It looked as fresh as if it had been crafted yesterday, but the styling was quaint and traditional.

"She knew she wouldn't be alive when you had a baby," Mother told me, "so she left this for you. For your daughter."

I remember watching Grandma knit and crochet. She taught me how, but I was too busy to bother and grew up to buy handmade sweaters in department stores. The body of the cardigan fit nicely, but the arms were twice as long as hers.

"All of Grandma's last sweaters were mis-sized," Mother explained. "She was almost 90 by then, and didn't see well."

My husband took a picture of our new baby, on her back, arms high, the long sleeves folding back over like wings.

At home, friends and family come to visit. As my newborn slept in her bassinet, we all sat down to a celebratory meal. Fresh turkey, potato salad, pickles and coleslaw, delivered from a nearby delicatessen. Served on—what else?—my mother's most elegant wedding china plates.

A decade passed before we took out the china again, waiting until my daughter safely outgrew the need for plastic dinnerware. On every Thanksgiving and Passover, I unzipped the protective covers my mother had sent me. I bought a new tablecloth, color coordinated with the plates. My mother waited years past my wedding to give me something old and something blue. Somehow she knew exactly when I was ready to call them mine.

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