Lady and the Lamp

My mother loved my grandmother's lamp, but sometimes you can just want something too much

"You know, back in the late '30s, your grandfather wanted a divorce from your grandmother. She wouldn't give him one. Think of what a scandal that would have been: Dr. James Taylor divorces his wife of 23 years to marry his nurse. Hah!" My mother gave a gleeful snort.

It was the summer of 1974. I was home between college and graduate school, and in the basement with my mother, moving boxes and bins around to make room for a delivery of furnishings from my late grandmother's house. The delivery would include The Lamp. It was made of fine china, two rounded globes settled on a base of gleaming brass legs wrought to resemble four noble lion's paws. The bottom globe was creamy white dotted with delicate pink roses, the larger top globe translucent pale butter yellow. When the lamp was turned on it glowed like candlelight in a Regency ballroom.

As long as I knew my grandmother, she had that lamp sitting on a marble-topped commode—a word for a small chest of drawers, popular in the 18th century, that made us giggle when we were young. I first saw the lamp in the central hall in my grandparents' house on Cypress Street, a house that had its own name: Whitestone. In 1955, my father had moved his young family to a house (without its own name) right across the street. My mother was very familiar with Whitestone long before that, however. She had lived there as a young, pregnant bride during WWII while my dad, barely out of medical school, was running a field hospital somewhere in the South Pacific.

"Your grandmother was not happy to have me in the house. She always bristled when your grandfather tried to do something thoughtful for me. 'Now, James, Jane doesn't need you to do that.' And when she had to mention him in a conversation, it was always 'Dr. Taylor.'" Another snort. My mother did not love my grandmother.

RELATED: My Mother's China

But my mother loved that lamp. After my grandfather died in 1960, my grandmother decided to move—to down-size, before it had a name—from the six-bedroom house to an apartment. My mother saw her opportunity.

"Jim, she can't take everything with her. Good heavens. And we wouldn't want that lamp, or the marble-topped table, to go out of the family. Your sister Alice won't want them. How would she get them to Tampa and where would she put them in that tiny house? Don't you think we should offer to take them in?"

No-go, though it wasn't Aunt Alice. My grandmother took the lamp and table with her to her elegant apartment. There they had pride of place in the jewel box of a dining room at the end of a very short entrance hall. My sister and I would often walk to visit there after school. When my mother picked us up, she would step through into the entrance hall just far enough to collect us … and to check on the lamp.

RELATED: Moving Days

Then another chance. My grandmother moved to Tampa to be near Aunt Alice, and once more it looked as though the lamp might be made homeless. My mother was foiled again. It wasn't that my grandmother took her heavy dark furniture of the north down to sunny Florida. It was worse. She put everything into storage. The lamp was locked away.

The Florida adventure didn't last long. Soon, my grandmother was back, this time in a small brick Cape Cod-style house on Evergreen Road, an easy walk for my sister and me up Cypress Street and through a neighbor's backyard. The furniture of the north reappeared, and the marble-topped table and china lamp took up residence in the new house between two wing chairs in front of the picture window facing the front sidewalk. Now my mother didn't even have to come into the house to keep an eye on the lamp.

In the summer of 1970, the unthinkable happened. My father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was 54. My mother was 52. A nightmare. I was about to start college. My sister was two years from starting college. My father was a wonderful doctor, but a woeful financial planner. On top of that, doctors had been the last to be brought into the Social Security system. Dr. James Taylor Jr.'s wife, president of the hospital's Women's Auxillary, had to sell the family home on Cypress Street, move into her own small, red-brick Cape Cod-style house and get a job.

Yet one of the most wrenching reversals for my mother in this new life was that she was now the primary overseer for my grandmother. Aunt Alice was still in Florida.

"You know, your father had had to take your grandmother's checkbook away from her and put her on an allowance. She would have gone right through your grandfather's estate otherwise," my mother sniffed—whether in disdain or despair, I did not know.

My grandmother died three years later. Aunt Alice came up from Florida to go through the house with my mother. There were the lamp and the marble-topped table. Alice looked at them, looked at my mother, and said, "Jane, would you want to have these?"

Now here we were, preparing for the delivery. The van came and unloaded several cartons, two wing chairs, the marble-topped table and the lamp. The movers carried everything down the outside steps to the basement. My mother and I lifted the cartons over to a space under the stairs, shoved the chairs to the other side of the ping pong table and were looking at the marble-topped table when …

Somehow a gust of wind, defying the laws of aerodynamics, rushed down the outside steps at hurricane force and blew open the basement storm door, which in turn knocked the lamp, still in its cloth wrappings, unto the basement floor. My mother and I, frozen, watched the terrible toppling in slow motion and heard the deafening sound of china shattering against concrete.

For a moment, the world stopped. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't look at my mother. I heard her take a jagged breath. I didn't want to see her cry, so I still didn't turn. And then I heard another sound. She was laughing.

"Well, I guess I just wanted it too much. Serves me right!"

The marble-topped table survived, and that connection to the lamp was good enough for 35 years. When my mother died in 2009, the table—albeit sporting a far inferior lamp—was right there in her dining room.

Tags: family