Saturday, May 8, 2010

Broken China, Mending Hearts

The china—simple, elegant, white with a delicate ramble of pink roses—came to Hutsonville, Illinois from Limoges, France. I’ll guess that it was a wedding gift to my great grandparents. Weaving a history from that guess, I’ll imagine that the china traveled, carefully packed, by train to Montana before my grandmother, my Nanny, was born. When my Uncle Gock was a "babe in arms," according to Nanny, her father disappeared. It was the depression of the 1890's and he took off, maybe riding the rails. Eventually he found work and sent for my great grandmother, and "What could she do?" asks Nanny. "She had to pack up everything and take that baby West."

Nanny was born in 1902 in Anaconda, Montana, so let’s assume that's where he was. Perhaps working as a postman. In Anaconda, the china survived the tornado. (Nanny would tell of snow coming into the house from the broken roof, families wandering the street, trailing a sled with all their belongings.)

For decades the china gradually moved eastward, first to Lincoln, Nebraska, then Omaha, where my mother was born, and finally to Champaign, Illinois six months later.

It was a complete collection of 12 place settings with all the trimmings. A gravy boat, a big platter, a china bell to call us to dinner, tiny salt dishes. One plate had a small chip, but the set was otherwise perfect. "The Haviland" was mythic for us. Only pulled out on occasions worthy of "Bobby's Torte" or "Nanny's Purple Eggs." Washing "The Haviland" was an enormous responsibility and honor.
pickled eggs with beets
Now here's some personal background: I have sometimes an unhealthy relationship with stuff, especially personal artifacts. After Nanny died, my mom had 5 sets of china, "The Haviland" plus her own wedding china, Nanny’s, and mom’s other grandmother’s. Now the sad part of the story: My mother has four daughters. Why, I would lament, is she hoarding all that china? Why not keep one set and give us each one? I didn’t necessarily need "The Haviland," but I guess I did think there was enough to go around. I confess I was sometimes a little angry about it.

One day my sister, Betsy, called, in tears. She was helping mom sort through things before moving. Mom had decided to give us each a set of china, and the two of them lovingly unwrapped each piece, reminiscing about my grandmother. They had decided that I was to have "The Haviland" because I was the oldest, very close to Nanny, and the only one who possessed even a sliver of memory of my great grandmother, my mother's "Nanny." Betsy and Mom were in the basement, sorting the china.

My sister described what happened next, when abruptly, the center leaf of the table gave way and suddenly, my mother, reaching out to stop the inevitable, was weeping in a heap of broken china. My sister, confused (Was mom having a heart attack? Was she cut...?) rushed from the other side of the room. Betsy said most pieces simply shattered, but the heap somehow cushioned a few small dishes.

Betsy coaxed mom upstairs, then called to tell me the story. I felt sad, but crying wasn't going to bring back my grandmother's china. I firmly comforted Betsy, who put my inconsolable mother on the phone. Mom inventoried the remains: 5 dinner pl
ates and 5 soup bowls, the gravy boat and a few mismatched serving pieces (oval lid, round dish) My mental picture grew from a few chipped saucers to something we could still serve a meal on.

Now the bittersweet nugget: My mom is still sobbing apologies, and I'm fighting tears, trying to reassure her. My heart is suddenly buoyant with the news that mine was the only set broken. I thought that all the china was gone, but they had just boxed the other china. My Haviland was the only casualty. I focus on what is left instead of what is l
ost, but I'm starting to worry about mom. She is still crying, because it was a complete set. And she gives me this gift: "I wanted you to have that one because it was the best."

Now, I don’t think my mom loves me any more or less than my sisters or brother, but sometimes we can lose track of what is important. In fact, both of us have been fix
ated on stuff. If I am too attached, I come by it honestly. On the other hand, if I am openhearted, I come by that honestly, too. To hear that my mom planned to give me "The Haviland" was amazing.

I heard later that Betsy told mom to just give me her set—Nanny’s wedding china—but mom said, "No, I wanted Mary to have 'The Haviland.'" In fact, each of my sisters offered me their sets. I guess we can all be openhearted.

I felt stunned, but amazingly at peace given my sometimes unrestrained sense of entitlement. Later, I woke in the night with this realization: I didn't need a set of china; I only needed to hear that my mom wanted to give it to me.

The next day we celebrated, and it was like the world opening up after a storm. After a big drama, life goes on. We were festive, though tears were still close to the surface—because really, it wasn't about the broken china. Another tenuous link was lost connecting us to precious loved ones, valuable history. We ate carrot cake and reminisced.

I am grateful to my mom for many gifts, both spiritual and physical, including one perfect set of Haviland China that will remain whole in both of our hearts. Meanwhile, the remnants are displayed on my shelf—waiting for four friends to come for soup.
Memorize Beauty; Give in Peace; Blessed Be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She wishes her mom a very happy Mother’s Day. Birdland now has a fan page on Facebook.

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